Check, mate

July 3, 2009

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“There you go, Mr. Casey,” I said, ripping the check out of the checkbook.

The car dealer glanced down at the check.

“It was good doing business with you again, Mr. Maxwell.  I’m sorry that we couldn’t work out a finance deal this time.”

“Maybe you’ll have that zero percent deal the next time I need to buy a car,” I replied.  I shook the man’s hand and walked out of the dealership.  Car dealers can get a bad reputation, but Casey was a straight shooter and didn’t put people through the ringer like some other dealers did.  He ran a small family dealership – he lived comfortably, but was not rich.  Perhaps he could have lived a bit higher on the hog if he was more heavy handed in his negotiations, but Casey seemed rather happy with his life.

Seventeen days later, I received my statement from the bank.  Oddly, the check for the car had not cleared.  I was concerned that Casey had somehow misplaced the check, so I gave him a call.

“There has been no problem, Mike,” he replied.  “We received the funds on the eighth.  There’s no problem on our end.  It sounds like this might be a bank error.”

I got off the phone with Bob Casey and immediately called the bank.

“I’m looking up your account, Mr. Maxwell,” replied Miranda Johnson, the teller.  “I’m not seeing any checks to Casey Auto.”

“How can that be?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s really not that unusual,” she said.  “The federal reserve acts as a clearinghouse for checks, and sometimes there is a lag.  It seems that the one half of the transaction has been completed, but the other half has not.  They typically fix the problem within a few weeks.  I’m certain that it will be straightened out soon.”

Miranda’s words allayed my fears, and I put the matter out of my mind.

A month later, when I received my next bank statement, the check to Casey Auto had still not cleared.  Even more puzzling, not a single check had cleared my account.  I immediately grabbed the phone and began calling the companies who had received the checks.  Like Bob Casey, all of them had received their money.

This time, even the unflappable Miranda Johnson was a bit flapped.

“This is definitely a bit unusual, Mr. Maxwell.  I have never seen it take this long for the fed to fix a problem – and the fact that none of your checks cleared is especially troubling.  I’ll give a call to my contact at the Fed and see what she can find out.”

Miranda’s colleague, unfortunately, was also not able to find the root cause of the problem.  From the perspective of the federal reserve bank, the checks had never existed – and yet, payments had been received.

Three days later, a gentleman from the FBI was at my door when I arrived home.

“Mike Maxwell?” asked the man in the suit.

“Yes, that’s me,” I replied.

“I’d like to ask you some questions about a grand larceny that was committed.  May I come in?”

“Grand larceny?” I asked, confused.  Agent Brisbane followed me into the house.

Once inside the house, Brisbane pulled several photocopies out of his briefcase.

“Do not recognize these?’ he asked.

“Of course,” I replied.  “Those are some checks that I wrote.”

“Indeed,” he replied.  47 checks for a total of $44,318.41, drawn on the account of a Ms. Rose Tinsdale.”

“What?” I replied.  “Rose Tisdale?  Clearly this check was drawn on my own account..  See, that’s my checking account number.”

Indeed, it was my account number.  However, the bank’s routing number was wrong.  Somehow, the printer has transposed two digits, and my checks were being drawn against the account of Ms. Tinsdale.  Ms. Tinsdale had been in ill health and had not kept her finance current.  It was only when she died that her children realized that someone was “stealing” money from her account and notified the FBI.

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