Thursday, June 20, 2013

Finding Money Under the Couch

I didn't actually find money under the couch. But my experience at a bank one day was a lot like that. My wife and I needed to open a business account at a local credit union. One very interesting aspect of credit unions (well, maybe just this one) is that they run a credit check before they open an account for you. They just want to be sure you don't make a habit of bouncing checks.

So we let the bank run a credit check on us. Our credit is fine, but we found an old debt from a clinic that we visit from time to time. The debt is from 2009 and went to collections in 2010. We had no notice of this debt prior to our visit to the bank. We never received any letters for it, nor any phone calls. We had been prompt in paying any outstanding balances every time we visit.

So we found it interesting that there was this unpaid bill languishing for a few years. The bank gave us the details from the credit report and I used that to start my investigation. The details were for the collection agency, so I called them first.

Upon connection of the call, I heard the usual information, "This call is being recorded for quality assurance. This is an attempt to collect a debt." Pretty standard technology there. I was on hold for a minute or two and then I was talking to an agent, we'll call him "Agent Smith".

I ask Agent Smith about the debt. He gives me the details and confirms that the debt exists in his records. I let him know that I was unaware of the debt until today and that I need to check with the source of the record to verify it. I let him know that I needed to run my own investigation before making any payments because sometimes records go stale. Agent Smith was kind enough to give me the name of the source of the record and we finally get the name of the clinic.

Then I called the billing department of that clinic. They did have a record of the debt, but could not tell me much more than that the debt exists. They gave me a number to call for further research.

On the second call, I spoke with an expert billing technician. I know, "billing technician" is something of a contradiction in terms. But this woman was sharp and medical billing is complicated, prompting job postings for medical billing that pay $40-50 an hour. She knew her database pretty well and could find part of what I was looking for. She found the debt, but could find no further details.

I told her that we're good about paying our bills promptly when they arrive. Perhaps the payment for that bill was misapplied. I've seen that happen before and have had to correct it. She did some more searching and found a credit balance on one of our accounts for $585. The deposit was for prenatal care up to and including delivery of our first baby daughter. It had been sitting there for more than a year, "looking for a place to go".

The billing tech asked me if I wanted to apply the credit to something else. I declined, requesting a refund instead. This was really cool to find the money and I was grateful to find it. The billing technician said that she would arrange for a check to be sent to us and that we could expect to receive it the next week. With regard to the balance due, she gave me a number to call for more information than she could dig up, which is significant since she is already an expert on the billing system.

Here's the problem: the clinic was quick to send notice of a debt to a collector, but sat on a credit balance for more than a year without sending me any notice of it. It would be nice to see businesses and institutions change their procedures and their attitude so that if they see a credit balance sitting around for more than thirty days, to send notice of it to the customer. It's just a thought.

So, despite all these wondrous technologies, the databases, the networks and the storage and processing power to maintain it, it still takes a human to interpret the data. Computers can collect and manipulate data, instantly, for as long as you want to, storage space permitting. But computers can't make sense of data. They can cull the data that matches selection criteria, but that's all they can do.

Maybe that is the one thing we're forgetting about with the rise of the surveillance state. The federal government may be collecting vast amounts of data about us, our activities and our whereabouts to "prevent terrorism". But someone - perhaps a lonely investigator in a basement office of the FBI in Washington, DC, with a poster on the wall that says, "I WANT TO BELIEVE" - that someone has to read the data, interpret it and give it enough meaning to act on it.
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