Banks are far more friendly to their customers these days. Maybe too friendly for their own good.

About a decade ago, on a Saturday afternoon, a machine swallowed my ATM card. I called the bank immediately but could not get an answer until Monday morning.

"I am sorry, your card has been in our hands for more than 24 hours, so it has been destroyed by our chewer upper," I was told.

"Why don't you have an '800' number so I can report the card's loss before 24 hours pass?" I asked.

"We do."

"Where can I find it?"

"On the card."

Today things are different.

On a recent Sunday afternoon I used my ATM card at a First Union branch, and the machine shortchanged me by $100.

I immediately called the bank, where a HUMAN was on duty. He took the information from me, and I had the money back in my account by mid-week!

I was amazed at this speed. And unless my loss was the only one for that machine that Sunday, they must have taken my word for it, because I got my money back too fast for a normal audit to prove my contention.

So now I wonder: How much do banks lose due to specious claims of ATM malfunctioning?

What bothers me more is credit card fraud.

Twice in the past month strangers have run up substantial charges on my cards: $2,000 in Argentina and about $600 in Ontario, Calif. I, meanwhile, was in New Jersey, and so were the two Visa cards.

In one of these cases the security officer who called me to confirm whether I had actually made the purchase in question admitted that his records showed that the vendor had not seen my card.

How can a bank protect itself if anyone who has learned my card number and expiration date can make a substantial purchase by phone, or even in person, without the card? Every time I use my card, this information is made available-to anyone with access to the restaurant or shop cash register or to the hotel reservation file, when I have given my number as a guarantee for late arrival.

It also seems that anyone who sells goods by mail with credit card payment and is not required to deliver them ONLY to the address of the cardholder can take down my number and expiration date and pass them on to a friend.

No wonder banks have 4% to 5% loss ratios on their credit card outstandings!

Now, in addressing both of these scams against me, Citibank was customer-friendly; it immediately removed the charges from my account. It did make me sign and notarize a statement that I didn't buy the goods in Argentina, but that's understandable.

But what troubles me as an observer of the banking industry, is that I keep getting about five to seven offers a week of platinum cards, gold cards, chopped-liver cards, whatever, despite the losses that banks have taken on my cards.

I conclude therefore that one of the following is true:

1. Security is so good at Citibank that the people who used my cards in California and Argentina were captured and the bank got its money back.

2. The bank makes so much money on the legitimate use of its cards that it can absorb the obviously frequent losses from fraud.

3. The people at the bank don't know what they are doing.

I hope it's not No. 3, but after what has happened to me in the past month I wouldn't bet the ranch that No. 3 is out of the running.

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