"Learning My Rights"

I arrived in New York shook up and certain I needed to know if I had really committed fraud. From yet another pay phone, a few quick phone calls to law schools back in the Bay Area gave me a short list of lawyers who specialized in banking and checks. I called Manuel Fields first because he had twenty years of experience, specifically focused on check fraud.

Calling escalated my nervousness. For all I knew, telling him all that had transpired might be a legal form of confession, further evidence that could put me behind bars. But I felt desperate. Was what began as a joke now a federal offense? Would I need a lawyer fast?

I told Manuel my first name only, and then all that had happened. "Do I need a lawyer?" He let out a quick laugh, then asked, "Exactly how much was this check for?"

"Ninety five thousand."

For what had to be at least fifteen seconds, all I could hear was hard laughter, seasoned with a few Spanish exclamations like ‘Aye Mio!’

"I'm sorry," he said when his hearty laugh finally petered out. "I've just never heard anything like this."

I imagined Manuel leaning forward, serious, at his desk. According to commercial paper law, the money was now legally mine, he said. "The way a bank invalidates a check is by serving the depositor with a timely notice of dishonor. They’ve only got 48 hours to tell you. That’s from when they found out -- not from when you deposited it. You say they told you 33 days after your deposit. That suggests they blew it. But we’d need some proof. Then again, maybe they did tell you within the 48 hours. We don’t have a way of knowing either way."

"Fraudulent checks are a different manner," he continued. "But since you deposited the check thinking there was no chance it would cash, and without even endorsing it - you didn't commit fraud."

A tremendous relief washed over me.

Manuel had more good news for me. "Nor was getting the cashier's check an act of fraud. The bank assured you the check could no longer be returned. They told you it was your money."

Manuel had no way of knowing the wide-mouth smile he was putting on my face. Then the desire to stand up against my bank stirred in me. They had no right to accuse me of fraud. I was an honest person! The more I thought about the whole situation, the more it seemed like I was being played. Gage needed an out to cover for the bank’s mistake. He needed a sucker, and he counted on me to play that role. It seemed like the bank was taking the side of the junk mail company. Maybe Mitch Klass, good ol’ Mr. ‘Return the money and call the police’ had called up the bank screaming, "You let some jerk fraud us out of $95,000! Get our money back or I’ll sue you so fast you won’t see it coming!" Maybe that was enough to make the bank jump. In either case, it felt unfair and made a letter from the bank seem even more important. I wanted to see what reason they'd state for my needing to return the money. It would probably be a lie.

I spent the evening visiting a good friend in New York. He knew about the junk check before I arrived, and loved it, but the latest chapter of fraud accusations soured him. "You’re on very thin ice, Patrick. Maybe it’s time to give the money back. What’s more important -- making a point with this junk mail company, or your career and reputation?"

"Sure, I see what you mean." I changed the subject. He didn’t seem to be into the principle of the matter.

The next day, I traveled to Boston and visited my brother Mike, his wife Anne, and my mother. The bank’s threatening call disturbed them. Mike, who I really hoped would understand the principle behind my actions, just shook his head and said, "What are you holding out for, Pat? You’re going to give the money back, so why not just give it back now?"

"I’m holding out for a simple letter admitting they made a mistake! God, an official letter for my files is so little to ask. And for the junk mail company to politely ask me for the money back like you and I discussed. They screwed up. They could at least say thanks for not spending it all."

"But you’re gonna give it back?"

"Yeah, sure, unless the junk mail company decides to treat me rudely. Legally, the money is mine now. I don’t have to give it back."

My brother’s eyebrows scrunched the same way they always did when he disapproved. "Hey, Anne and I are wiring the house with Ethernet connections in every room. Wanna see the hub? It’s in the basement, along with my Batman collection. Anne got tired of action figures taking over everywhere." Mike was a mild-mannered technology manager by day, and a Batman fanatic by night.

Later, I found myself alone in the kitchen with my mom. From her seat at the table, rubbing her hands together for comfort, she said, "Patrick, you better not spend a cent of that money. I worry your bank’s going to get meaner and meaner."

"I won’t spend a cent."

"They’ll throw you in jail, son. People get mean over money. You don’t believe me, but I know. So you be very careful, son."

"I’ll be careful. Don’t worry Mom."

"That’s what I do. I worry about you boys." She looked really concerned.

"Well, don’t worry. But it’s too bad you don’t want me to spend any of that money. I was going to buy you a Lexus with a trunk full of presents."

Mom’s eyes perked up and a smile lifted across her face. "Really, Patrick? What color?" We both laughed.

The next day, I phoned my bank’s general customer service number and requested a photocopy of the original junk check. For the person who took my order, it was business as usual. I would receive it in a few days by mail.

The letter arrived on schedule and I had a friend open it and read it to me over the phone. It was a photocopy of someone else's check for $6.71. I was pissed. It could have been a simple mistake, but it seemed like the bank was trying to keep me from having a copy of the check. Without it, I couldn’t confirm that the check matched the nine criteria making it legal.

Sitting at my brother’s desk, I was about to resort to an option that I dreaded: calling Robert Gage, the security officer, and asking him to fax me a photocopy of the check. I imagined him exploding again, but I saw it as a necessary move. I was about to pick up the phone when my mom pulled up a chair. Although my mother was exactly as she often described herself, ‘tubby and stuffed with fluff - like Winnie the Pooh,’ she was never to be underestimated.

"Patrick, why call a security officer? Haven't I taught you to deal with VIPs? Call the President of the Bank."

"It’s not just a bank. It’s a giant corporation with some CEO."

"Well then, call that person. You’re not a criminal, so you don’t need to talk to the security officer. You call the CEO. Haven’t I taught you to go to the top?"

"Yeah, you have," I said, humbled by my mom’s wisdom and appreciative of her support. She sat there with me as I made the calls.

It took several calls before I learned that the CEO’s name was Bill Siart. When I tried to reach him, I was told that he didn’t take any calls personally and that I’d have to go through the Consumer Affairs Department. I reached the manager of the department and said, "I have a problem with my branch office, and I'm having a lot of trouble speaking with anyone who wants to help me handle this problem fairly."

"I’ll gladly help you any way I can," she replied in a courteous voice. I requested a photocopy of the front and the back of the check and the official letter from the bank requesting the money back from me. When I told her that Robert Gage had denied me the letter, she said, "Oh, Mr. Gage is our senior security officer, highly regarded. But I will call him and see what he can do."

It worked. The next day Robert Gage faxed me. Out of the machine came the check copy. More detailed than I had remembered, it certainly matched all nine criteria for a negotiable instrument. It was more real-looking than any of my family had ever imagined.

Next, the fax machine spit out a memo from First Chicago Bank without my name on it anywhere. It did have the amount of the check, $95,093.35, on one line, the word 'non-negotiable' circled on another, and the name and phone number of an Account Adjuster printed at the bottom. Mike encouraged me to call the number. "At this stage in the process, you’re negotiating with the bank now for a copy of the letter. In negotiations, the person with the most information usually wins."

My family left for lunch, and I phoned. All I said was, "I’m holding a memo from you dated June 5th and wondering if you can explain it." He asked for a few reference numbers off the paper and then said, "It’s the notice of dishonor our bank sent to First Interstate about the $95,093.35 check. On the same day, we also reclaimed the money from First Interstate."

"What's a notice of dishonor?" I asked.

"It's when we notify your bank that the check they gave us was bad, and we reclaim our money."

"So my bank is out the money?"

"Yes," he confirmed.

Before I could consider how I felt about my bank losing the dough, it hit me. The burning question raised earlier by Manuel was now answered. June 5th was the day my bank learned that the check had been dishonored. But June 21st was the day they’d notified me. They’d missed their legal deadline by 16 days - and then accidentally faxed me a memo that proved it. God loved me, or Robert Gage was an idiot.

At the end of our conversation, the account adjuster not only obliged my request for the name of the other bank my check routed through, he told me who I should ask for and what item number I should reference. I got off the phone and ran in to tell my family the news. "That account adjuster just put the fun into ‘funny money!’" I yelled.

I raced back to make my next call. The woman responded to me with a candor she probably reserved for fellow bankers. I scrawled notes onto a yellow pad of paper as she related the entire history of the check’s movement through the banking system. The bank received my deposit on Friday, May 19th. On Monday, May 21st it was overlooked by First Interstate and sent on to the bank in Chicago that was acting as a clearinghouse. It was again overlooked there. The next day, May 22nd, it was sent onto the Federal Reserve Bank in Cleveland, Ohio and this bank rejected the check immediately, calling it a ‘non-cash’ item. The check was then routed to her bank in Cleveland, because that’s where the Association of Certified Liquidators had their account. She said her bank sent a notice of dishonor immediately to the bank in Chicago, on June 4th.

I scrawled a loosely-based map of the check’s path across the yellow lines on the pad and was left wondering why my bank had delayed notifying me. Apparently, somebody fell asleep at their desk and didn’t wake up for over two weeks.

I hung up the phone and made the first entry about the $95,000 check into my journal:

No wonder my bank won’t send a letter; there’s nothing they can say in it! They can’t say the check wasn’t real without lying on paper. They’re way past being able to officially notify me of it bouncing. So they haven’t a legal leg to stand on. And I guess it never crossed their minds to just call me, admit their mistake, and ask for the money back nicely. Why would they? They never let customers out of mistakes. It's a twenty-five dollar service charge whenever someone accidentally bounces a check, no matter what. But now, with the tables turned, instead of them paying for their mistake, they try and get the money back with bullying and lies. Screw them. I’m keeping the money if they want to act like assholes.

I didn’t sleep well for a week. I'd lay awake trying to decide if it really was worth it, continually trying to figure out my next move. I also worried about fraud charges, a lawsuit, court battles, jail time, and the disruption of my career as a speaker. I pictured myself phoning a future client. "I’m on parole, but I’ll be there on schedule to present my Major in Success presentation."

July 6th rolled around sooner than I cared for. This was the day I had promised Robert Gage that I’d return to San Francisco with the check. However, I had decided to skip my flight, figuring it would be better to be 3000 miles away when I told him again, "A letter or no cashier's check." Gage would go ballistic when I gave him my ultimatum, and then hand matters over to the police. Nervousness woke me up and stayed with me all day as I put off phoning. .

My battle with the bank over the principle of the entire matter wasn’t worth the anxiety eating away at my life. It might get me jail time. Even the idea of fighting so that the money could go to charity was losing its luster. It would be like giving away ill-gotten gains. The money wasn’t meant to be mine. Family and friends had already indicated they’d just give back the money and forget the letter. They were all people I trusted. Yet, a part of me thought I was right, and the bank was wrong. And it was me who would have to roll over if I backed down..

Finally, at 9:30 p.m., I sat down at the kitchen table in front of the phone, planning out exactly what I would say. I would play hard ball. No more Mr. Nice Guy.

To my surprise, my brother wandered by. He gave me some help with my script. "Over-demand," he recommended. "That’s what good negotiators do. At some point it will make him say, ‘I can’t do all that for you - what do you really want?’"

Then my mother sat down across from me. She’d wrench her hands together, then rub her arms without saying a word. I hoped she couldn’t see that I too was afraid. I focused on my notes in front of me and tried to calm my breathing. Before I knew it, the clock on the stove read 10:55 p.m. Gage wouldn't be at work anymore, but I had his pager number. If I was going to do this, I had to do it now.

I rang Gage's pager and punched in my brother's phone number. Then I sat back and waited for his call.

My hands dampened with sweat. The muscles of my neck tightened. I fought off a tiny, and completely unusual, twitch on my right cheek. I gave a fake reassuring wink to my mom. I’d never before been this scared.

Rrrrrrriiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnngggggggg! The phone sounded off like an alarm. I gave a quick glance to my mother. Despite the tight feeling in my chest, I was able to speak my first words with strength. "Hello, Robert. It is July 6th and I'm contacting you as I promised, but I've extended my stay in Boston. This call is to inform you that upon my return, I don't intend to give the money back unless we reach a different agreement. Let me explain why."

He tried to speak but I cut him off. "I've received no official notices from First Interstate making a legal claim to the money. And no one has explained to me why I should give it back. Everyone, except you, has advised me that the money is legally mine. I was told by a First Interstate teller that the money was safe to spend because a law protected me from it coming back after 10 days. I've been advised that, according to commercial paper law, the money became mine when First Interstate didn't serve me with a timely notice of dishonor. And that a check is not made non-negotiable by printing the words non-negotiable on the front. Now, unless we reach some other agreement, I’m going to keep the money."

I was waiting for him to scream, "I'm putting a warrant out for your arrest. We can talk in court."

He spoke, "Where do we go from here?"

I told him how I felt, how I was being treated like a criminal, rather than a twelve-year, good customer. Pissed because my bank account was frozen. Mad because the confiscation of my automatic teller machine card forced me to have to borrow money. And most of all, outraged for being stiff-armed over the simple request for the letter. .

Gage apologized respectfully and promised to get me an official letter from First Interstate. He said he would look into trying to get my ATM card replaced and politely tried to counter my legal claims to the money. "I can appreciate the laws you’re citing," he said, "but none of them apply because what you deposited was an advertisement. Trust me, I have twenty years in banking and a law book called Brady’s on Bank Checks sits right here on my desk as a reference."

I said nothing, wondering if he was right. "And it’s understandable that First Interstate took thirty three days to dishonor it because it was an out-of-state check that had to go all the way to Chicago." I couldn’t hold back a small laugh as I pictured my check traveling between San Francisco and Chicago by horse and buggy.

My mom made tea as Robert and I spoke for half an hour. I calmly and firmly reasserted my rights and Robert politely tried to explain them away. He never made a single request of me -- he didn’t even ask when I would return to San Francisco. He never used the words ‘fraud’ or ‘criminal.’ We even found a common ground for agreement about the belief that companies who advertise using real-looking checks should be held accountable for them.

The call was over. With my arms stretched out wide, I took in a deep breath and let a smile take over my face. "Tomorrow, or the next day, they’re going to fax me the letter and this whole thing will have a happy ending." Relief washed over my mom’s face and I stood to turn off the kitchen light.

Three days later, Gage still hadn’t faxed me the letter he had promised. It was time to head back home, and my mother and I waited in Boston’s Logan airport for my flight back to San Francisco. My mother let go of her grip on my hand to wipe her eyes. "Well, I won't tell you to stop doing things like this because when you stop taking risks, life gets boring. Just keep saying your prayers and I will, too."

End of Part IV

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