Banking on Deposit Insurance

May 12, 1991|By JOHN FRECE

Annapolis. -- I had a grand total of one dollar in my pocket Monday morning when I casually walked into my bank of the past 13 years to cash a check.

There, on a high stool in front of the teller's window sat a woman I'd never seen in my life. Someone else I didn't recognize was at a desk in the back.

"May I help you?" she asked with an unfamiliarity that made me look around the room to make sure I had walked into the right place.

L "Yeah," I said, somewhat amused. "I'd like to cash a check."

"I'm sorry," she replied, "but the government seized this bank on Friday."

It's the sort of comment that can ruin your Monday morning.

She reached over to one of those marble tables that are stocked with various kinds of deposit or withdrawal slips that no one seems to use and gave me a seven-page handout from the

Resolution Trust Corporation containing the questions customers such as myself are most likely to ask and the answers.

Like:

Q: Where the hell's my money?

A: The check's in the mail.

I staggered out to the street and over to my office, where I sat down to read the grim RTC statement. I guess the nation's banking scandal has become so pervasive that the folks at RTC have gotten pretty good at what they do, because the handout was genuinely helpful.

It said my bank was insolvent, they couldn't find a buyer for all the branches, and my branch was being closed and my personal accounts along with it. Checks for all my money (assuming I had less than the $100,000 insured by the FDIC, a sure bet in my case) were in the mail and should be at my home by Wednesday. (To my surprise and considerable relief, they actually arrived that same Monday afternoon.)

But the handout also said checks that haven't cleared the bank won't clear the bank. Ever.

Uh-oh, I thought.

I called my wife and told her what had happened, and asked her to get the checkbook. "Let's see whose checks are about to bounce," said I.

"Here's one to the mortgage company," said she. Groan, said I.

There were others: four to food stores in town; one big one to American Express; one to the cleaners; one to buy beer at the drug store. I wouldn't know exactly which of these checks had cleared until I received my ending statement, which the RTC also promised was in the mail along with my money.

I spent the next hour on the phone warning people.

I called my mortgage company, and was told, matter-of-factly: "We're always glad to know when one of these banks are seized." Despite my promise to send a replacement check immediately, I was told I still may be hit with a $10 fee for a check being returned because of insufficient funds.

"I'll note your call on the computer, but whether anyone looks at it is another question," I was told. Great!

The woman at American Express was pretty understanding. These things happen. No big deal. Send us another check, she said.

"I'll make a note of it on the computer," she added.

When I called Graul's, a food store here in town, the woman who answered was so sympathetic I thought she must be a relative.

She told me how sorry she was to hear my tale of woe, and how awful it was that checks may bounce because of this, or that someone may try to slap me with penalties for passing bad checks. Before transferring me to the manager's office, she said, sincerely, "I hope you get your money back, hon."

I called Giant Food. I called Buster Brown, where my wife had spent $47 on a pair of pink sandals for my daughter. I called the drug store, and the cleaners.

When the statements finally arrived, I realized only a half dozen checks were still outstanding. It could have been much worse.

But then the other problems hit us: What happens to the direct deposit of my paycheck? And how quickly can I get some cash with no checks? I still had only a buck in my pocket and a suddenly worthless checkbook on my desk. It was a good thing I had brought my lunch.

I started almost immediately to shop for a new bank, but when I mentioned one I liked to a friend, she replied, "Oh, that's probably the next one to go."

I took a tour, trying different banks out for size. I collected brochures, comparing this kind of checking account with that kind, each with a different interest rate, or different minimum balance, or different set of fees if you fall below some minimum amount.

I loved my old bank. I knew the people there, and they knew me -- knew me back before I got married, and when my kids were born, and to speak to me on the street. They were always helpful in the way small banks are supposed to be -- a feeling that belied their ownership by some bigger concern that, as it turned out, didn't know much about banking and ultimately dragged everyone under, including their own employees.

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