Monday, November 15, 1999

Week of 11/15/1999

ATM Thieves
When Private Property Becomes Public Facilities

- by David Matthews 2

The gang surrounded the ATM machine, eager to get at its contents. They prepared their tools and checked their watches. A lookout with his ear to a small radio smiled and flashed a high sign to the others.

"It’s clear.. the machine is ours!" he says.

Are we talking about a gang of punks with crowbars?

No, we’re talking about voters with ATM cards from other banks.

Recently the voters in Santa Monica, California, voted to ban surcharges for automatic teller machines. Other communities, including Los Angeles and San Diego, are considering similar bans. States like Connecticut and Iowa also have acted to ban surcharges using existing state regulations.

Gut impulses would say this would be a great idea. After all, the banks use every means possible to bilk the consumers. Some banks even charge customers for simply visiting a LIVE human teller instead of using ATMs and online banking. That perverse sense of schadenfreude within us says it would be perfectly okay for us to hurt those big, wealthy financial institutions for all the times they make us suffer.

But let’s use our brains instead of our guts for a moment.

ATM fees are only assessed on people who are not customers of that bank but still want to use the ATM for their banking services. Most ATMs are connected to networks like HONOR, which allow more customers to use that ATM. That fee, then, pays for the transaction between the ATM’s bank and the bank of the cardholder.

So here’s a question that nobody seems to ask.. if you don’t like paying that surcharge, why bother using that ATM? Why not find one that you know is from your own bank?

A few years ago, I was at a mall in Tallahassee, Florida, and I wanted to get some money. I saw an ATM machine and said to myself "Okay, it’s on the HONOR network, I can use it." So I got $20 out of the ATM, and was told that a $1.50 surcharge would be assessed. I decided then to only stick to ATMs that are from my bank. It wasn’t easy, but at the time every cent in that account mattered.

So why can’t other people do the same thing?

Convenience, that’s why. The people who use ATMs without a care in the world whose it is want their cake and eat it too. Their dysfunctional mind says that the world is there for their benefit, and to hell with the banks!

Let’s get brutally honest here.. the ATM machines aren’t there for the public, they’re there for the bank customers. Just like the pay phones aren’t really the public’s phones. The phone companies charge a quarter, or whatever the cost is, for your call. The ATMs are no different than those pay phones.

What is happening with cities like Santa Monica and Los Angeles, then, is to force the banks to turn the ATMs into public facilities. The banks would have to foot all of the costs of running an ATM without any of the benefits. That’s not good for any reasonable business to operate, never mind a financial institution.

Fortunately, the banks in California are showing the people the folly of their actions. The Bank of America and Wells Fargo have already announced that they will no longer accept ATM cards from other banks. Hopefully other banks will do the same.

You know, convenience doesn’t come for free. There’s always a cost involved, no matter if it is driving an extra mile or two, or paying an extra dollar or two. If your bank doesn’t offer an ATM in the area, you may want to ask them about it, or even change banks to one that has such a convenience for its customers. If enough people do that, then the bank is willing to put an ATM there. That’s something that doesn’t require government action, and something that’s completely within the power of the individual consumer.

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