Why you should switch to a small bank

It’s tax-return season, which means chasing people down for 1099s, including my bank, which happens to be Citibank. Maybe they sent me one, for my savings account, I don’t know — but if they did,it got lost along the way. So I went online to print out a new one.

I would like to say that the whole process was easy. The 1099s were in an obvious part of the website, they downloaded as PDFs, and I sent them off painlessly to my accountant.


In fact, Citi does not allow its customers to download 1099s from the website: for some reason they’re considered too precious for that. I can transfer all of my money to a Russian bank account, no problem, but they won’t let me see the official record of how much interest I made last year.

Instead, you have to send Citi a message, asking them to send you a 1099. This is a common message: it’s right there in the drop-down menu: “1099/W-8 Form Request” appears just above “Request to Close Account”. Maybe they’re trying to tell me something.

In any case, I sent off my request, and a little while later I got a reply. Now it’s worth noting that at no point did Citi tell me that I had gotten a reply. Instead, I was expected to just periodically log into my online banking account, and look to see if the number-of-messages ticker had flipped over to 1.

Here’s what the reply said:

From: Jose Luis Ibarra Date: 03-29-2013 Account Number : XXXX Subject: Re: 1099/W-8 Form Request Reference: 8BB8B4ZQ Dear Felix Salmon,
Welcome to Citibank. I am delighted to hear from you and I hope you are having a pleasant day. It will be my pleasure to help you with your financial needs. I appreciate you taking the time to communicate with me in regards to feedback and suggestions. My name is Valentino and I am thankful for the opportunity to help you Felix Salmon.
I have submitted a request to have your 1099 forms to be sent to your email address registered on file. Please allow 24-48 business hours to process. The passcode to open the Citibank email is V130881720058.
As a valued client you are the foundation of our business, and I sincerely value your trust in Citibank throughout the years. I look forward to hearing from you again in the near future. We appreciate you banking with us since at least 1997 Felix Salmon.
If you have further questions Felix Salmon, please send a message or call Citibank Customer Service at 1-800-627-3999. Representatives are available to assist you 24 hours a day 7 days a week.
Valentino I.

This is just wrong on a couple of levels. I, for one, have no desire to hear bullshit like ”I am delighted to hear from you and I hope you are having a pleasant day”: most of this email is made up of meaningless platitudes, which aren’t even well constructed. (”We appreciate you banking with us since at least 1997 Felix Salmon.”)

And then there’s the mismatched names: at the top the message says it comes from Jose Luis Ibarra, but then the message itself says it comes from someone called Valentino.

So I sit and wait, and then at some point over the weekend I happen to glance at my Thomson Reuters email account. This is not something I look at very often, since it’s basically a spam repository: all TR email addresses have the same format, and as a result it’s full of unsolicited PR pitches from people who worked out what my email address must be.

Looking at the list of emails, however, I see this:

From: Citigold Investigation <citigold.email.validations@citi.com>
Date: March 30, 2013, 2:06:24 PM EDT
To: "'felix.salmon@thomsonreuters.com'" <felix.salmon@thomsonreuters.com>
Subject: Your Requested Information from Citigold - Reference Number 130881720058
Dear Mr. Felix Simon,
Your requested document for Reference #130881720058 is attached to this email.
Please do not use the reply link that is provided in this email. If you have any questions regarding this process or the document we have provided, please contact Customer Service at 1-888-248-4465*. For text telephone/TTY anywhere in the U.S.: 1-800-788-6775.
*Representatives are available to assist you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Thank you for choosing Citibank.
Citibank Client Services
*To ensure quality service, calls are recorded

This was all rather fishy. My email address, for online-banking purposes, is not my work address; it’s my personal address. I had requested the information from Citibank, but this email came from something called “Citigold Investigation”, with an email address I was instructed not to reply to. And although they spelled my name right in the email field, they called me “Mr. Felix Simon” in the body of the message.

There was a password-protected PDF file attached to the document, and I was of two minds as to whether or not I should open it: various phishing alarms were going off in my head. (And I certainly wasn’t reassured when I misdialed the phone number in the message and heard a voice telling me I’d just won a free trip to the Bahamas.)

Still, I did notice that the passcode in the first message was pretty much the same as the reference number in the second message, so I decided that the email was probably legitimate and tried to unlock the PDF with the passcode.

But that didn’t work.

So I called the number in the first message — the one I knew to be legitimate — to see whether the second message was kosher or not. The chap on the end of the line explained that the email was legitimate, but that the first message had gotten the password wrong. Instead of putting a V in front of the reference number, he said, I should try putting in an S.

So I typed S130881720058 instead of V130881720058 into the PDF’s password field, and presto, there’s my 1099!

All of this makes a mockery, of course, of password-protecting the file in the first place. If the password is right there in the subject line of the email, and you just need to slap the letter S on the front of it, then the only people who will find themselves unable to open the email are befuddled genuine customers like me. Any malign actor, by contrast, looking to break into my email and discover how much interest income I’m reporting to the IRS, will be able to find that out with ease.

The password-protected PDF, in other words, is security theater, a bit like the way in which Citi forces you to type in your ATM card number every time you want to deposit a check using its smartphone app. It’s a real pain, and doesn’t improve security, but I guess it makes some customers feel a bit more reassured.

While I tried asking the chap on the phone why the email said “Felix Simon” and was sent to the wrong email address, he couldn’t really help me on that front: he was the technical-support department, not the emailing-out-1099s department. He did confirm that my personal email account is my primary email address, and that my name in the system is Salmon, not Simon. Or in his system, anyway.

It’s at times like these that I really love the customer service and ease of use that I experience at Simple. In order to get this PDF, I needed to use three different communications protocols — the online messaging system, my work email account, and the phone — none of which worked very well. And no one person at Citibank is ever going to have all of the information I need: the best they can do is pass me on to some other department, which might be able to help me out, if I’m lucky.

Of course, it’s easy for Simple to be simple: it only has one product, while Citi has dozens, if not hundreds. But, having talked to the people in charge of the Citi website, I’m convinced that they genuinely believe that they have a really great product, which serves their customers really well. And so long as they believe that, the actual customers are going to continue to endure millions of small-bore frustrations.

This isn’t a story of terrible customer service; none of my money was frozen; nothing very serious happened one way or the other. But sometimes things can get very serious indeed — read Jon Stokes for a story that could happen to you, or to any of us. And the organizational dysfunction that creates the small problems is exactly the same as the organizational dysfunction that creates the big ones.

The moral of this story is clear: if you want good customer service, use a small bank. It’s not a sufficient condition. But it is a necessary one.