21 January 2012

Why Can't More People Just Take Debit Cards?

I got in the habit of using money orders to pay for important things after one of my checks bounced thanks to some bad timing that left me about 5 bucks short. It was a rent check, and while I don't believe it's left me on bad terms with the complex, I've just stuck to using money orders. Yeah, they're not quite as convenient as checks, and there's those little fees that they come attached with, but I only write twelve checks a year (guess what they're for) and rarely more. Plus, I don't have the situation I had before where someone doesn't cash a check right away (or sooner than I expect them to) and I'm slapped with a returned check fee.

Just recently, however, the yang to the yin of money orders has surfaced, and it all started with a movie called The Darkest Hour. Short review of the film: An intriguing premise and promising start gets marred by an almost unwatchable follow-through heralded by a man in a chainmail vest made from house keys on horseback. I bring this movie up because on my first trip to see the movie, I got pulled over on account of my license plate having expired the previous month. Things would have been left at that (as I said in detail on my DeviantART journal), except that I'd also forgotten to change out my insurance card, which expired, I kid you not, less than a week earlier. I was running late as was, and getting pulled over meant I would basically have to wait another day to see the film.

My court date was set to this week in the middle of the afternoon, which meant I had to take a half-day at work, which I hated doing just because it's apparently not enough to mail in a copy of my insurance card to dispute the second ticket. I stopped by my bank and took out two money orders. The reason for this is that, while the cop couldn't answer my questions about appealing the tickets, someone at the courthouse whom I spoke to by phone (to confirm whether or not I actually needed to come in or if this could be handled by more convenient means) told me that if I got my license plate updated within 30 days of the ticket, I could get the fine reduced to 55USD (down from 85). I was weary of this too-good-to-be-true info, so as a precaution, I got one order for 55 and one for 30, so I could just hand in both if they couldn't reduce the fine. If 55 was indeed the real fine, I'd just save the 30 for something else, namely combining it with another money order for my next month's rent.

Admittedly, this sounds tedious and complex, and it gets a little bit worse.

Despite stopping at my bank, I ended up at the courthouse about a good two hours earlier than I was set to, but thanks to a prosecutor and police officer not showing up on time, I got bumped up and got to hand over my paperwork within about 20 minutes of arriving. I handed them the insurance card, getting that ticket waived outright, and surprisingly they took my word on getting my license plate updated (I had a receipt in a folder, which I guess the judge spied as I was fishing for my other documents), but instead of reducing the fine to 55 (as I'd been told), it was reduced to 40.

Backing up a bit, while waiting, I'd filled out the money order for 55, complete with naming the payee.

I explained to the clerk sitting at the judge's side that I was told 55 when I'd called in earlier. The judge gave a puzzled look and the clerk said, "Um... this is a better deal." as if I was eager to pay more. I showed them the money order I'd already filled out, and the two of them traded (ironically) guilty looks and tried to work out if they could refund me the difference. In the end, they decided to just extend my payment deadline to 30 days so I could return the money order and get the proper amount. This all seemed well and good, until I actually started the process of getting the money order refunded.

I called my bank, who told me that any issue with refunds had to be handled with the issuer directly, which struck me as a bit of a bad sign. I called the 800 number on the back of the slip and learned that it can take at least 30 day to process a refund. Well, that was cutting it a bit close for my taste, so I had an idea: get another money order for 10USD and just mail that one along with the one for 30 into the court's office. That way, the refund on the one for 55 can take its sweet time and I don't have to worry about late fees or possible warrants. I got the other money order (along with one for my next month's rent, much to the bemusement of the bank teller, to whom I explained that the people I was sending money to didn't take checks), set them aside, and got to work refunding the 55.

It turns out that in addition to the 30 days, the issuer requires a 15 dollar processing fee.

Seriously? I could see 3 or 5, but 15 is just absurd, and I told them as much in a complaint e-mail. I think I'll wait to see what they have to say to that before I actually fill it out.

What's more, the return form I have to fill out to get my reduced-refund is rather vaguely worded about whether or not they'll deduct it from the refund amount or if I need to (ironically) write them a check. Also, I've somehow lost the little stub that attaches to the money order, albeit I've got the money order proper. The return form seems very insistent on having the stub. It's understandable seeing as how this form is meant for "lost or stolen" orders. Then again, the automated message at the 800 number mentioned "damaged" and there's even a small section on their website's FAQ about "wrong amounts" which all just refer me to the refund slip.

So, it's going to cost 15 dollars because I took a court clerk's word for something costing 55 dollars when in reality it turned out to be 40. The funny thing is, the court mentioned that the deduction was 25%, which even led the judge to give a questioning look to the clerk when she mentioned 40 seeing as how the math didn't work out. She explained that the original 85 is actually two fees combined, so the discount is applied to the different parts. I'd ask why one crime carries two fees if they're summed up into one on the ticket, but I just don't care anymore.

The moral of the story is, even if you don't write that many checks, order some anyway.
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