The age of high-tech headaches

Sunday, March 21, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:15 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Editor’s note: Sharon Harl is on vacation. This column ran March 16, 2003.

I love all the techno-toys that the 21st century has to offer. That is, until something goes wrong, then I pine for the good old days. I’ve learned the hard way (it took more than once) to save my copy when writing an article so I don’t lose it if the computer crashes.

And I know that my cell phone needs to be recharged if I don’t want it to go dead in the middle of a conversation. But it’s the things I have no control over that really bug me.

When ATMs came into vogue, I resisted the urge to get a withdrawal card. Like cellular phones, I waited until these money machines proved trustworthy. Now I can get money from dozens of ATMs around town. I can barely remember the old days when I’d have to go to the bank and write out a withdrawal slip. Now it’s just the machine and me.

I’ve learned that there is a technique when driving up to the screen. I have banged the side mirror more than once trying to get close enough to reach the buttons. If I’m too far away I have to get up on my knees to reach out the window. (A very awkward position at my age.) And I hate it when I punch in the amount I want to withdraw and the darn screen says, “not enough in account, try again.” What is this, some kind of game? Just tell me how much I have in the account, and I’ll withdraw a little less.

Yesterday I went to my bank’s ATM. I was going out of town and needed some cash. Driving up I found that it was “temporarily out of order.” Does this mean it’s out of money? It was early afternoon, and the bank was loaded with employees, so why couldn’t one of them go out and fill the machine with a few thousand dollars?

I drove to another ATM at another bank a few blocks away. I put in my card, punched in my PIN and this machine surprised me by asking if I wanted to know my balance. What a novel idea, I thought. If I know my balance, then I wouldn’t be embarrassed by asking for too much. Punching yes, I was rewarded with a slip of paper that said I had enough to make the $200 withdrawal I wanted. Next it asked if I wanted another transaction. I punched yes again and was taken through a series of steps. Did I want to withdraw? Yes. How much did I want to withdraw? $200. Would I be willing to pay the $1.50 service fee? Yes. Did I want a receipt? No, I already had a piece of paper that told my balance. I’m not very good at math, but I can subtract $200. Then it read, “transaction in process, please wait.” I heard the machine counting the money. And then…Nothing came out of the slot! I started pushing on the little door thinking the darn thing was stuck. I could see money but I couldn’t get to it. I started pounding, all the while waiting for a siren or something to start blaring.

Finally, I gave up and drove over to the drive through. I told the teller about my dilemma and a puzzled look crossed her face. She asked for my card and announced that it didn’t belong to her bank.

“I KNOW THAT,” I almost screamed.

“I’ll have to talk to my supervisor,” she said and walked away from the window.

I kept one eye on the ATM hoping no one would pull up. I finally got out of my car and walked over to the money machine and tried once again to get cash out of the little door.

When I got back to my car, she was waiting for me. “You’ll have to go to your bank and see if the withdrawal was recorded.”

“What if the next person to use the ATM wants $20? Will he get $220?” I asked nervously.

“I don’t think so,” she responded. (Oh, that made me feel better!)

I drove like a maniac back to my bank. I went inside — this story was best told standing up. After repeating my tale of woe, the teller said this happened all the time.

Was she kidding? What would I have done had I wanted money after the bank was closed?

“I guess you could try another ATM,” she replied sheepishly.

She checked my account and the $200 had not been withdrawn. However, she added that sometimes it takes a few hours. I was told I could make a withdrawal the old-fashioned way and then she gave me a number to call the next day to find out if the withdrawal had occurred.

I just called. The transaction didn’t go through. (Whew!) But I keep thinking about what the teller had told me that this happens ALL the time. I think I’ll start storing a few dollars the real old-fashioned way. I’m going to stash some cash under my mattress, then I won’t have to depend on technology. I just have to remember where I put it.

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