At Large: Fear of banking

At Large: Fear of banking

Because this column will eventually appear on the Internet, Matthew JC. Powell fears it may be intercepted . . .

I phoned my bank the other day. It's not my bank, really - if it were, it would be a great deal more open and generous of spirit. More accurately, I phoned the bank with which I have chosen to do business for the past decade-and-a-half. The reason for my call to the bank was a query related to my credit card. Not that you need to know that, but I'm generous and open, and have nothing to hide.

Anyway, I initially called the bank, as the issuer of my credit card. After a spot of small talk, my customer service representative, "Tim", determined that my request was outside his realm of influence. I was put on hold while "Tim" (who, incidentally, sounded about 12 years old) consulted with some higher power on the matter of to whom he could transfer my call.

The hold music was Frank Sinatra singing The lady is a tramp, with somewhat varied lyrics. In Rodgers and Hart's original, the song is sung by a young woman despairing that, because she doesn't play the society games that those around her do, they regard her as less worthy. She's saying, "I'm not a tramp, but they think I am, because of these reasons." Sinatra, on the other hand, was taking a more accusatory role: "She gets too hungry for dinner at eight; she likes the theatre, and never comes late; she don't have time for people she hate; that's why the lady is a tramp." In Sinatra's version, the lady is ostentatious and very much a player of society games. The lady really is a tramp.

At the end of the song (in its original form), the lady admits that she is broke, but it's OK. In Sinatra's reinterpretation, the lady's penury is a just consequence of her over-affluent spending habits. The way Sinatra does it, it's a very different song. It's also a bit preachy for a bank to use as hold music, if you ask me.

When "Tim" returned, he had found someone over at the credit card company who would be better able to help me. Her name was "Jacinta", and when I repeated my request, she put me on hold again, so that she could consult her computer and find out if what I was asking would be possible.

The hold music this time was an excerpt from the soundtrack to The Terminator. For those unfamiliar with the early works of Jim Cameron, The Terminator posits a future in which human beings have lost control over their lives and (importantly) their defence systems to highly intelligent, ultra-powerful computers. Thanks to some obscure flaw (or a moment of philosophical insight), the computers decide that humans are more trouble than they're worth, and set about destroying them. The lesson is clear: do not allow your computer to make all of your decisions - retain control over your destiny, or your computer will destroy you.

The music stopped, and "Jacinta" returned to tell me that the computer said my request was fine. After cursory transaction-closing small talk, I hung up and went on with my day. I told you that story to tell you this one.

A friend of mine got a call from her bank a couple of weeks ago. Her credit card was some $2000 over her limit, thanks to $3000 worth of transactions she had performed over the Internet. When she denied having performed these transactions, the person from the bank launched immediately into a lecture about how dreadfully insecure and unsafe the Internet is for conducting business. She must be careful when transmitting her credit card number, they said, because "anybody" can intercept it and use it to their own evil ends.

At this, my friend amplified her original denial of having performed that many transactions over the Internet. She has, in fact, never performed any transaction over the Internet, nor used it at all. Someone had obtained her credit card number and details from a receipt, or by overhearing a telephone conversation, or by some other low-tech "traditional" method of credit card fraud, and used it over the Internet.

I have never had my credit card number intercepted from the Net and used to fund revolutionaries in Central America or anything of the sort. The bank's paranoid reaction to the real or imagined "holes" in the Internet is made laughable by the continued existence of security risks in ordinary transactions (by which most people still do business and will for some time). What's more, they're spending buckets of money to combat computerised fraud by building other computers - which they presumably think will be magically secure.

I can hear the Terminator music now.

Matthew JC. Powell is the editor of ARN's sister publication PC Buyer. E-mail him at matthew_powell@

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