Banking While Black at TCF Bank

Sauntore Thomas probably felt pretty good about the fact that he, with the representation of his lawyer, employment law attorney Deborah Gordon, settled his employment discrimination suit against Enterprise Leasing Company. No, he didn’t hit the lottery, but he had three checks in hand when he walked into TCF Bank.

Thomas presented three checks written from Enterprise that day: One for $59,000. One for $27,000. And one for $13,000.

He wanted to deposit the first two and cash the third.*

“They couldn’t verify that those checks were due to a settlement,” said [TCF Bank spokesperson Tom] Wennerberg, adding the bank contacted Enterprise to verify that the checks were part of a lawsuit, but were unable to do so.

Wennerberg said the assistant manager who waited on Thomas was African American, and felt that something didn’t “look right,” so she called police.

It would be one thing if the bank informed Thomas that they couldn’t cash the check until it cleared, but since when does a bank have to “verify” anything before accepting a check for deposit? What business is it of the bank’s where or how Thomas got the check? And while they couldn’t reach Enterprise, they could reach Gordon, who confirmed that these were legit checks from a settlement. But then, how could they be sure it was Gordon they reached? How could they be sure Gordon was telling the truth?

The answer, of course, is who cares? It’s a bank. When someone presents a check for deposit, you take it, do your voodoo, and wish them a nice day. If it’s not a legitimate check, it will be refused by the issuing bank, the money will not be credited and, in the event there is any potential that a crime has been committed, the police get called. But then, and only then.

But, you say, the bank employee who “felt that something didn’t ‘look right,’ so she called police,” was also African American, so how could it be because Thomas was black? People are still people, regardless of their skin color, and black people, particularly those in officious positions like bank employees (not to mention cops) often assume the worst prejudices, even against their own.

Yet, how does a check not “look right”? TCF came up with a story.

TCF Bank spokesman Tom Wennerberg said Thursday that TCF abhors racism and it was not a factor in how the bank handled Thomas’ requests. He said the checks Thomas presented displayed a watermark that read VOID when they were scanned in a web viewer.

That’s a very specific allegation. The only way a watermark reads “VOID” is if the check was created to do so, which can happen when a check is used as an exemplar, for example. But regular checks have regular watermarks, even if they’re stolen, scammed or used by dishonest people to steal money. None of this causes a watermark to magically transform from normal to “VOID.” But then came the coup de grâce.

Within an hour, he deposited the checks into a new account at a Chase bank in Detroit. They cleared within 12 hours. Thomas, who had no car and walked to work, used the money to buy a 2004 Dodge Durango.

Watermarks don’t magically change from “VOID” to “deposit me, I’m good.” As it happens, the problem wasn’t merely that TCF Bank refused to deposit the checks into Thomas’ account, as if that wasn’t bad enough.

[Assistant Branch Manager Erika] Mack immediately appeared suspicious, explained the checks would need to be “verified” but that the bank’s computerized “verification system” was not working that day. Because of this malfunction, Mack said she would have to call in the checks to complete the transaction. She then walked away to a back area to “call in the checks,” but before leaving, she asked Thomas: “How did you get this money?”

Thomas answered the money was from a lawsuit settlement.

Is a bank depositor under some sort of duty to explain the source of funds? But Ericka Mack decided that Thomas had to explain it to her, not that it mattered as she was already certain this was fraud.

After a few minutes, Mack returned and stated that the person who verifies checks “was not around.” Thomas said he’d wait until that person showed up.

Turned out, the assistant bank manager was not going to-and-from a back area to complete Thomas’ transaction, but rather had called the Livonia Police and reported that Thomas was trying to deposit fraudulent checks.

Within 10 minutes, two Livonia Police officers arrived inside the lobby; two others remained outside the doors.

Mack was going to be a hero, calling the cops on this guy who she decided was engaged in fraud because he had three big checks and, let’s face it, he’s black, so what are the chances?

To their credit, the Livonia police didn’t arrest, beat or kill Thomas or his dog (there’s no mention of his having a dog, but there’s no mention that he doesn’t either). Then again, Thomas, skin color aside, seems to be a pretty regular person entitled to be treated like anyone else.

“I didn’t deserve treatment like that when I knew that the check was not fraudulent,” Thomas told the Free Press. “I’m a United States veteran. I have an honorable discharge from the Air Force. They discriminated against me because I’m black. None of this would have happened if I were white.”

It might have happened had he been white, smelled like urine and lived in a  cardboard box, so it may be possible that it would have happened if he were white, plus other indicia of a problem. But even if it can’t be excluded that it would have happened under other circumstances, that doesn’t change the fact that there was no rational justification for taking issue, no less refusing, with the deposit of checks. That’s what banks do, except when it’s Ericka Mack of Livonia TCF bank and the checks are big and the depositor, the bank’s customer, is black.

*The norm, at least in my experience, is that the settlement check(s) would be payable to the attorney and client, sent to the attorney and cleared through the attorney’s escrow account. The attorney would then write a check to the client for his share, less the legal fees and expenses. This might not be the norm elsewhere, and regardless, so what?

33 thoughts on “Banking While Black at TCF Bank

  1. Turk

    since when does a bank have to “verify” anything before accepting a check for deposit?

    I’ve been called many times by banks for decent-sized settlement check as they seek to confirm legitimacy for unusual activity. I warn clients in advance it will happen and not to be offended, and that they should be ready to give the banker my number.

    It’s the second part of the story, the calling the cops part, that is Bizzarro World.

    1. SHG Post author

      That it may happen isn’t the same question as whether there is any justification for it happening. Focus.

    2. Miles

      Banks do lots of things to protect themselves, even when there’s no legal basis for them to refuse to deposit their customer’s check or refuse to allow customers to withdraw large sums of their own money at will. We often do so because it’s easier and quicker than fighting banks, since the point is to get it done rather than be right. But that’s not what you seem to be saying. You seem to be completely fine with it.

      That lawyers like you justify banks telling their customers to bend over and take it up the ass might not be the sort of think you want to promote about yourself. You might do well to think a lot harder before announcing that you’re the lawyer who has no issue with clients taking it up the ass. It does not enhance your stature.

      1. SHG Post author

        Can we not go down this rabbit hole? I trashed Turk’s reply to salvage his dignity, and have no intention of allowing this orthogonal nonsense to hijack this post. Enough.

        1. David

          A little late to climb out of the rabbit hole, considering that Turk (yes, I know he’s your buddy) has already dismissed any racism from the routine deposit of checks. His experience isn’t mine (and apparently not Deb Gordon’s, either), but once you posted his comment, you opened the door.

          It’s unfortunate that Turk would feel compelled to offer his personal experiences without thinking that he might not be the center of the universe, but Turk didn’t make you post it. That’s on you.

  2. Hunting Guy

    Daniel Kahneman.

    “Banks are run by executives, and executives protect themselves, and that does not always mean that banks are going to behave rationally.”

  3. Ben Robinson

    The “VOID” watermark is a common security feature. It’s designed to be visible if the check is scanned or photocopied, so the payee won’t be able to pass a copy off as a live check. So I don’t believe that the TCF employee was outright lying when he said that “VOID” appeared in their scan of the check.

    But it’s a common enough security feature that this can’t have been the first time their scanner revealed an anti-copying watermark, so it’s no excuse to accuse the customer of a crime.

    1. N. Freed

      Given the choice between malice and incompetence, I’m opting for the latter,

      Back when I was doing the small business thing I routinely had to cash checks from all over the world. Having encountered responses from tellers like, “Turkey isn’t a country so the check has to be fake”, I really don’t have a problem believing that in the hour or so of training these folks get they managed to confuse two different anti-tampering features (one protecting against photocopying, the other protecting against alterations).

      As for experience being a factor, for all we know the last “VOID” this teller saw was one that popped up when somebody tried to scrape the name off and replace it.

      That said, the subsequent actions may well have been racially motivated.

      And with this guy’s luck I’m surprised he didn’t get his cash confiscated as likely drug money after leaving his new bank on his way to buy the Dodge Durango.

        1. MelK

          It’s the “pin a badge on a gorilla” joke, done up in a white collar.

          Giving a teller a fancy title and a greater range of responsibility does not also impart wisdom. More’s the pity.

  4. Guitardave

    She was just trying to help a brother out.
    It turns out that she had recently read some lawyers blog about carrying large amounts of cash, and thought she could help prevent Mr. Thomas from becoming a CCC (cash carrying criminal).

  5. Miles

    Sorry if I made the rabbit hole a little bigger. Maybe this will help to close it. While the bank’s excuse was that checks didn’t “look right,” what they didn’t argue, at all, is that they routinely verified checks over a certain amount. Had that been the case, they presumably would have said so. They didn’t. It ain’t.

  6. Bob

    It would be one thing if the bank informed Thomas that they couldn’t cash the check until it cleared, but since when does a bank have to “verify” anything before accepting a check for deposit? What business is it of the bank’s where or how Thomas got the check?

    Because they were trying to cash the check for him, not deposit it. Right? He asked for an accommodation and they wanted to give it to him. If we can verify the check, we’ll give you the money now. In my experience banks will routinely at least consider cashing checks for customers. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to how they decide to do it, and maybe there’s bias in who gets the accommodation and who doesn’t—but what happened here? They at least tried to accommodate this guy’s request to cash a large check, despite him being black.

    But when they tried to verify the checks, Enterprise couldn’t. That’s suspicious. Isn’t it? Again, I don’t know about calling the cops on the guy, but this is more routine and more gray than you’re painting it.

    1. SHG Post author

      No. He wasn’t trying to cash them, but to deposit (see that word in the quote?) them and withdraw some cash. Before you go on at length, read harder first.

      1. Bob

        Your own summary says he wanted “to deposit the first two and cash the third.” And I appreciate splitting hairs as much as the next guy, but is there some material difference between “cashing” a check and depositing it and allowing the customer to withdraw the money before the check clears?

        Also, now that I think about it, banks aren’t always allowed to put holds on checks. There’re elaborate regulations governing when they have to release money. From a cursory search it appears the bank would have had to release $100 the next day. 12 CFR § 229.10(c)(vii). So, unless I’m mistaken, the bank had some skin in the game here.

        1. SHG Post author

          Had he deposited a check for $100, withdrawn $100 on the next business day, there would have been no question about accepting his deposit, paying out the withdrawal and, if the check was fraudulent, being out the same $100. That’s the cost of being a bank for every customer. It changes nothing and doesn’t give the bank any special skin in the game this time that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

  7. Jason

    Few key things:

    A fraudulent check doesn’t necessarily get detected when it’s presented for payment at the other bank. It’s not until the payor notices it. It could be right away, or not until they reconcile a bank statement.

    The bank never finds out when a check clears, just when it doesn’t. The post indicates that at the other bank the check cleared in 12 hours. But the source article said that is when it was made available and there is a difference.

    A bank should ask questions in this case. And it’s not just for them. The customer isn’t well known and doesn’t use the account. Plus, it was unusual for an operating company to cut this check (and no the attorney) . The customer could be getting scammed (this is often the case) and if the check gets returned after they spent the money (the customer is liable. In many cases the customer then sends money back to the scammer. What’s interesting, is that if that was the case here, media outlets would run stories about the big bad bank coming after the customer when they would have done more to verify the check.

    They had every reason to ask questions, and explain what they are trying to do. Calling the cops was the over the top.

    1. SHG Post author

      So you prefer excuses for banks refusing to deposit a check or accept the representation of his attorney that it’s legitimate than to refuse a deposit from a black guy, which the next bank happily accepted, not because claimed it was protecting him from potential scammers but because the check looked funny and the watermark said “void.” Banks thank you for your defense.

      Since you’re unknown here, are you a lawyer, a banker or is this what you learned on reddit?

      1. David

        Definitely banker. Pure apologist nonsense. “We’re refusing to accept our own [black] customer’s check for his own protection,” as if there was something else he could do with his legitimate check that didn’t pass muster with some assistant bank manager, the unquestionable arbiter of all check legitimacy, after which they make up lies and call the cops.

        1. SHG Post author

          Kinda surprised they didn’t destroy the check for his own protection, but then the cops would have no evidence of *his* (not someone else’s) fraudulent efforts.

        2. Jason

          Hi David,

          They acted poorly for sure. I am not defending them, in total. But rather taking issue with a few things, such as the bank shouldn’t make an effort to ascertain the legitimacy of the check in the case. They should. But once they talked to the attorney they should have accepted it , while holding it if they want.

      2. Jason

        I am a Commercial Lender. Earlier in my career I was in branch management. I agree with you, they should have deposited it especially after speaking to the attorney, even if they wanted to hold it.

        I was just taking issue with a couple things, especially about a bank just taking any and all checks without ever asking questions. And how fraudulent checks can work and the check clearing thing

        1. SHG Post author

          We all understand how the Nigerian 419 scam works. We’re criminal lawyers. As for clearing times, that’s a sore point, given banks supporting Check 21 and the elimination of physical clearing of paper checks, but banks saved a fortune and exposed their customers (and themselves) to problems that didn’t previously exist. That, however, doesn’t create a right for banks to refuse to deposit checks. It’s a conundrum of the banks’ own making.

          1. Jason

            I didn’t mention check clearing times whatsoever. Just that a bank never knows when a check actually clears. And the other bank made the funds available not that the check cleared, like you said. It’s not just the check scam you spoke of. But that is a reason to ask questions to the customer. It could be anything, and it could be a while before it’s uncovered. They don’t have a right to refuse checks but they have a right, and should ask questions.

          2. Charles

            “We’re criminal lawyers.”

            This is why we have to Gertrude our comments. Can’t be associated with a criminal lawyer.

  8. Brady Curry

    There’s no mention in the link that the checks were, or were not, of the “cashier’s” variety. If not, wouldn’t it have been a simple request to ask Enterprise to make all three “cashier’s” checks even if the associated fee’s were deducted from the settlement funds?

    1. SHG Post author

      It would be simple, if he had a time machine. Settlements aren’t normally paid by cashiers checks. There was no reason to anticipate this happening in advance, so they followed the usual procedure.

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