Having a checking account is a privilege, not a right, but most people forget this until they lose access to their accounts.
The security software that banks use to sniff out criminal activity is easily frightened. It sets off millions of alarms across the industry each year, and most of them are false.
Nevertheless, bank staff members following up on the warnings appear to be cutting an increasing number of innocent customers off from their accounts, The New York Times reported in a series of recent articles. They close down checking and credit-card accounts in part to keep regulators, who are worried about money laundering and other criminal activity, out of their hair.
The closures often happen without warning, and chaos ensues when people lose access to their money for weeks and can’t pay their bills.
If you want to keep this from happening to you, it helps to keep your account activity from looking like that of a criminal’s.
Many of the tips that follow come from bank insiders who didn’t want to be named for fear of offending their employers — but who spoke anonymously because they are tired of their institutions kicking so many innocent customers out. Keep the advice in mind, and you might avoid being swept up in any future dragnet.
The Anatomy of a Typical Checking Account
Put yourself in the shoes of the fraud analysts at your bank. If it’s not a local credit union or single-branch community bank, they have no idea who you are. They often work on a kind of assembly line, where they must meet a daily quota of alerts that have to be adjudicated. The prompts frequently come straight from the surveillance software that banks use to monitor your transactions.
So how are you going to make it easy for those people to mark you, the innocent, as someone they shouldn’t mess with?
In a perfect world, your checking account balance looks like the teeth of a saw. A lump sum of income shows up on a regular schedule, you spend it over a period of weeks, and then the same amount repeatedly shows up. Ideally, the money comes by direct deposit from an employer that bank employees can look up in 10 seconds if they’ve never heard of it.
Plenty of people do not have neat and tidy financial lives like that, but algorithms have neither sympathy nor empathy. If your life is a bit messy, try to maintain some kind of pattern with your transactions, particularly if you tend to make or receive large payments with different parties or transfer large amounts of money to and from external accounts.
This extends to when you open a new checking account in the first place. Often, people open an account with a large deposit. While that is not necessarily suspicious on its own, if another red flag emerges — like the ones in this article or if you work for a cannabis company or have some kind of arrest record — the bank may cancel your account within days of your opening it. This has happened several times to Times readers, over 1,000 of whom have submitted their stories.
Checks Are a Red Flag
Fraud involving mail theft and checks has roughly doubled in recent years. As criminals have focused on checks, banks have turned up the dials on their check-fraud algorithms.
One way to avoid trouble is to keep from falling victim to check fraud in the first place, lest the bank think you’re suspicious when you subsequently make a claim for money that a thief has stolen. If you don’t write checks at all — and destroy or hide any the bank sends you — fraud becomes more unlikely.
If you must use checks, don’t mail them. And if you have to mail a check, try taking it directly to a post office. Residential mailboxes and even the post office’s blue collection boxes are more vulnerable to theft, where thieves may try to wash out amounts or names of recipients on a particular check and then redirect a much larger sum to someone else. And try not to accept a check from individuals you don’t know, in case they are trying to rip you off.
Avoid Generating Suspicious Transactions
If you want to think like bankers, consider the types of suspicious activity that the American Bankers Association calls out in its course for industry professionals.
Many security tripwires involve cash and how you use it. For instance, one federal law requires bank customers to fill out a form when depositing or withdrawing more than $10,000 in cash. Many depositors don’t know about the rule — and don’t like it when a bank employee informs them in the moment.
From the A.B.A. course materials: “A typical example of a suspicious transaction for a teller would occur when a customer begins to conduct a currency transaction that exceeds $10,000 but then reduces the amount of the transaction to below $10,000” when the bank tells that person about the form requirement.
Don’t do this. Just fill out the form, which does you no harm if you’re not breaking any laws.
Also on the list of no-nos is making a bunch of cash deposits at A.T.M.s — say, after a shift as a server at a cash-only restaurant. To you, this is simply safety first. To the bank, it’s one of many signs that someone might be a drug dealer. Making four-figure deposits at different bank branches around a region might raise similar suspicions.
Big movements of cash — whether deposits or withdrawals — could also create problems. Imagine that you’re a fraud investigator and you arrive at work one day to find an alert about a semi-dormant savings account that got a $30,000 deposit eight weeks ago. Moreover, three $10,000 cash withdrawals have been made in the past six weeks, with one taking place every two weeks.
To you, this might be the sale of some stock shares to pay for the cash purchase of a used car for each of your teenage twins, plus $10,000 to pay a carpenter who doesn’t like checks. To the analyst, the transactions pattern is completely out of character.
Call Your Bank — and Call Your Bank Back
It can help to be both proactive and reactive.
If you’re selling your home and six-figure amounts of money are about to start sloshing around, tell your bank. If you’re selling your car for cash and depositing the money, tell your bank. If your life is about to change — a move, a big shift in how and when you earn money, a six-month retirement road trip — tell your bank.
When JPMorgan Chase shut down the personal accounts of Bryan Delaney and his wife, and another for a bar they own in New York City, he interviewed new institutions carefully. Chase had pointed to a pattern of cash deposits as the reason for its concern.
“I told them that Chase had an issue with us being a cash business, and I wanted to make sure that we were in full compliance,” he said. “So I said to them, ‘I’m going to write down how we do what we do, how and when we make deposits,’ and I gave them old statements so it was all on the record.”
Relationships can help, sometimes, when alarms go off. Forge them with a branch banker when you open an account at a bank that has branches, and nurture them on a continuing basis. “The more you do in person, the better your shot is at someone at least advocating for you,” said Aaron Ansari, a former bank programmer.
When the bank calls you, answer the phone. If you don’t trust that it’s really the bank, call the number on the back of your credit or debit card and ask to be connected to whatever department was supposedly reaching out to you.
Open email and respond. If the communication seems suspicious, log into your account and send a secure message or call a number that is on the bank’s website to confirm that the inquiries are real.
Banks must follow so-called know your customer rules. And while you may not like it if they suddenly want pay stubs or other information from you, if you don’t comply they may show you the door. Suspicious activity, according to the A.B.A. course on the topic for bank employees, includes “customers who are reluctant to provide personal information or information about their businesses.”
Any standoff can result in the bank filing what’s known as a suspicious activity report with the federal government. Too many of those — or even one — can lead the bank to shut down your accounts.
If It Happens to You
When banks shut down accounts, they generally don’t email, text or call you. Instead, you get an old-fashioned letter in the mail. You open your mail each day, right?
If not, chances are you’ll find out about a closure when your credit or debit card stops working. You’ll call the bank, and it will inform you of the shuttering and the representative — who won’t know the exact reasons — will tell you that you can expect to receive your money by check within a few weeks.
If you can’t go for weeks without money, your next move might be to go to a branch, if your bank has one, to try to withdraw it all.
Don’t yell when you get there. Making a scene rarely helps your cause, and it might cause the bank to call the police. Crying might move the needle though. If you can get your money after all, you might want to empty any safe deposit box too while you’re there.
Then there’s the approach that Elad Nehorai took at a Bank of America branch in Los Angeles in July. He and his wife had their business account shut down when he reported a fraud attempt to the F.B.I. According to the bank, it sometimes restricts accounts because of information it receives from law enforcement agencies.
Mr. Nehorai went to the branch and was flummoxed by the response of the staff. “There was something very systematic about the whole thing,” he said. “It was clear that their job was not to know what to do in this situation.”
He and his wife eventually decided to just sit there until the bank handed over the balance from the account. At the same time, he posted on Twitter about the standoff, and a local CBS reporter took interest.
After it escalated to that point, Bank of America disbursed the funds.
Tara Siegel Bernard contributed reporting.