Drag Net

Big Brother Bank is watching–but needs a new prescription.

The story you are about to read is true. The name of the offending company has been changed because we’re nice. Four months ago, I got a new T-shirt for being one of the first to sign up for an account at Security First Network Bank FSB (www.sfnb.com). I later received paper checks, an ATM card and a mouse pad from this little bank in Pineville, Ky. Best of all, I was told that I could view on the Web images of checks I had written.

Of course, I didn’t write any checks. I didn’t move my entire banking entourage from Bank of Industrial Giants (BIG), where I’ve had accounts for more than 20 years, to a whole new bank just to be on the Web. I was patient. I could wait.

I watched as Bank of America got on the Web. I bided my time as Wells Fargo got on the Web. And then came the announcement BIG was webifying: Go to www.industrialgiants.com and view your account information. I was about to practice Web banking for real. Not with a play account but with real money. My money.

Not only that, but I had a legitimate need. This wasn’t going to be one of those “Look! When I hit this switch the light goes on!” experiments. No, this was the genuine article. I’d been expecting a wire transfer from Lisbon and wanted to know when it hit my account. I was in the dark and needed illumination.

It was techno-Christmas again. I was about to add a new technology to my personal bag of tricks. I swear my breathing got shallow. I went straight for the BIG site and found the form to fill out. Name, address, Social Security number, account number, access code. Access code? I typed in my personal identification number from my BIG ATM card. Then I was asked for the date and amount of my last deposit.

“Some of the data is invalid. For your safety, your access code will have to be reentered.” Recognizing immediately that I was out of my depth, I called the 800 number on the screen. The helpful human asked me to repeat all of the same information I had just entered in order to verify that I was me.

“Sorry, Mr. Sterne, but that’s not your access code. You don’t have an access code. Please call the Online Banking Center and follow their instructions.”

Another 800 number, and the voice response system asked me for all of the same information I had just entered in order to verify that I was me. Then it asked me to create my own access code. I made a choice and hit pound.

“Please reenter your code for verification.” I changed my mind, having thought up a more memorable four-digit number. “We’re sorry, but your number doesn’t match the previous entry.” Yes, I knew that. I wanted a chance to start over. I expected to loop back to the first entry. But no: “Please reenter your code for verification.”

OK, so I was stuck with the crummy number I picked first. Fine. At least I was in. I went back to the BIG Web site and entered the batch of information they asked for.

“Some of the data is invalid.” I called the 800 number. The helpful human asked me for all of the same information I had just entered in order to verify that I was me. “The date and amount of your last deposit are incorrect,” she told me. “Your last deposit was an interest payment made to your account last week.”

How could I have known?

“You could have checked at our Online Banking Center.”

Of course. I went back to the BIG Web site and entered the batch of information they asked for. “Some of the data is invalid. Errortoo many attempts for this account.”

Another call to the 800 number. The helpful human asked me for all of the same information I had just entered in order to verify that I was me.

“Mr. Sterne, this is your business account.”

Yes?

“Our Web site doesn’t handle business accounts yet.”

Oh. And sure enough, right there in the Web text, it said so. I should have read the damn thing instead of just pushing buttons. “Try your personal account.”

OK. Fine. I was trained. I was experienced. I was ready.

“Some of the data is invalid.” The helpful human asked me for all of the same information I had just entered in order to verify that I was me. “Mr. Sterne, that’s not your Social Security number.”

I beg your pardon?

“It’s close, but it’s one digit off.”

I assured her that my trusty Social Security number had not changed since I got it, and that it was correct on all my other banking papers. Could they have had a small data-entry mishap perhaps?

“Let me just try to fix that for you from here.”

Thank you.

“You’ll have to wait 24 hours for the database to update.” Right.

The next morning, still in doubt about that transfer from Lisbon, I went back to the BIG Web site and entered the batch of information they asked for.

“Some of the data is invalid.”

“Mr. Sterne, you had a miscellaneous credit from a direct transfer.”

“Some of the data is invalid.”

The helpful human asked me for all of the same information I had just entered in order to verify that I was me. “Mr. Sterne, why don’t you try the wrong Social Security number and see if that works?”

“Some of the data is invalid. Error: too many attempts for this account.”

“Mr. Sterne, why don’t you try your savings account instead?”

Now, you must understand that I am a certified Nice Guy. I am a card-carrying member in good standing of the Doesn’t Get Wigged Out When the Airlines Cancel His Flights, Reroute Him Through Guam and Lose His Luggage Club. I pick up stray dogs. I’m a willing experimentalist.

To a point. Then the line is crossed. I become a square. I feel boxed in.

“How long have you been testing this Web site?”

“It went live on Monday.”

“Yes, but how long was it in test before it went live?”

“Um, I’m not sure. We’re all just trying it out and getting the hang of it this week.”

“When will business accounts be available?”

“They haven’t told us yet.”

“Can you tell me if there has been a deposit from Lisbon?”

“Well, if you’ll just call our Online Banking Center, I’m sure you can find out there.” Of course.

Dear Bank of Industrial Giants:

I am a long-term customer. I am writing this letter on my own
time, of my own volition, in order to help you in this, your hour
of need. That makes this one of the most important types of
documents that will ever cross your desk.

Your approach to the World Wide Web is missing one critical
element: You’re not taking it seriously. I cannot imagine you
would roll out a new car-loan procedure, a new auto-
teller transaction or a new direct-deposit program without
some serious planning, testing and debugging. Your efforts
on the Web to date show a decided lack of respect. Your
lack of respect for the Web translates into a lack of respect
for your customers. I find myself looking forward
to your acquisition.

Thank you for your time, and please note my correct
Social Security number. Sincerely, a once loyal customer.

After 20 years with BIG, after getting to know the loan officer there on a personal basis, after all the loans, the accounts, the transactions, I think it’s time to call Security First. After all, they did send me that nice mouse pad.