A few weeks ago a note appeared in my mailbox saying someone was sending me a certified letter. I could either sign the note and have it delivered or just carry it in to the local P.O. and pick up the letter myself. I decided just to go pick it up, only noticing when I did that the letter had been sent by my bank, Fifth Third.
I first opened an account at Fifth Third Bank a little under 11 years ago, I believe, using my checking account there for any transactions related to my career as a freelance writer. (Vera and I have our primary accounts at a different institution.) I had payments sent there and also would use the account for all business expenses (including when traveling). Over the years I have also made various regular payments from the account, including for estimated tax payments, life insurance, and retirement.
Fifth Third charges a $15 fee for international wire transfers -- and I often am paid that way -- but most banks do. Once or twice I’ve had a debit card blocked when traveling abroad after not having informed the bank ahead of time I’d be out of the country. I remember once way back at the beginning the bank having to hold payment on a deposited check for a week or so just to make sure it cleared. But otherwise I can’t really think of anything too out of the ordinary.
Eventually Fifth Third encouraged me to open both a savings account (which unlike the checking account would draw a little interest) as well as to get a credit card with them. I didn’t really need the credit card, but it was nice to have it as a backup when traveling, and I did use it a couple of times on trips abroad.
Anyhow, I share all of this as preamble to my letter. “Fifth Third Bank appreciates the utilization of our services to meet your banking needs,” it began. Innocuously. Then came a statement about how they periodically review accounts “to better understand our customers and their account activity,” followed by this stunner:
“After much consideration, Fifth Third has determined that the account activity in your above account does not fall within our underlying acceptance of risk.... For this reason, Fifth Third Bank hereby gives notice of intent to close the above account.”
The letter was dated September 12 and was saying my account would be closed by September 26 -- in two weeks. Not once had I been given any indication anything like this was even a possibility, let alone that my account activity could in any way be considered risky.
I called my branch to learn more about why my account was being closed. I’ll admit with the first phone call I hadn’t yet accepted the possibility that Fifth Third was actually closing my account. But after talking to a few people there it was clear that indeed, that was the case. Even more distressing, they said they weren’t able to tell me what exactly the account activity was that had caused my account to be deemed outside of Fifth Third’s “underlying acceptance of risk.”
I went in to talk to them in person. I learned that the person who had signed the letter, the Lead Customer Service Representative at the branch, hadn’t actually written it -- it was a form letter from Fifth Third (from “Compliance,” I think). Also, the Financial Center Manager at the branch was on vacation, with everyone there suggesting I needed to talk to her.
So I took out some funds to go open a new account at another bank. Then I returned a week later, a couple of days before the date my account would be closed, to withdraw the rest and hopefully speak with the Financial Center Manager.
Again, the conversation was unfruitful. My questions elicited a number of ambiguous responses that vaguely hinted at possibilities though offered nothing definite. They either didn’t have any information regarding why my account was being closed, or if they did they weren’t able to share such information with me.
Earlier questions of others in the branch suggested that perhaps my international wire transfers were what had made me risky to them. If so, that was a new development, as I had been receiving the same transfers from the same employers for 6-7 years. One person said something about not being able to see where the transfers were coming from as perhaps being problematic. I pointed out the irony of their not being able to tell me where they were coming from by closing my account, but only earned a grim nod for that effort.
I’d also asked about my travel to other countries where I’d use my Fifth Third debit card and credit card -- was that somehow the problem? No one knew for sure. I didn’t ask about every single transaction I’d ever made, although my mind raced back to question all of them, including receiving my refund from the U.S. Department of Justice back in June. Ultimately the official line from my local branch was they were all sorry but they simply had no information for me. I could, however, call the Fifth Third Bank Customer Service line and they might be able to tell me more.
Though dubious, I did as instructed and called Customer Service. After all, I needed to know what exactly I had done that could have been construed as risky account activity. My job requires me to travel abroad, as well as to receive payments from various entities. If I could be told why my account was closed, I wouldn’t necessarily be happy -- especially after the sudden kiss-off following more than a decade as a customer -- but at least I’d be saved from the paranoia of questioning every single debit or credit I’d ever made.
Not to mention perhaps shake this irrational feeling of being somehow considered by someone, somewhere to be a criminal.
What did I learn from Customer Service? You might have already guessed. I needed to talk to my local branch.
They knew nothing, and had no means of finding out anything regarding why my account was being closed. The woman I spoke with suggested the local branch should have something to tell me, or at least had the means to find out something for me.
I’ll be going back to the local branch.
Life goes on. I’ve opened up a new account at a new bank, telling them the entire story beforehand of why I’d been forced to leave Fifth Third and sharing with them more information than I needed to regarding the nature of my work as a freelancer, the fact that I travel somewhat frequently, the fact that I write about poker and thus am employed by businesses located abroad involved with online poker and gambling, among other information. They seem very happy to have me, and assure me there will be no problems receiving my wire transfers, making my payments, and using my debit card while in another country.
I had actually hesitated even to share this story, feeling a kind of weird embarrassment about it all. That feeling keeps getting reinforced with every interaction I continue to have with Fifth Third, as though I have somehow done something terribly, terribly wrong -- so wrong they can’t even bring themselves to say out loud what it could be. It’s absurd, I know, but that’s how I’m feeling.
But I thought I’d share all this both for my freelancing colleagues and I suppose for anyone else who might have “account activity” at their bank that is at all similar to mine. I know banks have to follow federally mandated requirements, and I also completely understand and accept how they reserve the right to accept whomever they wish as customers. Some banks are more conservative than others in how they estimate “acceptance of risk.” And some are more accommodating than others, too, when it comes to their treatment of long-standing customers. Check into it all as much as you can, I suppose, and hopefully your communications will be more successful than mine have been lately.
Obviously much worse things can happen to a person than to have his bank suddenly reject him this way. It’s damn unsettling, though, and like I say it’s hard not to feel a little like Joseph K in The Trial
getting sent back and forth without any answers to my questions about what exactly my “crime” was. Getting the account closed was bad, but not getting any explanations for it is much, much worse.
Up until a few weeks ago, I’d have unhesitatingly recommended Fifth Third Bank to anyone who’d asked, but now I have to take a different view and strongly dissuade anyone from ever opening an account at the so-called “curious bank.” (They have me feeling curious about now, let me tell you.)
It’s your decision, though. I guess it depends on your “underlying acceptance of risk.”
Labels: *the rumble, Fifth Third Bank, Franz Kafka, freelance writing