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  1. Opinion

ATM routine a necessary evil

Published Nov. 7, 2014

WASHINGTON

Dear Citibank:

If you watched my behavior at one of your ATMs, you'd think you were looking at a crazy man, which, in a sense, you are. I dip my card, enter my password, and then turn my head away from the screen, squinting at it out of the corner of one eye, at full arm's length, using my palm on the screen as a shield, peeking through my fingers like a kid at a horror movie.

This is all to block from view my account balance, which I never ask for but which you always show me anyway, in a large display right near the top of the screen. Many other banks don't do this, at least not without permission. Citibank does. When I once complained about this to the branch manager, I was treated like a dotty old man in a shopping mall who's ranting about how the escalators go too durned fast.

Yes, I admit I am weird about money. In particular, knowing the size of my checking account balance bothers me because, if the number is less than I would expect, I worry that I am insolvent; and if it is more than I would expect, I worry that I am squandering money by carelessly parking it in a nonproductive place.

Obviously, I do not handle the money in my household. To maintain my ignorance, I put complete trust in my wife. I blindly sign whatever she puts in front of me. She may well be siphoning all our savings toward the purchase of a Swiss chalet to which she plans to escape with a handsome lover. I don't care. In return for the peace of mind she affords me, I don't begrudge her the chalet, or, if need be, a new life with someone named Klaus. Just so long as she leaves me enough to hire an accountant.

I understand why Citibank has not taken my complaint about the ATM display seriously in the past; not many of your customers, I suspect, share my particular brand of lunacy. I was thinking about this problem just the other day when I was at the ATM. That's when I had a flash of inspiration about how to press my case more convincingly. How to make you take notice.

Flushed with insight, I turned around. There was a woman behind me. She was in her mid 40s, tall and dignified-looking. When I started to speak, she moved backward a step or two. (She had just witnessed my whole balance-avoidance routine.)

"Can you read my account balance from there?" I asked.

"No!" she said.

"I mean, I'd actually like you to try."

She craned her neck and read it, correctly. It was six digits, and the one before the comma was a 3.

"Okay, now, let's say you were a mugger with a gun. … "

"I am not!" she said.

"Understood! Absolutely!" I said. "But if you were … "

She got it, and smiled. She is an office manager for a large retailer and is no fan of the banking industry.

What she would do if she were an armed mugger and saw a large cash balance in line in front of her, she said, was childishly obvious. The real question, she said, was what would happen afterward, when my one-day withdrawal limit was reached, yet she knew I had a great deal more in the bank. So as to approach the ATM once more, for another drawdown, she might have to hold me captive for a day.

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"It might be in a dungeon, right?" I said.

"Oh, yes, if I had one. You would definitely be in restraints."

So, think about it, Citibank. You have now been publicly alerted to a serious security problem. You face a choice. On one hand, presumably at little or no cost to you or your customers, you could make a slight adjustment to the on-screen protocols of your ATMs. On the other hand, despite potentially enormous legal liability, you could continue to expose your cardholders to the threat of guns and dungeons.

I ask you: Which seems better, on balance?

© 2014 Washington Post Writers Group

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