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Senior Correspondent

I walked into a bank in Nice, France. I needed to do some transactions for my elderly French aunt Elisabeth who could no longer leave her apartment. She wanted me to talk to Mr. Duchamp, her friendly banker of many years. But all I saw were machines. There was not one teller, one personal banker, one receptionist in sight. The year was 2009.

Last Saturday I walked into my bank in South Florida to make an international wire transfer, something I do several times a month. I don’t do the transfers online because I get the manager’s review, plus confirmation of the transaction, by using a personal banker. And that “insurance” of no future headaches only costs me $5 more than doing it myself, $45 instead of $40.

I noticed that every chair in the waiting area was full. And people were lined up almost out the door to have a teller make a deposit or withdrawal for them. When I went to write my name on the waiting list for a personal banker, I saw 11 names before mine.

When I walked down past all the cubicles, I saw only one personal banker.

Where Are All the Bankers?

All the rest of the personal bankers were behind the windows, acting as tellers, including those who had become my friends over the years of completing my transfers.

I waited to see how long the first transaction took with the one personal banker. Twenty minutes. I multiplied that by 10 (for the ten names still ahead of mine) and realized I’d be there until after the bank closed. I wrote “I LEFT” next to my name.

On Monday, I went to the bank earlier. The scene was not quite as bad, but still bad. Then I saw the manager. When I asked what the heck was going on, he said he had as many people as he was allowed. Going forward, any employee who left for whatever reason was not replaced. It seems that a new piece of software was determining how much staff he could have.

I mentioned that since the software measured the number of people served, it didn’t count the frustrated people I saw leave the bank, saying they’d open their account elsewhere.

I said, “Ed, I have a business to run, I can’t wait hours for every wire transfer. Should I go to another branch? Or another bank?”

He told me I’d find the same thing elsewhere. All banks are forcing people to use ATMs and to make online transactions. They are phasing out having people in the branches.

We’re headed towards the European model.

Banking Security versus Automation

This push towards automation is happening at the same time as banks are facing more and more security breaches at retail locations and online. Anyone you talk to has a story about “compromised bank cards.” And hackers are proving they will always be one step ahead of any banking security protection the banks and retailers install.

So what can you do?

It’s time to take a few moments to think about how this change will affect how you handle your finances.

I only have two pieces of advice, things that help me sleep at night. I’ve mentioned them before, but I’ll mention them again.

I have one of those services that protect our good name from identity theft and credit fraud through their comprehensive suites of identity theft protection tools, such as Identity Guard, LifeLock, TrustedID, etc.

The accounts from which I use the card for ATM withdrawals, grocery store payments and online transactions are in one single bank.  My savings accounts and other accounts where money might accrue are in totally separate banks.  (Not “separate branches,” but “separate banks.”)  And I do not make transfers from those banks into the bank with the active cards.  It’s not a perfect firewall, but it’s the best I can think of at this time, because it limits my exposure.

What about you?  What have you done to create your own peace of mind?  Have you thought about how the push towards 100% automation might change your banking habits?

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