The town where I spent my first 14 years in rural Ohio was small – less than 1,000 people – and had a small bank to match its size like most farm towns in the region.
High technology came to that bank sometime during The Great Depression about the time I was born and contributed to one of the most bizarre bank robberies about which I have ever heard.
The local bank was a typical country bank made of cut sandstone blocks, complete with the three-step block at the curb that in years past had enabled customers to easily mount and dismount from their horses.
It had a vault, manually opened only by the banker, and a tall, brass cage behind which the banker took your deposit and pass book, recorded and completed your transaction returning the pass book to you through the small opening in the grill work that topped the granite slab at writing height in the solid walnut wall that divided the bank into customer and banker areas.
The bank had electricity by the 1930s but few other amenities of the more modern pre-World War II world, including indoor plumbing.
Located a mere 20 miles north of Columbus, Ohio’s capitol, it was a prime spot for robbery as such events seemed to blossom across the depressed country.
The installation of a “high tech” indoors bathroom turned out to be an open invitation to a pair of robbers from Columbus. They had carefully cased the bank and learned the banker came to work in the morning, opened the safe, counted out his cash drawer and then took the morning Columbus Journal newspaper and retired to his new library.
Since he was the only one in the bank, the banker had to devise a way to keep an eye on the front while reading his morning news in the new john. He decided that if he left a small opening in the bathroom door and left the door separating the bank work area from the customer area just slightly ajar he could see anyone who entered while he enjoyed his morning read sitting on his new throne.
The robbers were smart enough to spend the time observing his morning activities and timing his moves. They learned there was a certain point in his newspaper reading where holding an open page blocked the banker’s view of the front door.
One day, with perfect timing, they sprung into action, crept into the bank, slipped through the inner door and managed to lock the banker in his new bathroom. They made off with the money in the bank and to my knowledge were never caught. The banker retired shortly thereafter. High tech had been his downfall.
High tech today has managed to turn banks from being the victims of robberies into the robbers.
Armed with computers, banks have learned to milk customers of every last cent they can get and it is about the only thing saving their proverbial butts.
Today’s bank are reaping as much as 80 percent of their profits from fees rather than profitable operations simply because it takes no effort to tap your account once it has been programmed into the bank’s computer.
And, as banks are forced to eat more of their bad loans these fees are on a steady increase in an effort to cover those losses.
I keep one bank account simply because it is required to operated a Pay Pal account and buy and sell on eBay. It is the backup account to my Pay Pal account should it become overdrawn. Pay Pal automatically deducts any funds and fees for which money is not available in my Pay Pal account from my backup bank account.
I keep a minimum of funds in it because I have been hacked on eBay and had my account stolen in the past. More high-tech shenanigans we have to guard against today in the growing world of automated commerce.
Not long ago, though, I had two small charges – delayed charges for postage from my Pay Pal account – totaling $3.13 that caused an overdraft on my bank account. The bank kindly paid the $3.13 cents for me and then slapped $70 in overdraft fees on my account.
That’s like a daily interest rate for a loan of $3.13 of 22.36 percent, or annualized 8,262.94 percent!
No wonder banks don’t mind making small overdraft loans. It’s found money to them – better than anything they could hope to make on their loan portfolios, way beyond anything that could even be considered reasonable usury.
There used to be usury laws in most states that limited the amount of interest on loans – overdraft fees are nothing more than short-term loans – but the banking industry has been adroit at buying enough legislators wherever they were needed to get laws and regulations passed to negate most of the common-sense consumer practices and limits bankers at one time practiced.
And much of that lobbying money has come from the fees they have tacked onto our personal accounts, not from profits from bank operations. Computerized bank fees have become the guns with which our banks continuously rob us.
Even a small non-profit group I belong to has been targeted by a bank. Once its balance slipped below $1,000 the bank began charging it a $10 monthly maintenance fee on the account, accelerating the decline of the account balance and robbing whatever charity to which the group might have directed that money.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not complaining about the fact the bank nailed me for my overdrafts. I made the mistake of not watching the account and keeping sufficient funds in it to prevent the overdraft.
What I really object to is that even when I check my computerized bank statement to see what’s left in the account, it is not always correct. Somewhere in the bank’s system they seem to program delays of some deposits and then post withdrawals in such a manner to maximize the number of overdraft and other fees that can be charged against the account.
Try going into the bank and discussing it with someone and the only answer you get is: “That’s our policy!” It comes in lieu of any reasonable knowledge most people in the bank have about the bank’s operating systems. Most people working in banks today have scant, if any, knowledge of how the bank’s computerized systems really work.
Interstate branch banking has enabled banks to put the lowest-paid and least qualified people in front of the public, only a phone call away from the next level of management off somewhere in a regional banking office. There is little real interface with the customer today.
It’s almost like banks no longer want to be bothered by our small accounts unless, of course, they can be charged a multitude of fees enabling the bank to steadily rob its customers.
It is evidenced in the growing number of check cashing, payday loan, and free money order stores springing up across the nation. Our local grocery stores have become more of a banker in the old sense of banking than our local branch banks today.
Dave Whitney is a retired journalist and adventurer who has won many writing awards. He was born and raised in central Ohio, attended school in Missouri, served in the US Army Security Agency, and migrated to Florida a half century ago. Author of four books, he is a former Associated Press writer/editor and has been nominated three times for the Pulitzer Prize during his writing career. As editor and founder of the Free Press newspapers in the Florida Keys he was the first publisher to pick up Frank Kaiser’s “Suddenly Senior” column when it entered syndication. Whitney currently resides in Lakeland, Fla., after living 25 years in the Florida Keys.
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