Bank Robbers: A Five-Act Play
Innocent Smith sitting at desk typing on laptop computer. Smith walks to opposite side of the stage, where he retrieves a print job. Pacing, he reads aloud with increasing intensity.
SMITH: Unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable. Eight 35 dollar overdraft fees in two days. Subway, $3.49. Dunn Brothers, $1.77. Walgreens Drugstore, $1.66. Byerly’s, $1.60. Holiday gas station, $1.29. Walgreens, $1.19. Amoco gas station, $1.06. Amoco, $1.60. 280 dollars in fees! Unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable.
Smith continuing to pace as he pulls a cell phone out of his pocket. Heavy set woman in her mid-thirties sitting at desk and surrounded by cubicle on opposite side of the stage. Woman picks up the phone.
WOMAN: Thank you for banking with Wells Fargo. How are you doing today, sir?
SMITH: I’ve been better.
WOMAN: Um, how can I help you?
SMITH: I’m looking at a printout of my recent account transactions. It appears you’ve charged me a total of eight overdraft fees, six of which were for transactions of under two dollars. Is there any way you’d be willing to reverse those fees?
WOMAN: Yes, I see. I’m sorry, Mr. Smith, but I am unable to reverse the fees. We are only able to waive one fee as a courtesy.
SMITH: Yes, I am aware of that.
WOMAN: And we have already waived that fee for you.
SMITH: Yes, I know.
WOMAN: Of course, you realize that the fees were not due to any banking error.
SMITH: I do…look, I understand that the rules are the rules and you didn’t make them. But surely, somebody somewhere made the rules. We are not talking about a force of nature here. We are not talking about gravity. Can I speak to your supervisor?
WOMAN: Please hold.
Smith has begun to develop a nervous twitch. His neck jerks erratically as he paces. Supervisor, a brash young woman in a pantsuit, now sits in the cubicle.
SUPERVISOR: Hello, Mr. Smith, how can I help you?
SMITH: Hello, I recently overdrew my account eight times, six of which were for transactions of less than two dollars. I realize that I am responsible for keeping track of my account balance but, frankly, I consider the fee outrageous.
SUPERVISOR: I’m sorry, Mr. Smith, I am unable to reverse the fees at this time.
SMITH: You are unable to reverse the fees or you are unwilling?
SUPERVISOR: Unable. Unless the fees are due to a banking error, there is nothing I can do for you.
SMITH: Ok, fine. But somebody must have made the rules, right? I want to talk to that person.
SUPERVISOR: I can give you an address, Mr. Smith.
SMITH: An address? No, that definitely won’t do. I’m not going to waste my time writing a letter only to hear back sometime next spring that Wells Fargo will do nothing. I need to speak to somebody directly. (Pause) I don’t mean to be rude here. I realize that you’re just doing your job. But it’s very frustrating when no one will take responsibility for the bank’s actions.
SUPERVISOR: Please hold sir.
Innocent Smith sitting on a folding chair. Smith pulling out clumps of hair and dropping them at his feet. An older male executive in a suit sits on the opposite side of the stage at a large mahogany desk.
EXEC: Wells Fargo phone bank, executive office. How are you doing today, sir?
SMITH: I’ve been better.
EXEC: Sir, I’m looking at your account and it looks like there was no error on the bank’s part…
SMITH: No, of course not. That’s not what I’m disputing.
EXEC: Have you been keeping track of your account balance?
SMITH: Actually, when I looked online, it appeared that I did in fact have money in my account.
EXEC: I’m sorry but it is your responsibility to keep track of your finances. Online banking does not have the most up-to-date information. In your case, it looks like those small transactions didn’t post until several days after they occurred.
SMITH: What use is the online information to me if it’s not reliable?
EXEC: Mr. Smith, you knew about our overdraft policy when you opened a Wells Fargo account, correct?
SMITH: Well, yes. But I obviously didn’t read all of the fine print about Wells Fargo recording a customer’s most expensive transaction first or slapping on the 35 dollar fee indiscriminately. Look, I’m not denying responsibility on my part. But I also think Wells Fargo ought to accept some responsibility for its overdraft policy.
EXEC: I am unable to reverse the fees.
SMITH: Unable or unwilling? These policies did not just fall down from the sky one day. Moses did not bring them down from Mount Sinai. I can accept if Wells Fargo decides not to change the policies or reverse the fees – in a way, it would be relieving. But to keep hearing “the rules are the rules” is intolerable.
EXEC: Mr. Smith, I have the authority to reverse your fees.
SMITH: So you are not unable to reverse the fees, then. You are unwilling.
EXEC: That is correct. The bank has made no error, and you knew about our policies, so I don’t consider your case to be credible.
SMITH: But I have already acknowledged my responsibility. That is not the point. The point is that the policy is, itself, totally unjustifiable. Or, at least, you have yet to offer a justification.
EXEC: I’m sorry, Mr. Smith, but I am not able to reverse the fees.
SMITH: You are not willing.
EXEC: Yes, I am unwilling.
SMITH: Imagine a country in which the punishment for stealing candy bars was five years in prison. Granting that citizens of that country all accept the laws of the land by virtue of choosing to live there – and are even, if you will, contractually obligated to obey them – is it nevertheless possible that the law is, itself, unjust? Is an unjust law binding on citizens?
EXEC: I am not willing to indulge in What-ifs, Mr. Smith.
SMITH: Well, I guess I can only hope that Chris Dodd and other democratic senators in congress will succeed in limiting overdraft fees. I realize you guys rake in huge profits each year from people like me – people who are the least able to cope with the sudden disappearance of $300. I consider it theft! From your standpoint, I suppose, “justification” is irrelevant. I freely entered a contract with Wells Fargo when I opened my account, and you dutifully provided me with the fine print about all of this stuff. You don’t care about fairness — you care about profits and believe that a “just fee” is whatever the market will bear. I wish there was a viable alternative to banking with Wells Fargo, but my guess is that most of your competitors have similar policies. Still, I am closing my account and will be telling all of my friends and family about this experience. I realize that my business means very little to you. You clearly have no sense of decency, so the only recourse people like me have is legislation.
EXEC: I’m sorry you feel that way, Mr. Smith.
Young man in button down shirt and tie stands toward front of stage with hands behind his back. Behind him, two men in their mid-forties wearing similar attire are working on computers at desks separated by a divider. Enter Innocent Smith.
YOUNG MAN: Welcome to Wells Fargo, sir.
SMITH: Hi, I’d like to speak with a manager.
YOUNG MAN: There aren’t any managers available to speak with you right now, sir, but I can have you speak with a banker. What brings you here today?
SMITH: Overdraft fees.
YOUNG MAN: It will be just a moment. Please help yourself to coffee while you wait.
SMITH: I’m all right, thanks.
Exit young man. Smith sits down in chair halfway between front of stage and banker’s desk.
BANKER: Good morning.
Smith stands up, shakes banker’s hand, and walks over to banker’s desk, where he sits down. Manager listens in on their conversation while typing on his computer.
BANKER: How can I help you today?
SMITH: My account went negative and I’m wondering if you would consider reversing the fees.
BANKER: Let me pull up your information. Can I see two forms of ID?
Smith hands him a credit card and driver’s license.
SMITH: You’ll notice that Wells Fargo charged me a total of ten overdraft fees, two of them just yesterday. That’s 350 dollars that I’m short — not because of flat screen TV purchases or even DVDs. The majority of those fees were for purchases of under two dollars. Now, I fully acknowledge that it is my responsibility to keep my account in the positive. Admittedly, I was not unaware of your overdraft policy. But I guess I didn’t read in the fine print the part about the 35 dollar fee applying equally in all cases, whether the customer overdrafts two or two hundred dollars.
BANKER: Mr. Smith, I want to work with you to prevent this from happening again. Can you tell me why you overdrafted?
SMITH: Well, to be honest, I had been assuming that the online banking information was reliable. When I made those transactions, it looked like I had the money.
Banker turns computer screen toward Smith.
BANKER: I’m looking at your transaction history. There seems to be a pattern of you going into the negative. What can I do to help you change that?
SMITH: Here’s what needs to happen. First, I need to start keeping my own record of each purchase I make. These overdraft fees have given me every incentive to do that. I also need to pay down my credit card balance, so as to leave room for overdraft protection. I’m working three jobs right now and living with my mother-in-law, so paying down the balance is definitely feasible. Finally, I need to make more money — it’s difficult to avoid overdrafting when you are constantly living in the red. These are all goals I’m working toward, that I have every incentive to work toward. There is nothing you can do to help me. But if you are serious about working with me and keeping me as a customer, please consider reversing at least half of those fees.
BANKER: Reversing the fees won’t change the pattern.
SMITH: I wasn’t saying it would. That’s my job, not yours. To be honest, I’m not really sure why Wells would have a problem with my going slightly negative from time to time, which harms me far more than you. It’s not like I’m going hundreds of dollars in the hole and not paying you back. I’m overdrafting 8, 10, 12 dollars and then paying it back within a few days at most. A big bank like Wells is easily able to cover the overdrafts and actually profits by slapping on the 35 dollar fee each time. Usually, I don’t even complain about the fees, which – as I said earlier – seem perfectly fair for larger transactions. So our current dispute isn’t really consistent with the previous pattern.
Banker looking at computer screen.
BANKER: It looks like you’ve spoken to someone else. Is that correct?
SMITH: Yeah, the phone bank. They were totally unhelpful.
BANKER: Hmmm, well I’d like to work with you on this.
SMITH: Right, but you haven’t given me any indication of what working together would entail. I have already explained that I intend to keep my own records and pay down my balance – not for your sake, but for my own. What can you do to help? The only thing I can think of is reverse the fees. (Pause) Let me be perfectly clear, if you are not willing to reverse the fees, I am going to close my account immediately and take my story to the media. I hate to say this, but those are my terms. The rest is just chatter. I realize that you personally did not make the rules and I am not angry at you. But I think consumers need to be warned.
BANKER: Closing your account with us will not solve the problem, Mr. Smith. Most banks have similar policies.
SMITH: I’m sure you’re right. Lord knows, I have an overwhelming sense of futility about all of this. Real change will need to come through legislation, assuming that is even possible.
Manager stands up and walks around to banker’s desk.
MANAGER: Hello. I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation.
Smith and manager shake hands.
SMITH: Before I say anything more, let me repeat that none of this is, in any way, personal. I realize that you guys are just doing your jobs. (Pause) Look, there really isn’t anything for the bank to do, other than reverse the fees.
MANAGER: I’m sorry, Mr. Smith, but we are not going to reverse those fees.
SMITH: Right, because you did not create them based on any conception of fairness. You look at what your competitors are offering and price accordingly. That’s free market capitalism. Neither of you personally made the rules, but you don’t have any incentive to change them — I understand that. Wells is in business to make a profit. But that doesn’t make it right.
MANAGER: Perhaps not, but we are not going to reverse your fees.
SMITH: Ok, then. I would like to close my account.
MANAGER: You realize that other banks aren’t going to be any different?
MANAGER: So are you a student?
SMITH: No. I graduated recently and am currently a grantwriting intern at a nonprofit. I’ve got two other jobs as well, but I’m really interested in grantwriting. With the job market as tight as it is right now, it seemed like a good idea to get the extra experience.
MANAGER: Good for you.
SMITH: Yeah – I mean it’s unpaid, so finances are pretty tight. But it’s given me writing samples and references, which will be really valuable in the future.
MANAGER: So are you done in December?
SMITH: I’m committed through December, but the great thing is that I can hang on to it through May. So my plan is to take my time and look for a job that is going to be a good fit. It looks like the market is improving too. I mean, unemployment will probably remain high, but we did have 3.5 GDP growth last quarter, which is encouraging. When the stock market does well, non-profits do too. I didn’t mean to suggest earlier that profitability is inherently bad.
MANAGER: Of course not.
SMITH: It would be foolish to do so, considering that nonprofits rely on the charitable giving of corporate and private foundations for their livelihood.
MANAGER: Right. (Pause) So, would there be any chance of the nonprofit you are currently at hiring you?
SMITH: No, they’re pretty small. But, like I said, it’s great experience.
MANAGER: Well, I wish you the best.
Banker returns with check.
BANKER: Here is a check for the amount you currently have in your account.
Smith stands up, accepts the check, and shakes hands with both men.
SMITH: Thank you for putting up with me, gentleman. I realize that such exchanges are not always pleasant.
Innocent Smith returns to the stage.
SMITH: While I didn’t “live happily ever after” my altercation with Wells Fargo, I did open a TCF Bank account the same day. TCF has the same overdraft fee policy but provides consumers with reliable, up-to-date online banking information, which arguably goes a long way toward preventing situations like mine. Real and lasting change, however, will only come through legislation. As to whether or not the Democrats in congress are up to that task, I cannot say. But I do know that the more pressure we put on them, the better. Ladies and gentlemen, there is not, as of yet, a light at the end of this tunnel. If it is any consolation, I am confident that — for more than a few of you gentleman in the audience — there will be a tunnel at the end of the light. Thank you and goodnight.