Bank of America Online Banking is a complex tool, on a par with a piece of financial software that one can purchase such as Quicken. However, there is no guidebook available online on how to use it, nor are there tutorials that are created for anyone with more than a basic knowledge of the site.

With all of the investment that is being made into the promotional material on the site and the rather advertisement-oriented InfoCenter—which gives the sheen of presenting the entire story, and which is mostly redundant for many users—one can only conclude that the Bank of America, with its high reliance on penalty fees for its income (probably the first time in its history that it made such a large sum of money from the lower and lower-middle classes) is purposeful in this exclusion.

The software doesn’t do what it says it is doing. Granted, there can’t be an exact corollary between the information on the site and what is in the database on a moment-to-moment basis (quite often, oddly, the user is looking at info that customer service can’t see yet, which makes resolving issues in a timely manner impossible [endnote 29]), but the information that is available on the site should be consistent with itself—across several screens, such as the Accounts Details, Available Balance History and My Portfolio—and synthesized if the idea of “ease” is to be attached to online banking.

This product, which is a very inexact impression of the activity of your virtual purchases, never contradicts the impression that it provides an omniscient view of your transactions.

Worse, in times of heavy purchases—right after a paycheck, for example, when a number of checks will be sent out, and when a consumer is likely to be more lax in their “surplus” spending, and so might have a dinner out with a friend—the website is least accurate as to what you have spent. In fact, it seems to go into a hysterical, aphasic mode, in which all sorts of important details simply disappear until you have stopped any significant spending.

My analogy, here, is to a gunfight. When there are several participants involved, you are never sure of who has been struck, who is still standing, and who is aiming at whom. One waits until the “dust has settled” before venturing to walk the street. This is what happens during the most volatile moments of spending by the average consumer—a complete loss of orientation until all of the checks have come in, the holds settled, the signed debit purchases submitted. Despite information about all of these transactions being available to the site, they are never tallied against the “Available Balance” until the end.

Am I asking the website to see the future? Yes, in that the data concerning all of these transactions, along with the policies of when these transactions are debited from the account, are present in the database. All of these figures—what is outstanding of checks sent through Billy Pay (and written, if the site allows you to input it), holds, debit transactions and the order in which these debits will occur—are logged somewhere in the database of Bank of America, but it chooses to keep this information from you until it appears on the Accounts Details page.

Failures in web design and functionality of the Bank of America website cost modest-income consumers billions of dollars each year—that’s millions of consumers! Bank of America doesn’t demonstrate that they take this issue seriously enough when improvements to the site seem geared toward adding silly Flash tutorials, or geared toward richer people with a larger number of investments.

The expectation with online services today, as with most commercial computer applications, and especially among younger and “power” users, is comprehensive knowledge of what your interactions and their effects, that is, information that is accurate to the moment, and even—if its available—the future moment. If there is something in the database that can provide the user foresight, it should be readily available. Where the Bank of American website deviates from this—because of the insuperable limitations on the software—it should be clearly, and loudly, stated.

The BoA won’t do this because it will make its product—Bank of America Online Banking—appear flawed, and yet most products that can do harm to an individual based on their use or functionality—an insulin pump [endnote 30], cooking appliances, even (grudgingly) cigarettes—are not afraid to sound alarms for users (as opposed to placating them with testaments to their “ease” of use) even in the active moment of using them.

The expectations with online web services—especially with younger people with lots of computer experience—is a conglomeration of facts and numbers, and placing relevant facts in apposition to each other for easy “browsing,” if not deeper analysis.

This problem will be aggravated with mobile phone users unless it is emphasized that the website has more complete information (and it tells them where this information is). If the information is off, or incomplete, even by a small margin, it makes a great deal of trouble for those of us who, on a normal day, can make twenty or so transactions with a single debit card, the irony being that, when we have less, we are buying smaller things, raising the number of possible overdraft fees.

While some of the changes that have been made in the policies have been good for publicity, they don’t really help at all for those who are: poor and often operating with under $100 in the bank; not well-educated or able to deal with figures (and who should probably just stick to cash, though that is not an option); or those who work freelance and hence go boom-to-bust (especially, as in my case in this instance, right after Christmas), and are dealing with sending and receiving payments to companies that (for example) will never become part of the much-vaunted e-Bills system, which advertises an even speedier deduction from your account. It is these people who will pay the majority of the overdraft fees, not the rich who deposit and spend larger sums of money at a time and who won’t be bothered by a $35 fee.

The larger philosophical and economic conundrum—certainly transcending the present concern with the BoA website—is the blurring of the boundaries between a “credit” card and a “debit” card:

  • Why are users penalized for an overcharge on a debit card on a daily basis, whereas overdrafts on a credit card are not reflected until the end of the month?
  • Why does “overdraft protection” when it relies on a credit card operate along completely different rules than with a proper credit card?
  • Why does good behavior with a credit card reflect positively on a credit report—which, as I write earlier, is a supra-governmental measure of your relative worth within society, like a prison record—and yet good behavior with a debit card is not rewarded?
  • How are differences in these two relative fields of virtual transaction reflected in the rate of penalties—which suggests that mismanagement of a debit card is more harmful to a bank than mismanagement of a credit card?

Consumer debit cards and checking accounts are, in even the most superficial of analysis, far less of a danger to the operation of a bank than credit transactions—after all, the present recession was brought on by mismanagement of mortgages, a form of credit. It was also brought on by “predatory practices” in terms of acquiring new customers, but surely, given the amount of deception inherent in online banking advertisements—most peculiarly that of Bank of America—such predatory practices have migrated from the mail to the web screen, and from the deceptive practices of prose and graphics to the more compelling rhetoric of software, interactive demos, talking Flash ladies, and bogus search engines.

It must be made to clear to banks that online banking centers are, like all computer interfaces, a form of rhetoric. They provide arguments with the nuances of their graphics, the placement of their hyperlinks and the text used in them, the various Flash animations and help files and FAQs, as well as the entire impression a single page can give of providing a comprehensive, bird’s eye view of your account.

Online banking replaces the teller in our interactions with banks—that individual who could, like a doctor, be trusted to offer cautions should your bank account appear to be heading in the wrong direction, and from whom you could get immediate, humanly understandable answers.

If a teller, upon pulling up the information about your account, were aware of such matters as pending checks, holds and debit transactions that were signed rather than enacted with a PIN—all information that is present in the bank’s database—but failed to tell you about them when you were dealing with him or her, you would think it strange, if not outright deceptive. If a teller gave you three different figures that each reflected some view of your “available balance” but then asked you to take out a calculator right there in the bank to determine their relations to each other (and without providing you with a substantial description of what the figures meant), you would be baffled.

The one time my fee was waived, it was done so under the guise of “stuff happens”—as if, after a simple lesson, one would never make that mistake again. But I, personally, have made several different kinds of mistakes [endnote 31] with this website—rarely the same one twice—and they have cost me dearly. This isn’t due to the complexity of banking in general—in the days of cash and checks, one could not make so many virtual transactions in a day, and could not be misled by a complex screen of information—but to the failures, in conjunction with the ubiquity of debit card purchases, of Online Banking sites such as that of the Bank of America.

This post is a section of Bank of America Online Banking: A Critical Evaluation. This essay is also available as a book which can be downloaded for free at Lulu (where an inexpensive, not-priced-for-profit print edition can also be purchased) and at Scribd. The table of contents for the blog version of this essay can be seen in its entirety here.