Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Big banks, the IRS and training porpoises

Nothing gets my dander up more than dealing with the minutiae and incompetence of big banks and big government. Just being one of the little people that make up this very large country, I only have to wade through a smallish amount of red tape each year.

That said, I recently received a notice from my ginormous bank ordering me to expeditiously fill out a form – a request for my Taxpayer Identification Number and Certification – that was needed by the IRS. I’ve had several accounts with the bank for years and been filing taxes for decades. So what’s changed and why the urgency?

The IRS form, btw, is indecipherable. I imagine there are accountants and tax attorneys who can make sense of the rules, regulations, penalties and instructions detailed in 8 point type. But it mostly reads like gibberish to me.

When in doubt, I always like to be able to sit with a real, live, breathing bureaucrat who can explain what’s needed. So last Friday I dropped by a local branch of the ginormous bank and met with an assistant manager. She glanced at the form, checked my account in her computer, then scratched her noggin in puzzlement.

She said my Taxpayer Identification Number was already included in my account information. She suggested I go ahead and fill out the form or call the bank’s toll free number and provide the information again.

That’s what I just attempted to do, after working my way through a 10-minute phone tree that left me stumped and confused. The robot at the other end wanted an account number that I attempted to input on my phone. Something was amiss and the metallic voice repeated its request again, then yet again. Finally, it suggested that perhaps I might want to talk with a bank representative – please say “yes” if that’s the case.

A moment later I was talking to Maggie in Mumbai. She greeted me with great enthusiasm, then announced that our conversation might be monitored for quality control and training porpoises. I immediately had this image in my mind of Maggie in full SCUBA gear, holding tightly to a floating desk off the coast of India.

Despite her willingness to help, Maggie’s advice was all wet. She didn’t quite understand what sort of form I was struggling with and didn’t seem to know much about U.S. taxes and identification numbers.

The good news is she was able to help me figure out the account number the robotic voice was in search of earlier. We said our goodbyes and I tried the automated system once again. This time the metallic voice allowed me to enter his home turf, asked a few questions about my account and then announced that my Taxpayer Identification Number and Certification was accepted – that I was now a good and loyal citizen.

The robot also added that if I had provided false information I was subject to hefty fines, years in jail and deportation to Mumbai where, I assumed, I would hook up with Maggie for training porpoises.

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