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Zero Dollars and Zero Sense


Claim:   Man battles $0.00 charge that won't go away.

LEGEND

Examples:

[Collected via e-mail, 1998]

In March 1992 a man living in Newtown near Boston Massachusetts received a bill for his as yet unused credit card stating that he owed $0.00.

He ignored it and threw it away.

In April he received another and threw that one away too.

The following month the credit card company sent him a very nasty note stating they were going to cancel his card if he didn't send them $0.00 by return of post. He called them, talked to them, they said it was a computer error and told him they'd take care of it.

The following month our hero decided that it was about time that he tried out the troublesome credit card figuring that if there were purchases on his account it would put an end to his ridiculous predicament. However, in the first store that he produced his credit card in payment for his purchases he found that his card had been cancelled. He called the credit card company who apologized for the computer error once again and said that they would take care of it. The next day he got a bill for $0.00 stating that payment was now overdue.

Assuming that having spoken to the credit card company only the previous day the latest bill was yet another mistake he ignored it, trusting that the company would be as good as their word and sort the problem out.

The next month he got a bill for $0.00 stating that he had 10 days to pay his account or the company would have to take steps to recover the debt.

Finally giving in he thought he would play the company at their own game and mailed them a check for $0.00. The computer duly processed his account and returned a statement to the effect that he now owed the credit card company nothing at all.

A week later, the man's bank called him asking him what he was doing writing a check for $0.00. After a lengthy explanation the bank replied that the $0.00 check had caused their check processing software to fail. The bank could not now process ANY checks from ANY of their customers that day because the check for $0.00 was causing the computer to crash.

The following month the man received a letter from the credit card company claiming that his check had bounced and that he now owed them $0.00 and unless he sent a check by return of post they would be taking steps to recover the debt.

The man, who had been considering buying his wife a computer for her birthday, bought her a typewriter instead.
 
[Collected via e-mail, 1998]

What a world? (country NSW... (New South Wales.. Australia))... On Thursday, 24 January 2002, Derek Guille broadcast this story on his afternoon program on ABC radio.

In March, 1999, a man living in Kandos (near Mudgee in NSW received a bill for his as yet unused gas line stating that he owed $0.00. He ignored it and threw it away.

In April he received another bill and threw that one away too.

The following month the gas company sent him a very nasty note stating they were going to cancel his gas line if he didn't send them $0.00 by return mail.

He called them, talked to them, and they said it was a computer error and they would take care of it.

The following month he decided that it was about time that he tried out the troublesome gas line figuring that if there was usage on the account it would put an end to this ridiculous predicament.

However, when he went to use the gas, it had been cut off.

He called the gas company who apologised for the computer error once again and said that they would take care of it.

The next day he got a bill for $0.00 stating that payment was now overdue.

Assuming that having spoken to them the previous day the latest bill was yet another mistake, so he ignored it, trusting that the company would be as good as their word and sort the problem out.

The next month he got a bill for $0.00. This bill also stated that he had 10 days to pay his account or the company would have to take steps to recover the debt.

Finally, giving in, he thought he would beat the company at their own game and mailed them a cheque [check] for $0.00.

The computer duly processed his account and returned a statement to the effect that he now owed the gas company nothing at all.

A week later, the manager of the Mudgee branch of the Westpac Banking Corporation called our hapless friend and asked him what he was doing writing cheque for $0.00.

After a lengthy explanation the bank manager replied that the $0.00 cheque had caused their cheque processing software to fail.

The bank could therefore not process ANY cheques they had received from ANY of their customers that day because the cheque for $0.00 had caused the computer to crash.

The following month the man received a letter from the gas company claiming that his cheque has bounced and that he now owed them $0.00 and unless he sent a cheque by return mail they would take immediate steps to recover the debt.

At this point, the man decided to file a debt harassment claim against the gas company.

It took him nearly 2 hours to convince the clerks at the local courthouse that he was not joking.

They subsequently assisted him in the drafting of statements which were considered substantive evidence of the aggravation and difficulties he had been forced to endure during this debacle.


The matter was heard in the Magistrate's Court in Mudgee and the outcome was this: The gas company was ordered to:

[1] Immediately rectify their computerised accounts system or show cause, within 10 days, why the matter should not be referred to a higher court for consideration under Company Law.

[2] Pay the bank dishonour fees incurred by the man.

[3] Pay the bank dishonour fees incurred by all the Westpac clients whose cheques had been bounced on the day our friend's had been.

[4] Pay the claimant's court costs; and

[5] Pay the claimant a total of $1500 per month for the 5 month period March to July inclusive as compensation for the aggravation they had caused their client to suffer.

And all this over $0.00. This story can also be viewed on the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) website. Who employed these idiots??
 

Origins:   This wacky tale of billing technology gone horribly wrong first appeared on the Internet in July 1997. It's pointless to ask if this e-mailed tale is a true story because not enough details were provided in the text to give anyone much hope of tracking this specific version to a source. We're told this happened in 1992 to a man in Newtown, Massachussetts, but there is no such town. (There is a Newton, however, in that area.) Neither the man nor the credit card company are named, adding to the difficulties of finding out if the particulars of this story are
real.

Later versions of the same e-mail omitted the name of the town and altered the text to "A man living near Boston ..." Even later versions re-inserted the name of the town, this time changing it to Newton. In 2003 it reappeared as a tale about a man living in Australia.

It's best we forget about trying to find this mystery man and instead look at the story. There's nothing implausible about receiving a zero-sum statement; people get them all the time. What elevates this particular cyber-version into the realm of legend are the additional details tacked on after that event. This story works as an engaging piece of fiction because of the mounting sense of frustration the victim endures as the people he turns to for help prove incapable of undoing what a machine has done. He finally (he thinks) figures a way to beat the machine at its own game by sending a $0.00 check to pay the $0.00 bill, but in doing so causes his bank's computer to hit the bricks and his check to bounce, prompting yet another dunning notice from the credit card company.

It's great tale, but it's probably not a real one: It's unlikely that a zero-dollar check could or did cause a financial institution's computers to crash. If that were all it took, people looking for a few extra days before checks they'd written cleared their accounts (or pranksters merely seeking to wreak industrial havoc) would have routinely deposited zero-dollar checks in order to bring banking systems to their knees.

Variations on this story have been around for years. This one comes from a 1970 joke book:
Winning a battle with a computer system is getting to be more fun than sneaking into the subway through an exit gate used to be when we were kids. Let's give a great big hand to latest winner Jerome T. Parker. Mr. Parker, for reasons unknown to him, received a bill from an oil company for several consecutive months for $0.00. He laughingly showed the bills to friends and waited for the bills to stop coming. When he got one marked "Final Notice," however, plus a threat to turn the account over to a notoriously tough collection agency, he wrote out a check for no dollars and no cents, signed his name thereto, and mailed it to the oil company with a note saying, "This pays my account in full."

Damned if he didn't get a form letter in return thanking him for his patronage.
The reason for this tale's growing popularity of late may well have been captured in the first line of that 1970 example: "Winning a battle with a computer system." As computers come to play ever-increasing roles in our lives, so grows our resentment of them. We fear the thought of someday falling at their mercy, and the $0.00 story expresses this anxiety. In this Kafka-esque tale, the hero is unable to get any of the humans he speaks with to unravel the mess and ultimately has to resort to playing the computer's game to beat it. Chilling thought, that, and we fear that is indeed the way our world is going.

In August 1999, Ann Landers ran the following letter from a reader:
DEAR ANN LANDERS: When I read your column about outrageous billing statements, I decided to send you my story. When I was in college, I took out guaranteed student loans. After graduation, while still repaying the loans, I was informed that they had defaulted and had been turned over to the state collection agency. I had no idea why.

It took seven years of letter writing, hiring a lawyer and appealing to my congressperson to straighten out the mess. It turned out that my file at the bank had fallen behind a filing cabinet. Can you believe it? It actually happened. I am not making this up. The U.S. Department of Education dropped all penalty charges, and I paid off the balance in full. End of story, right? Wrong. Keep reading.

After the loan was cleared up, I began to receive billing letters from the Department of Education. What was so funny, was that the bills reported no balance due — no principal, penalties or interest. But the letters began none too cordially with, "Warning-Warning-Warning! Your scheduled payment is seriously overdue!" The letters contained several threats about the consequences if I didn't pay off my zero balance immediately. Go figure. I received no fewer than 11 of these threatening letters, and wouldn't be surprised if there are more in the pipeline.
In October 1999 another of Ann's reader's came forward to tell her $0.00 tale:
Dear Ann: I just read the letter from C.M. in Milpitas, Calif., who said the Department of Education lost her file and kept billing her for her student loan. After the mess was finally straightened out, she received bills demanding she pay a balance of $0. That's right — zero dollars.

This happened to me as well. A financial-aid adviser told me that the quickest way to solve the problem was to ''pay'' the bill, so I wrote a cheque for $0. This is the only to stop the computer from sending statement letters. Calling customer services is useless because they don't always communicate with the billing departments. Since I sent that cheque, I have not been bothered. But get this — the billing department actually tried to cash it.
Can $0.00 billings occur? Ask a bookkeeper who has dealt with a computerized receivables system that generates finance charges but does not round off the amounts. In a situation where an overdue account has attracted a finance charge, such bills can occur when the customer pays his bill. As far as the computer is concerned, a debt of < 1¢ still exists, so the program sends this information to the printer at statement printing time. However, because the program has also been coded not to print fractional cent amounts, it spits out a $0.00 statement. (The same reasoning applies to one person's online explanation of why Yahoo! sent him a payment check for $0.00.)

In the now-vanished world where competent bookkeepers oversaw the receivables process, such oddities were caught before they were mailed out, and a reversing entry to cancel the fractional finance charge was entered to soothe the electronic beast. In the modern world, statements are all too often automatically stuffed into window envelopes (by yet more machines!), franked, and mailed, and accounting personnel think a reversing entry is something one performs to back into a parking space.

One would hope that when matters reach the "telephone for help" stage they get straightened out, but then I still believe in the myth of the competent bookkeeper.

Barbara "debit taunt of 1977" Mikkelson

Last updated:   27 June 2014

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Sources:

    Cerf, Bennett.   The Sound of Laughter.
    New York: Doubleday and Company, 1970   (pp. 5-6).

    Landers, Ann.   "Ann Landers."
    13 October 1999   [syndicated column].

    Landers, Ann.   "Ann Landers."
    18 August 1999   [syndicated column].