John Pittman III gave up trying to cash a $12,000 insurance settlement check at the Bank of America in Pacific Beach early last year after a branch manager accused him of trying to steal the money and told him she had called the police.
“I’m thinking this would not have happened if I wasn’t a Black person,” said Pittman, who lives in downtown San Diego and is an attorney.
Black customers have long complained of being confronted with skepticism, hurdles and calls to police while seeking basic transactions from banks. Pittman and other Black people say the experiences have left them shaken and worried that if they advocate for themselves, their own safety is at risk.
Pittman went to the branch on Garnet Avenue and attempted to cash the $12,000 check made out to him in January 2020 from the insurance company GEICO following a car accident. The check was drawn from a Bank of America account and Pittman also showed the teller his paperwork from GEICO and three forms of identification — a driver’s license, passport and birth certificate.
He said the teller left the window and summoned the assistant manager. The assistant manager reviewed the documents and said she couldn’t cash it because his name on the check did not include the “III” suffix after his name, Pittman said. The suffix does appear on his various forms of identification and the Geico paperwork.
Pittman, who said he worked in the finance industry for 19 years as a loan processor and financial advisor, suggested a fix.
“Just call the insurance company, no big deal,” Pittman said he told the assistant branch manager. “They’ll verify the social security number and a birthday, which is on all my stuff anyway. And on the check, it actually said, ‘for vehicle repair.’ And she said, `no, no, no. We can’t. Even if we call to verify, we have no way to know that we verified.’”
But Pittman said she wouldn’t say why.
‘We’ve notified the authorities’
Frustrated, he said he called GEICO and put an insurance company representative on his cell phone speaker to speak with the assistant manager. But that only made her more suspicious, he said.
“She says, `well, I don’t know who you are. You could just be one of his friends,’” Pittman said.
At that point, Pittman says the GEICO employee, who was still on the speakerphone, urged the bank assistant manager to call the insurance company’s 800 number and ask for her by name. She pledged to fax or email anything the bank needed to confirm Pittman was who he said he was, Pittman said.
The assistant manager refused the GEICO representative’s suggestions and then left, saying she would speak to the bank’s branch manager, Pittman said. When she came back, she said she had called the police, he said.
“`We’ve notified the authorities,” Pittman said she told him. “So you’re trying to steal the money from the real John Pittman.”
Pittman said both he and the GEICO representative were shocked by the statement. Then the assistant manager went further, Pittman said.
“She picked up another phone,” Pittman said. “She starts talking, saying `oh, someone’s here trying to steal the money from someone.’”
Pittman said he was convinced he was being singled out because he was Black. “I just cannot see them calling the police on every person that they get a check from that doesn’t have junior or a third or whatever,” he said. “That just doesn’t make sense.”
Despite this realization, Pittman took the advice of the GEICO representative and left the bank rather than allow the situation to escalate. Pittman said he talked to the bank’s branch manager months later and was told the assistant manager never actually called the police, she was just pretending to.
A KPBS reporter visited the Bank of America in Pacific Beach and unsuccessfully attempted to interview both the branch manager and assistant manager. The reporter also contacted the GEICO representative who said she was not authorized to comment on the incident.
A Bank of America corporate spokesman confirmed that Pittman had attempted to cash the check, but said the police were never called. He went on to say that the branch manager and assistant manager followed proper procedure.
“Given the name on the check didn’t match the name on the identification and the individual wasn’t a Bank of America client, our team followed the bank’s policy and declined to cash the check during the individual’s visit in January 2020,” spokesman Bill Hallidin told KPBS. “This is standard industry practice, and it is based on best practices to protect against potential fraud.”
Regardless of what might be considered standard industry practice, advocates say accusing a Black customer of stealing without evidence and even pretending to call the police could be racist.
“It’s unfortunately not uncommon for us to hear stories of racialized and racist behavior in financial institutions,” said Hudson Munoz, a research analyst with the Committee for Better Banks. “It is a problem when the first response at any organization is to involve the police rather than to treat the customer as a truthful person, especially given the materials that this person had to back up the identity.”
Munoz said banks can improve how they treat customers by hiring and promoting people of color. A recent study by the Committee for Better Banks found that people of color do not get promoted as frequently as their white colleagues. Blacks, Latinos and Asians are more likely to hold entry-level jobs and remain stuck in those positions.
“Racial bias runs deep: combating bias and providing diverse opportunities requires expansive policies,” stated the report, titled “Advancing Racial Justice for Frontline Bank Workers.”
In 2019, the U.S. Department of Labor accused Bank of America of discriminating against Blacks, Latinos and women who applied for jobs like sales specialist and mortgage underwriters. The federal agency and the corporation entered into a conciliation agreement, which is a settlement between regulators and an entity accused of wrongdoing.
And the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found last year that banks gave Black women less information about loans than White and Hispanic women.
Ed Golding, executive director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Golub Center for Finance and Banking, said race isn’t the only issue in Pittman’s case. The size of the check and the fact that Pittman wasn’t a customer were also factors. But he said, they don’t excuse the assistant manager’s alleged actions.
Golding said cashing a check the size of Pittman’s, which was over $10,000, triggers more scrutiny.
“It’s just much easier to try to find either a polite or impolite or a way of saying, go away, we don’t want to serve you,” Golding said. “It seems like in the facts of this case, it was a very inappropriate way of saying `go away, we don’t want to serve you at all.’”
Pittman, ultimately cashed the check at his Texas-based credit union, a process that took about two weeks.
In May, a Bank of America representative reiterated to Pittman that the bank followed policy by not cashing his check and added: “We regret any inconvenience you may have encountered as a result of this matter and apologize for any service provided that did not meet your expectations.”
Pittman said he had hoped Bank of America would apologize for refusing to cash the check and calling police. He also asked for monetary damages, which the bank refused.
More than a year and a half later, he said he still feels demoralized.
“It makes you feel two inches tall,” Pittman said. “It makes you feel targeted. I didn’t stick around for the police to come. But I guess if I had stayed there or the police would have shown up, the situation could have gotten ugly, you know.”
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