I’m currently reading (well, listening to) Super Freakonomics, the Gladwellian sequel to Freakonomics. It’s full of dinner conversation-friendly factoids like “more US military personnel died in the 1980s than in the 2000s”.
The authors discuss whether the same algorithms that banks use to find fraudsters could be used to uncover terrorists. They provide this profile of the 19 terrorists who participated in the September 11 attacks. To paraphrase the terrorists’ characteristics slightly:
- Some of them regularly sent and received wire transfers to and from other countries.
- They tended to make one large deposit and then withdrew cash in small amounts over time.
- They typically used a P.O. box as an address, and the addresses changed frequently.
- Their banking didn’t reflect normal living expenses like rent, utilities, auto payments, insurance and so on.
- There was no typical monthly consistency in the timing of their deposits or withdrawals.
- They didn’t use savings accounts or safe-deposit boxes.
- The ratio of cash withdrawals to cheques written was unusually high.
Hmm…that feels a little too familiar.
Just last night, after buying some flights from a major airline, I received an automated call from the Royal Bank. I use a voice-to-text voicemail service, so here’s the transcript:
This call is for Darren Barefoot from the Royal Bank Security Department. In order to prevent possible difficulties using your card, it is important that you call us back immediately toll-free at 800-711-9946 to verify activity. You may call us back 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is important we speak with you. The number again is 800-711-9946. Thank you for choosing Royal Bank. Goodbye.
Side note: That’s one computer talking to another computer. The latter computer transcribed the call perfectly, including my name. Impressive, yet slightly creepy.
Not for the first time, I had to call the bank to confirm that I had, in fact, bought something online. On other occasions, I’ve had my bank card summarily deactivated by the bank, and been forced to go get a new card.
The bank, of course, claims that it’s entirely for my protection. I suspect that their actions are, in fact, much more in their own interests, and they’re happy to inconvenience me when an algorithm tells them to.
I appreciate that this is a very first world problem, but at least now I have a possible explanation: the Royal Bank thinks I’m a terrorist.