Friday, November 2, 2012

THE $169,530.42 VISA MISTAKE


I have become accustomed to errors on too many bills. And simple financial transactions are often screwed up. If it isn't some clerk, it's the computer being fed gobbledygook . But some sort of dismal record for the Downings happened in just a week.
We go to the drycleaners less and less because of all the fabrics that have been developed that can just be washed, but Mary found herself at Kingsway Custom Cleaners near Royal York and Bloor collecting two pairs of pants.
The elderly gentleman handed her the VISA bill to sign and Mary glanced at the total. Migawd! It read $169, 547.47. So the slip was cancelled, because the real charge was $16.95, which still seems a mite high but then, as I say, we don't visit drycleaners much.
It shocked me when Mary told me because occasionally I don't check a bill completely. After all, looking at every item on a Costco bill at the check-out counter might cause a riot.
I know, I know, that's stupid, and after this week of figure confusion, I am going to scrutinize every transaction above a nickel. Maybe using a microscope. After all, I have rich friends who look at every listing on a restaurant bill and often find errors. I guess that's why they're rich.
I was across Bloor later at the TD Branch for a rather simple transaction. I had two passbooks updated, deposited a cheque for $312 and asked for $100 in cash. The teller didn't give me a copy after I signed the slip.  Later, when I was listing all this at home, I found that the cash had been deducted but there was no listing for a deposit.
So I phoned, angry. The bank had the teller phone me back. Her explanation was that she had entered my cheque into the system after she had balanced the passbooks, and I could doublecheck that via Internet banking. Okay, I said, but you put the cheque into the wrong account.
Chicken feed compared to what happened next . I  phoned my stock broker because it appeared I had a nice profit on Johnson and Johnson. That is a great company, especially a good defensive one to hold in the coming storms, but I am a great believer in not having all your eggs in one basket. And I had too much money in J  and J, especially if I had a profit.
After several baffling phone calls, the profit evaporated. Because I had bought some of the stock when the Canadian dollar was much lower than the U.S. dollar, my acquisition price in Canadian terms was actually much higher than what had been shown for several years in my monthly reports. My acquisition price of $67.43 was actually $77.79.  I was told the big brokerage computer refused to accept my real cost price so I would have to keep track myself.
So my big profit became a loss in roughly the same amount.  A swing of too many thousands. There is nothing like finding one afternoon that your retirement nest egg has been fractured like Humpty Dumpty to give you an Excedrin headache.
Then I sort of perked up. I did have a profit on the new giant Canadian drug company, Valeant, which started life as the controversial Biovail. (Eugene Melynk, the founder who had his problems with the securities commission, owns the Ottawa Senators.) It had gone from $18 to $58 while paying billions for assorted smaller companies. It now dominates  medications in such areas as acne and eye drops.
I figured that here was a chance to get some money for Christmas. After all, remember the old saying from the stock market that pigs get slaughtered.
It was the final financial puzzle for the week. The stock sales slip had a large deduction for currency exchange. So I went into my files, which can be riddles at the best of times, and found that I had bought that stock on the Toronto exchange but for some reason the broker had sold it on the New York exchange. I don't know whether it was that bloody master computer again or some trader wanting to leave early for drinks with the boys but it got straightened out after more perplexing explanations. I got more money and the broker, perhaps embarrassed, also reduced the fee.
I ended the week irritated and poorer. But hope springs eternal in the human breast, as Alexander Pope said several hundred years ago. (That's one reason people still buy stocks despite the disasters of a few years ago.)  I can only pray that a lot of people start skinning elbows and knees when they ski and buy bandages and Band-Aids so J and J will actually get back to what I thought was my profit.
Meanwhile, I am shopping with a calculator and a magnifying glass.


Read an article by Garry Marr in the November issue of the Financial Post Magazine about how checking your financial statements can help you spot fraudulent charges.  Good advice, but my column above details expensive mistakes that hurt me but they weren't, in my opinion, deliberate fraud.
Marr quoted an American firm spokesman specializing in financial crime who says it's "impossible to say for sure whether some charges are fraud or just accidental."
But the company, Actimize, warns that real fraudsters test a card by putting through minor charges. If these charges aren't caught, they go for the "big score." A retired cop said mystery charges aren't that unusual but sadly the credit card companies, if the charges are caught, don't often make complaints to the police.
How true! I remember the car rental company in Milan who tried to nail me with several hundred dollars in phoney charges even though I had caught the scam in their office and complained. They put through the charges after I left. I blew the whistle on them to American Express, and the charges were deducted. I then blew up when Amex said they had no intention in going after the car rental agency for fraud. The argument was that they did too much business with the rental chain.
It happened to me once in Paris too. That is when I became, like Marr, the Post writer, my own internal auditor.


I get some comfort over my strained dealings with banks in that Canada's famous gift to the world of satire, Stephen Leacock, the economist/ humourist, obviously didn't much like banks either.
If only I could write about it like he did on the famous sketch when he blundered into the vault and then withdrew his petty deposit in frustration.
Mary and I had an hour-long session with an agreeable chap at the same TD-Canada mentioned above.
During the course of wrapping up all sorts of lose ends and getting questions answered, it turned out that Mary's U.S. dollar account is now being nicked for $2.50 a month as a fee for passbook updates. Not that we update that much (it had been going on for seven months) but just the possession of a passbook on that account makes you vulnerable.
I protested and was proud that I didn't swear about money-grubbing bankers. Then I sent two e-mails, pointing out that we had banked at that corner for 49 years as banks came and went and merged and learned all the tricks of dreaming up fees to nick their customers.
Never heard of a passbook update fee, I said. But the bank rep hung tough, saying that TD had posted information about the new charge in its branch and also had sent notification to its customers.
I pointed out that TD and other banks have gone out of their way from discouraging us to actually enter their premises and to pay our bills on the Internet and use exterior machines. I also said that the area around Royal York and Bloor is a desirable prosperous community and that junk mail from banks, realtors, stores, renovators and just about every huckster outfit known to man come cascading in daily.
Since I wrote my last e-mail on the subject, I have kept track and we have received 30 general mailings in  four days, most of which justify the nickname of "junk mail." It's amazing that Canada Post still isn't making a profit.
The bank killed the last charge as a sign of "good faith." I'm not mollified. I wonder about all those TV ads by Don Harron, the famous Shakespearian actor turned rural comic. What would his old character Charlie Farquharson have to say about such penny pinching?
Did TD extend hours as a convenience to its customers or because that would give them more hours to operate on new charges?
Next they'll charge for use of the pen, which often don't even work.
My conclusion? If you really want this money so badly, why don't you spend some of it on more new ribbons for the printers because that passbook had printing so faint, it was hard to read the $2.50 charge.

TD, my dental office and all the companies wanting us to bank on the Internet and pay accounts onEasy Web and be notified of appointments by e-mail should remember that there are still many people around who don't have or use computers or find computers to be a daily galling frustration. What's so wrong with the telephone, but then they would probably leave that to a computerized voice system?

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