Stu Bykofsky: Change we can believe in ... not

Stephen Starkey displays the jar of change he was about to take into the TD Bank behind him in Folsom. It was miscounted, in his favor.

BETWEEN THE negligible interest they pay us and the bonanza bonuses they pay themselves, we have reason to hate big banks.

Here's one more: One of them may be shorting you on the free coin-counting service it offers.

Stephen Starkey, a 55-year-old painting contractor, told me that it happened to him - twice - in the Aston branch of TD Bank. The first time, last year, it was only a suspicion. Last Jan. 19 it became a certainty because Starkey patiently counted $286 in coins before running them through the coin counter. He got a receipt for $241.

He complained to a TD Bank staffer, who opened the machine.

"He found screws, lint, novelty coins in there, cleaned it out," Starkey said, then poured in a test roll of quarters, which the machine counted accurately. The staffer smugly told Starkey he was wrong. Words were exchanged.

Unimpressed by the brief test, Starkey reached out to the Daily News.

"If the Aston employees hadn't have provoked me I would have let it go," he told me, adding that he knows others who say that they've been shorted.

Let's go undercover!


The next morning I took a cache of change to the TD Bank at 15th and JFK and ran the coins through the "Penny Arcade," which is what they call the coin counter. I was shorted. Coincidence?

The night before I counted out $60.50 - $50 in quarters, $5 in dimes, $4 in nickels, $1.50 in pennies. My receipt credited me with $59.76 - three quarters less than I counted and one penny more. Not a big difference, but short nonetheless.

My receipt showed the time as 5:59:34, but I got there at 8:24 a.m., so the internal clock's wrong, too.

The man before me, wearing a vendor apron, had a canvas change bag about the size of a pineapple. He dumped his change in, the Penny Arcade whirred, counted, then stopped, showing $158 and change. The vendor said, "I had a lot more than that" and called over a staffer. She hit a button, the machine whirred some more, then coughed up a receipt for $223 and change. (Customers take the receipts to tellers who exchange them for cash.)

Before your coins are deposited, the Penny Arcade asks if you want to play a game: If you guess the amount of your change within $1.99, you win a prize. I "guessed" $60.50, the amount I counted.

When my receipt showed $59.76, the staffer smiled and congratulated me on my guess. I confessed it wasn't a guess at all and asked her to explain the shortage. She said I might have counted wrong, "or the computer may be off."

As if I need another reason to distrust computers.

She said that if I told the teller the correct amount, I'd be given it. That's what happened, no questions asked - except by me, asking the teller if this happens often. "Not very often," she said. But she didn't say "never."

The same morning I was in Center City, Starkey hit TD branches in in Brookhaven, where he was shorted 57 cents, and Folsom, where he got 37 cents too much.

"I didn't start this as a jihad to regulate the coin machine at all the banks," Starkey said. "It began to occur to me that when the machines are free of lint, debris, screws and stuff, they work fairly well."

I wondered what TD Bank thinks.

The shortages were news to spokeswoman Rebecca Acevedo.

"This is first I've heard of this," she said. "We've never had any trouble before."

She did some checking and got back to me.

The Penny Arcade can count 3,500 coins a minute, swallowing everything except Eisenhower silver dollars. It is supposed to be cleaned and tested at least three times a day and the vendor performs preventive maintenance twice a year. When the machine is cleaned and maintained properly, Acevedo said it is 99.9 percent accurate.

If there's a complaint, managers can credit a customer "up to a certain dollar amount," which she declined to reveal.

It seemed like a fair explanation, although I question the 99.9 percent accuracy rate.

The fact that TD Bank is willing to trust the customer, at least in small amounts, is nice - but customers would know they were shorted only if they counted their change before running it through the Penny Arcade.

But don't we use the machines so we won't have to count our messy change?

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