13 February 2007

The Vault

Tuesday may hereafter be designated as brain-dumping day. Perhaps.

I wrote a snippet about working for the cash vault of a bank a few days ago and said that those were stories for another day. Since then, I’ve been thinking about that job, and remembering the funny things that happened there.

I went to work for a big bank when I was 19 or 20 years old, in 1994 or 1995. Can’t really remember exactly when, and it is no longer important. The bank that I worked for is what is known in the financial services industry as a “super-regional” bank, a huge establishment that is not nationwide, but extends its reach over a footprint of 6 contiguous midwestern states, with operations in about another 5 states not connected to the footprint. They offer all of the traditional banking services, and I started out as a part-time teller in an office close to home.

Being a bank teller is not easy work. When you wander into a branch of your local bank to cash a check, that teller who waits on you (if you in fact go into the office and don’t use the ATM) has been through at least 20 hours of training in policy, procedure, operations, customer service….it is a lot of work for very little pay.

I think that first year I made maybe $8,000. And I despised it. The branch manager at my first branch was an evil hag, who must have taken the advanced class of “How to NOT manage people”, because she was awful at any and all human resources issues. Her favorite way to discipline someone for anything was to wait until there was a lobby full of customers and then berate the person from inside her office while they were waiting on someone. She and I clashed nearly daily.

Hindsight has given me some perspective, and in retrospect, I should have probably not told her that she was a textbook case of how to not run a department or an office. Y’see, I was in my first year of business school, majoring in management, which is enough knowledge to cause problems, but not fix them. If I had to work with her today, I would do some things differently, but I would have still left.

I worked with the evil hag for about 6 or 7 months. I began applying for transfers anywhere within the system as soon as I was eligible. One job posting that caught my eye was for the International Teller, who handled all of the region’s foreign currency. Having lived in Europe, I could do currency conversions in my sleep, and it seemed like something that would be more fun, so I applied. I was thrilled when I got the job, which was full time, and in another city, about 60 miles away from home.

The International Teller’s office was located inside the main cash vault. At first, I was too busy cleaning up the cubicle area allotted to me to notice what else was going on around me, but I came up for air about a month after starting there. The former international teller hadn’t been the neatest person, and I tossed stuff that went back to the mid-80s. As you can imagine, this made obsessive-compulsive me absolutely tweak the fuck out.

When I had everything arranged as I needed it to be for efficiency’s sake, I felt able to assist my co-workers in what they were doing. The international teller job could have reasonably been a part time position, because there was relatively little for me to do. I bought and sold currency with a New York City trading house, sure, and that was fun, but I didn’t have near enough to do. This suited me, though, because I was in my last year at University by then, and I used downtime to study.

The rest of the people that I worked with did very different things than I did every day. The vault processed money from the Federal Reserve for distribution to branches of the bank in our region, processed any counterfeit money that the bank received (more about that in a second) and processed deposits from big box retailers that were delivered to the vault by armored couriers, plus processed change through huge coin sorting machines in the coin room.

The most interesting of these activities was processing the money that came from the Fed. The vault’s head teller would order money from the Fed on a weekly basis, and sometimes they sent new money (who doesn’t love the smell of new money?) and other times they sent currency that had already been in circulation. But when I say that she ordered money, I mean that she ordered millions of dollars. Millions and millions of dollars. Four million in twenty dollar bills wasn’t out of the ordinary. Four million dollars in cash is HEAVY, y’all. The couriers would bring it in on pallets. There were of course secure doors that you had to go through, and a process that we had in place to make sure that the couriers were legit, but it always worried me that they brought the cash in clear plastic bags, sealed and imprinted, yes, but clear plastic….I used to tell the people that I worked with that if anyone with criminal intentions paid any amount of attention, they would see a pattern of days and times when the money from Uncle Sam was delivered. Hit us on the right day, and you could have made off easily with two mil in cash. We never were, and I don’t know if that’s because no one was paying attention or if we were extraordinarily lucky.

The bank no longer does things this way, which is why I feel all right about telling these stories. The vault is no longer located at my old office, and procedures are radically different, security has changed lots. This was eight or nine years ago after all, and I have not worked for this company at all for nearly 3 years now.

After the courier passed the security checks, we would do a ‘rough’ count, ensuring that the imprinted and sealed bags were in fact still sealed, and checking that each bag had the amount that it said it did. Then the couriers left, and we would move the cash into the most secure area, a real vault with the ship’s wheel on the door and a timed lock. The room inside the vault was about ten feet wide and five feet deep, with one wall entirely taken up by smaller safes. Those safes limited the amount of room that we had to move and work inside the vault, but it was where the cash was kept after it was counted.

Once inside the secure area, we would open the imprinted bags and begin a ‘bulk’ count of the money. Bulk counting means that you run the bills through a counting machine, which counts the number of bills but not the denominations, so if there is a one-dollar bill in the middle of the twenties, it doesn’t register. We did bulk counting to separate the bills into more manageable stacks; every denomination was bulked in stacks of 100 bills, which in twenties is $2000, and ‘bricked’ in packs of 5 of the stacks of 100 bills, making the bricks of twenties $10,000.

After the bulk count was done, and totals matched the paperwork, we would do a fine count. Fine counting means that you personally touch every single bill, you eyeball every bill, and this is where the biggest potential for theft occurs. It is also where you’re going to find a counterfeit bill, or a ten in the middle of the hundreds. American currency has a very specific ‘feel’ to it…the paper that it is printed on has a very high cotton content, and counterfeit bills ‘feel’ wrong. Even someone who doesn’t work with big bunches of money on a daily basis can feel the difference.

Fine counting takes forever. It would take several hours to process the money from the Fed. The first time I helped process a Fed transfer, I thought it was pretty exciting. Who can say that they personally handled a million dollars at work? Cool. The only problem, as I saw it, was that the money wasn’t mine.

In order to work in a place like that, you have to be bonded and have no criminal history. And while I thought it was pretty cool to put my hands on that much money, I had to get to the point where my thought process went something like this….”It is just paper. And it isn’t MY paper.” Because otherwise, you could easily drive yourself bonkers thinking about what you could do with so much money.

Two other funny things about money. One, it is filthy. Filthy, filthy, filthy dirty. New money’s ink rubs off on your hands, turning your fingers black. Old money is just dirty, and your hands turn black from touching it. We couldn’t wear gloves while handling it because that sense of touch is important to be able to feel for counterfeits. So my hands were always chapped from frequent washing. Secondly, have you heard urban myth/legend that the US currency tests positive for cocaine? True.

We had a spate of counterfeits come through the office, and it was part of my responsibilities to send the bills to the Secret Service, which is who handles all counterfeit claims. Now that would be an interesting job, working for the Secret Service.

Like anything involving the government, there was an extensive process in place to send counterfeit bills to the Secret Service, forms to fill out, a very specific way it had to be packaged. It took about a half hour to fill out the paperwork and package it all up. The funniest thing about it was that it had to be sent registered mail, and it went to a facility in the same city where my office was located. We couldn’t send it with the couriers.

The bills were being passed at branches of our bank, and the tellers would send them to us with a “suspicious” tag. I always felt bad when I had to contact a teller and let him or her know that we were going to send a short ticket to them for the amount of the bill. Counterfeits, you see, come in a bunch of different incarnations. The crudest take the numbers off of a higher bill and paste them onto a $1 or a $5 and then try to pass them as a $20, $50, or $100 bill. The more sophisticated are attempts to print your own $50 bills. Regardless, the teller who sent them to us was penalized for taking the bill as part of a deposit, if that was in fact how it came in. Sometimes customers would bring them in, thinking that the bill seemed off, and then the customer would be out the money, which never failed to piss them off. And I saw their point….what’s the sense in being honest if you’re going to be out the money? Try and pass it along to someone else, leave someone else holding the bag. Unfortunately, that’s just the way that it went, with the honest person being shorted. Many times a teller could pass the short back to the merchant who took the counterfeit bill in the first place, but a civilian had no recourse.

I worked for the vault for about a year, moving on to another division of the bank when I graduated from college. But those stories are, again, for another day.

Listening to: Online radio station, an eclectic mix of adult contemporary stuff including Los Lonely Boys, The Pretenders, Life House and Maroon 5.

No comments: