time warp

For the past two days I have been banking like it’s 1999. To bring you back a decade, that was when I was a senior in high school and had not yet acquired an ATM card. In those days people still walked into banking institutions, filled out slips of paper, waited in line and talked to someone – face to face – in order to access their money. I wouldn’t own a cell phone for another four years.

I wish I could say that I began banking in person again out of nostalgia. But that would be a lie. The truth is, my pin code and account information were hijacked by some high tech thieves at an ATM in North Beach last week. They rigged the machine so that when you insert your bank card it downloads the information from the magnetic strip, gaining access to your account the moment you type in your secret pass code.

In the past I always thought that those scams only worked on … well … stupid people. How could you fail to notice the extra pieces of equipment hanging off the ATM? Well, let me to tell you. Because the machine looks exactly the same. That is why these scams work in the first place. It’s not as if the thieves post a sign with the words “swipe here instead” scrawled in red crayon next to the device.

When my phone rang hours later and “Nebraska” flashed on the screen I knew something was wrong. My bank never calls just to chat. (Well, that was then. But now with all the personal attention bank tellers are receiving from me, maybe they will.) Turns out their security system ‘Falcon’ realized my account was violated and shut it down. Thank you Bank of the West. My money was safe from thieves, however, I was locked out of my funds too.

So first thing Saturday morning I visited the bank to take out all I would need to survive for the next two weeks. When I walked in it was like entering a museum display of what banks used to look like. There was a a safe. And roped off lines for the tellers. Only I was the only non-employee in the building and didn’t have to wait. The teller even smiled at me as she handed over my cash. Machines just don’t do that. I felt kind of like I won the lottery as she counted out all the bills, organizing them into green fans of twenties, tens and fivers. That is, until I realized it was my own money and silently committed this mantra to memory: Just because you have it doesn’t mean you should spend it. We’ll see how that works out.

But it did get me thinking. Maybe if we all still did banking this way – in person transactions with a smile and a name plate – maybe our country wouldn’t be in this financial crisis in the first place. Maybe if financial institutions knew your face and not just your account number they would have been better stewards of their investments, and our money. Maybe it’s just a nice thought. Maybe with technology and the convenience factor of plastic cards there is no going back. Or maybe it’s the future of banking.

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