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Safe as the Bank

February 11, 2005

WHEN handingout assignmentsfor the dayto us kids, ourgrandmother neverfailed to say,“Satan finds workfor idle hands todo.” You’d betterbelieve it; whenyou’re 20 and jobless,there’s notmuch else to dobut hang aroundthe street corner,whistling at the girls and figuring how tomake your pile.The oldest in our gang was Daddy-O, acomputer whiz who was studying to be ahacker. His twin sister Lee worked in thebilling section of our local bank, learningthe access codes with a view to helpingDaddy-O make the big haul without gettingcaught. The combination gave me anidea I had been mulling over for sometime, so I got Lee to educate me aboutmoney lending.Retail banking is not an exact science.Despite all the checks and balances, mistakeshappen. ATMs hiccup now andagain, tellers sometimes fail to spot a fakebill, and even the central office computerhas been known to drop a bit every trillionor two. So according to Lee, when theybalanced their books at the end of the daythere was often a small imbalance, maybejust a few dollars out of $40 or $50,000 inour small branch, but enough to raise eyebrowswhen clients got their monthlystatements.To protect their reputation, the headoffice maintained what it called a “balanceaccount.” When an overall imbalance wasdetected, the big computer up in Hobokenscanned every transaction for that day andeither credited or debited the accountwhere the error was found, debiting orcrediting the balance account accordingly.Theoretically, random errors are supposedto cancel out over time, but for some reasonLee couldn’t explain, the bank usuallyended up the winner, with the balanceaccount for maybe 70 branches sometimesexceeding $100 on any given day. Whenthat happened, a bell rang somewhere andthe auditors came running to find out whatwent wrong.So I got Daddy-O to hack into the centralcomputer and install a simple littleinstruction to divert any amount over $90into an account I took out in our localbranch, with money I borrowed fromGrandma. I have to tell you, it worked likea dream; some months I drew out as muchas $500, which in those days would getyou more than just a swank dinner for two.By not being greedy, I reckoned thiscould go on forever, but of course someoneasked how come the bell never rangany more, whereupon the scam wasrevealed, and the next time I went to withdrawthe proceeds I got a plastic braceletround the wrists and some rough treatmentby the fuzz. Daddy-O, who had neverfavored my gradualist approach, had beenexpecting this and promptly relocated withLee to Seattle, but I got 10 years and withtime off should be out next year.I had plenty of time in the big house towonder why we didn’t let the balanceaccount run over $100 once in a while,just to give the auditors some exercise.Then maybe it really would have gone onforever.

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