Thursday, March 29, 2007

How to mess up an Amex payment and destroy your finances

Lest my personal-finance blogging imply I have all of our financial matters nicely in hand, here's a fun cautionary tale about how I firebombed David's bank account.

Because David and I have separate checking accounts and budgets, we each pay in each month to pay off the charges we've run through our main credit card, my Amex. I use Amex's Pay Online option, which lets me directly debit money from linked bank accounts. Two weeks ago, I sat down to pay David's portion of this month's bill. I calculated what he owed, cleared the amount with him, typed in the amount, hit the "pay" button, and clicked on "confirm and pay."

As I whizzed past the confirm screen and said yes yes pay, I realised -- literally the second I was hitting the button -- that I'd put in an amount almost twice what I actually intended to put in. An amount substantially greater than what David actually had sitting in his bank account.

I caught the mistake the instant I hit the button -- but by then, it was too late. Amex's online payments are instantaneous. Once you've confirmed, you can't change or revoke the payment.

I got on the phone right away to Amex's customer service, which threw up its hands and said to call Citibank and arrange a stop-payment.

Citibank's customer service center is in India, and is impressive in its level of cluelessness. Dealing with them has rarely proved helpful, and this experience was no exception. The center put in a stop payment order. A week later, we learned -- painfully -- that Amex payments don't work like typical check or debit payments, and can't be halted with a stop payment.

This whole mess was compounded by David's lack of access to his account info. In a separate incident, he lost his debit Paypass keychain thingie right after my payment debacle and had to cancel his debit card and get it reissued. Doing that temporarily cut off his access to Citibank's online banking site -- meaning he couldn't check and see what happened with the Amex charge. It took more than a week for his replacement card to arrive.

When it did, Tuesday, David hit the ATM and found that his account appeared untouched: the Amex payment had apparently bounced or been stopped. Figuring we'd worked through the mess, I went in that night and put in another payment on Amex's website, for the amount I'd originally intended to pay.

Insert hollow, dark laughter. Yesterday morning, David found his account hugely overdraw. So, instead of dealing with the Indian call center, David went to a Citibank branch to ask: What happened?

The original Amex payment was never stopped. It can't be. Online payments of the sort I made are apparently handled as direct electronic transactions between financial institutions, routing through the Federal Reserve system. If a payment doesn't go through because of insufficient funds, it tries again. Three times.

So, we now have the original payment making its second or third attempt to go through, plus the second payment I made last night starting its attempts. We're even further into the hole than when we started. And presumably every time one of these payments fails, it will generate another bounced transaction fee, on both sides, from Amex and from Citbank. Amex already socked us with one $38 fee for the first bounce. I'm praying each subsequent bounce won't incur another.

The obvious way to solve this mess is to throw enough money into David's account to let all the Amex payments suck out the money they're trying to. But, er. We lack the cash. My clever plans to create an emergency fund haven't actually come to fruition yet, partially because taking just five credits this semester
(I'm almost finished, yay!) killed my ability to get loans and all my free cash is temporarily tied up paying for the credits my company will soon reimburse. So, for the moment, we're just kind of financially screwed.

I think we can dig mostly out of the hole with this Friday's paychecks. It'll be months before I crawl out of the guilt hole, though. I owe David lots of extra niceness in return for temporarily completely destroying his bank account :(