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On Your Side

Bank Holdup

A major mistake cleans an online bill payer out.

Q: I bank online. Last month, instead of my regular payment of $82 to Time Warner Cable, Bank of America transferred $8,200! The bank said I would have to get the money back from Time Warner. Despite many calls and hours in line, I’ve gotten nowhere. Now, I have no money. Can you help? —Melodie Marks, Westminster, Calif.

A: When your story hit the in-box late on a Thursday, we were stunned that a payment 100 times the typical bill didn’t set off alarm bells. Given the crisis you faced, we didn’t delay.

Big mistakes are often the easiest to fix, but a frontline customer-service agent may lack authority over errors with two zeros attached. My call to Bank of America was quickly returned by Senior Vice President Diane Wagner, and she promised to get right on the problem. Time Warner spokesperson Alex Dudley’s first response, however, was more of the same: that reversing the transfer might take weeks. I reminded him that your bank account was cleaned out, and Dudley offered to send someone with a check to at least cover groceries. Then Wagner rang early Saturday to say that Bank of America had credited your account. Dudley jumped in with two months of free cable.

While online banking is convenient, your case shows that the lack of a paper trail can be a problem. Who ditched the decimal point—you or someone who processed the payment? Even the bank couldn’t say. Online bill payers may be just a keystroke away from monetary mayhem.

Recovered by On Your Side: $8,118

Ron Burley is the author of Unscrewed: The Consumer’s Guide to Getting What You Paid For on AARP.org, where there's also a new (Ten Speed Press, 2006). You can read his journal On Your Side column every two weeks.

Online Banking Dos & Don'ts

1. Check the amounts and payees before hitting Send. Watch the decimal point, and don’t bother to type “00” for cents.

2. Beware automated payments. Except for a mortgage or for a savings plan, don’t allow direct deductions from accounts.

3. Log out after banking, especially on a public computer. And never use the “Remember my password” option.

4. Check later to see if transactions were processed correctly. Print out online statements monthly for your records.

5. Never give out PINs, passwords, or your account numbers by phone or e-mail. Legitimate outfits will never ask for them.

Submit your own question for consideration in a future On Your Side column

 

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