Decimal Dummy

On Sunday, The New York Times Metro section featured a giant profile of my pal Hackett. Online and in print, the point of the article, headlined “Building a Better Apocalypse,” was how awesome he is. If anything, however, they underdid it; Hackett is even more awesome in real life than any article could portray him. You can read the article about Hackett here.

Like Hackett, I was once featured (yes, above the fold) on one of the Gray Lady’s section covers. Unfortunately, the article about me was pretty much the opposite of awesome; it mocked me. Fortunately, it helped me recoup almost $5,000. For $4,635.18, my ego could handle the bruise.

In the late 1990s, Chase launched two different computer banking programs. The first allowed you to manage your accounts from software you installed from CDs. The second let you bank online. They had different functionality and interfaces and one key difference that I didn’t notice: the computer program added the decimal point automatically, and the online program didn’t. By the time I switched from the computer program to the online program, I had gotten used to typing in numbers without the decimal point. If I typed in “4682,” for example, the computer automatically inserted the decimal point before the last two places, converting it into $46.82, but the new program didn’t convert it when I typed in those very digits to pay my electric bill for December 2000, so without noticing it, I sent Con Ed $4,682.

When Chase sent me a fee for the overdraft, I realized what had happened and contacted Con Ed for a reimbursement. Con Ed offered to credit my account, but as I had better plans for the funds than to pre-pay over eight years of electrical bills in advance, I asked the company to mail me a refund instead. The customer service representative told me to talk to the bank. Chase, of course, told me the issue was between me and Con Ed, and I got stalemated in bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, after generating a series of fantastic press coups for the organization, my dear friend and Big Apple Circus publicist Liz Ward had announced, with not unreasonable bravado, that she could pitch anything. When she heard me lamenting about my struggles with intransigent customer service representatives and wondering whether I should call a consumer help board, she decided to prove her point. She called The New York Times: “You’re never going to believe this,” she said, “but I’ve got a co-worker with two Ivy League degrees who just overpaid her electric bill by over $4,600.”

The Times ran the story, Liz won the bet that nobody had been fool enough to take her up on, and the the two ancillary bonuses were getting to make fun of me and shame Con Ed into paying me back the overage. After the story ran, I got a bunch of other calls and appeared in smaller pieces on local television and elsewhere, but it’s all about The Times. The original story, as I remember, was on the cover of the Business section and included a photograph of me sitting at my computer looking befuddled. The story is archived here (no photo), and I’ve pasted in the text below. Enjoy.

A Decimal Point Worth $4,635.18

Published: January 7, 2000

In the days when paying a bill almost always meant merely writing a check, it was unlikely that anyone could have overpaid Con Edison by, say, more than $4,600.

But in the speeded-up world of online banking, as Viveca Gardiner painfully discovered, such a mistake can skip right off a keyboard. Then the problem is trying to correct it.

Ms. Gardiner, a Manhattan resident, said that her saga started on Dec. 23, when she tried to pay her December electric and gas bill of $46.82. When she logged on to her Chase Manhattan account a few days later, she discovered that she had a huge overdraft: somehow, she had paid $4,682.

To this day, Ms. Gardiner, who organizes outreach programs for the Big Apple Circus and has degrees from Harvard and Yale (O.K., not in mathematics) is a little unclear about what went wrong. ”I have a pretty firm command of decimals, fractions,” she said.

The bank, while apologetic, is perplexed about how it might have happened. Kristen Hendrickson, a Chase spokeswoman, noted that online customers had not one, not two, but three chances to review their transactions.

”It is difficult to make a mistake like this,” Ms. Hendrickson said. ”Not that it is uncommon, but you do have a few chances to notice a mistake before you log off from online banking.”

She also said that online customers generally had about five days to cancel a transaction, but that bank records indicated there were seven days between Ms. Gardiner’s transaction and her first complaint. Ms. Gardiner said it was two business days.

The point, however, is that Con Edison got the larger sum and then both the utility and the bank repeatedly told Ms. Gardiner that it was the other organization’s responsibility to issue a refund. As of yesterday, she said that Con Ed had promised a refund and then called her back to cancel, saying they needed proof of overpayment.

But Joseph P. Petta, a spokesman for Con Edison, says the check is in the mail, or almost. ”The check will probably be going out tomorrow,” he said yesterday.

The check, he noted, is for $4,635.18, the balance after subtracting the actual amount of the bill. But Ms. Gardiner said that once she had caught her mistake she paid the bill again for the right amount, $46.82, in hope that the first payment could be voided completely.

Mr. Petta said Con Edison had no record of that second payment.

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