Tag Archives: New York City

Taking It to the Bank

Image by Megan Rexazin from Pixabay

For a while now, I have been passionate about the need for us all to gain Financial Literacy as early in life as possible. In 2019, I spent a few days on a houseboat with family. On our first night, we got into a very animated conversation about financial literacy that stretched into the wee hours of the morning. I am sure the fact that two of my aunts and one uncle are all economists, and those of us who are not in finance are the offspring of financial folk, was a factor in the amount of time we spent talking about financial literacy. We talked about what it was, how people can gain literacy, and what kind of access people might have to it. To ensure adequate sleep during the rest of the trip, we had to agree to table financial literacy and perhaps talk about what fish was caught or wildlife spotted.

In April 2015 (April is financial literacy month) volunteering through the the New York State Society of CPAs (NYSSCPA), I was invited to be part of a project at the Office of the New York City Comptroller. The group included people from various community nonprofits, someone from the New York Public Library, and a few people who worked in the Comptroller’s Office. We started out with a blank slate and were asked to consider ways to contribute to financial literacy. Having come from different spaces, each of us saw unique challenges in our communities and organizations. As we talked, we came closer and closer to a unified thought. We started by talking about some of the common conversation pieces of financial literacy, like saving, investing, and financial planning. But then questions kept popping up – do we all have access to resources that make it easy to do these things? Some of the people in our group doing community work, talked about how many of their clients do not have bank accounts and may not know how to open one, have reservations about how safe their money might be in a bank account, or might face other barriers (such as language) when seeking to open an account.

I was surprised to learn that a significant percentage of New York City residents are either unbanked or underbanked. In 2017, 11.2% of households had no bank account and another 21.8 were underbanked. That is a third of the city without adequate access to a bank account who have to find alternate methods to navigate our world of money. Being unbanked can be a dangerous proposition – keeping significant amounts of cash in your home can make you a target for theft. Being unbanked can be an expensive proposition – the fees paid to cash pay checks, buy money orders to pay bills, and perform other financial tasks can add up quickly. At the same time often having a bank account with a small balance can attract hefty monthly fees.

A key aspect of financial literacy is access to information. During these meetings, we learnt that, in 1994, New York State enacted a law that required banks to offer lower cost banking services. The accounts, commonly known as Lifeline accounts are to have the following characteristics:

  • You can open an account with a deposit of $25
  • To keep the account open, you only need to have one penny as a minimum balance
  • The financial institution cannot charge you more than $3 a month to maintain your account
  • You can make at least 8 withdrawals a month at no charge
  • There are no restrictions or penalties regarding deposits. You can make as few or as many as you like.

These accounts existed at many banks (as required) but the banks were not required to advertise them. So many were not included in bank brochures and sometimes employees did not appear to know they existed. So, if we knew that there were banks around New York City that offered these lower cost banking services, how did we get the word out about them and help those who wanted them open an account? We had several meetings and then left the Comptroller’s office staff to work on a way to put our thoughts into a resource. We came back to, at least for me, a very impressive solution. A website called Take It to the Bank, where people could use various criteria to a banking option that worked for them. They could search within their zip code, they could search for a bank that provided language assistance (from Albanian to Yoruba), or they could search for a bank that was open on evenings and weekends. The Comptroller’s office also printed up pamphlets in various languages to be distributed in the City, to raise awareness. Once a person filtered for their criteria, they could print up the bank information and, as the website proclaimed, take it to the bank.

In June 2015, the website was up and good to go. From a discussion, a group of us from diverse spaces, considered our goals and purpose and tried to think out the challenges. First of all, New York City residents had a website that they could filter through based on their particular needs and desires. Community nonprofits could sit with those they serve, discuss needs and help their clients find a bank. The information could be printed up and presented to the bank. With the information in the printout, the bank staff could assist the client open a bank account. I was impressed and proud about my small contribution.

Literacy is often about what one has access to. When I was a kid, it was an exciting day when my mother took me to open my first savings account. The lessons that my parents shared with me about things like saving were lessons someone else had taught them. Financial literacy is not something that we are born with and it is not something that is magically granted to us when we become adults. The ability for all of us to manage our financial resources depends on the knowledge we can get access to. Every little bit counts and, with this resource, New Yorkers will know more about how to take their resources to the bank. It’s kinda cool!

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2017! Three Words! Let’s Go!

img_1043-2Yesterday, I took a moment to look back at 2016 and I am glad that I did. After that exercise in honoring history, I actually changed one of my words for 2017. My words for 2017? That may be what you are wondering. Let me explain. In 2013, Tom Hood introduced me to the concept of Three Words (and that concept came from Chris Brogan). I use these three words to give the year ahead a theme, almost like a rhythm that I can dance to as I go through the year; and isn’t everything better with dance? The process of thinking about my three words and then coming back to them throughout the year, help consolidate, direct and give confidence to what I do and how I do it. As I read over yesterday’s post, I saw my 2016 Three Words dancing over my year, in ways that I had not thought about as I was writing the post – Learn. Fear. Community.

For several days, I thought about what my words for 2017 would be – and how those words would serve to seal my intentions for the days ahead. I think I have it now.

Embrace: In previous years I have written about changing things in my life. Transform was one of my words in 2014. Then, in 2015, Receptive was a word of mine. Last year we moved to a new neighborhood. When I was a kid, due to politics and other adventures in their lives, we moved around a lot. Between first and third grade, I went to four different schools in three different countries, in four different cities. During my first two years in New York City, I lost count of how many places I lived in. I even spent a couple of months camping out on a (very amazing) friend’s couch on weekends, while I worked in Florida during the week. Last year, I talked transformation and I was receptive to talk of moving but, now that I am here, I realize that it is not going to work until I embrace it. This is where I am now with my move, with my work, with my life. I can talk about how great innovations in my line of work are; I can marvel at how awesome some of the tools that are available to us are; I can wax lyrical about the incredible people who cross my path and make me better at what I do, but all of that is not worth much unless I dive in there, snuggle in and just embrace it all.

Persevere: When I started training to run long distance, I learnt about the power of a mantra. The mantra was invaluable to me, when doing hill repeats. I would chug up a hill and repeat, over and over again, “I love hills.” I will say this, I reached the top of that hill and many others AND I hate hills less and appreciate their value. I actually surprised myself when I told a cousin that I wished there were a few more hills around my new home. In 2015, I embarked on a new journey of sorts. I started my own business and decided that I wanted to do work that made me look forward to getting out of bed every day. I loved that my husband’s work, as a photographer, was something he also did for fun. I admired how excited he got about his projects and I wanted some of that. At times I would talk to some people about what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it and they would tell me, “that will never work.” Fortunately, my incredible community (2016 word, hello!) took over and repeated the mantra I had not yet learnt to say myself. However, as the year came to an end, I started to believe. So this year, I shall remember to say to myself, “You got this. You can do this,” not just when I am running, or doing pull-ups. I shall tell myself this as I am serving my clients, community and the public.

Monchu: My last word is a word that I have borrowed from Chris Brogan. Chris tells us Monchu is an Okinawan word that means “one family”. It essentially means that we treat people who are not our blood as though they are family. I have benefited from this concept forever. As someone who lives very far away from most of my blood, I just don’t know where I would be with my one family. For instance, I just wrote about how I was able to crash on a friend’s couch when I first moved to New York. I didn’t mention that I had only known her for months and she offered her home to me, and her husband and adorable daughter didn’t seem to mind either. That is just one of a million of my stories. I know that I could do a way better job of keeping in touch with people to let them know that they are part of my one family. I know that this philosophy will guide me to be better at what I do and how I do it. I hope to also inspire others around me to embrace this philosophy.

As I share my words for 2017, I want to acknowledge my words from previous years:

2013 – Change, Discover & Motivate
2014 – Transform, Pursue & Collaborate
2015 – Receptive, Synergy & Service
2016 – Learn, Fear & Community

And now for 2017 – Embrace, Persevere & Monchu. I am excited for the year ahead and I know that the view from my new home will help me do so. You see it up above, I can see forever now. I got this.

Tell me, what are your words?

I hope 2017 is your best year ever!

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Here’s My Number And A Dime…

nyc-phone-booth

 

“If you see something, say something”. Living in New York City, this is a message I come across often. I see it advertised all over the subway, I see it on buses and I have even seen it on television. Although the messages tell us to inform a police officer, MTA employee or call a toll-free number in the cases that we do see something and want to say something, I have often thought about the logistics of this. On my way home from work, I tend to end up in the last subway car. Now, say I get onto the train and I see something and I want to say something. I am in the last car and can barely see the subway conductor who is in the middle of the train. Do I try to run up the platform to get to the MTA employee before the train doors close and the train sets off? Do I perhaps hope that there is a police officer that I can alert, hanging out on the subway platform? My subway station is one of the few that now has cellphone reception, so I could call the toll-free number. However, I have never taken the time to actually take the number down so I have no idea what it is. All this said, I like to think that, on the day that I do see something and need to say something; it will be like the movies and things will fall in place and work out.

Previously, when talking about controls, I have discussed the importance of the segregation of duties and how having several people involved in a process means that there are other people who are watching what is going on and who, therefore, can report any untoward activities that they see. Annually, the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) publishes a Report to the Nations on Occupational Fraud and Abuse. The 2014 report stated, “Over 40% of all cases were detected by a tip – more than twice the rate of any other detection method.” That is a staggering statistic and emphasizes just how important people who see and say something are when it comes to fraud detection. The knowledge that there is an easy way for fraud to be reported may also serve as a deterrent to those contemplating committing fraud. In response to a series of huge financial scandals that led to losses in the billions of dollars and the end of companies such as Enron and WorldCom, the Sarbanes- Oxley Act was passed in 2002. Among its various provisions, it required that publicly traded companies establish a whistleblower system that makes it easy for employees and third parties to anonymously report financial misdeeds.

There is a television show called “The First 48”. The premise of the show is that the chances of solving a murder are cut in half, if investigators do not get a lead within the first 48 hours. On a few occasions, I have watched as detectives go from door to door in a neighborhood, asking people if they know anything about the homicide that occurred. Generally, the police are met with silence, shaking heads and closing doors. However once they get back to the police station, their phones start ringing and people leave anonymous tips that often lead to an arrest. Anonymity is a very important aspect of creating a whistleblower system. The fear of punishment for reporting fraud, such as being fired, demoted or even physically attacked, can keep a witness silent. It is vital that a person knows that they can safely make a report and remain unidentified, should they wish to do so.

There should be several reporting options available to the whistleblower, such as the telephone, an electronic system and U.S. mail, giving the whistleblower the opportunity to use the method that they are most comfortable with. Also, the system should be available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. With the whistleblower hotline, a trained interviewer, who knows how and what to ask the caller should answer the phones. The last thing a nervous caller wants to deal with is voicemail.

In order to make the whistleblower system most effective, a corporate entity’s staff, vendors and other third parties need to know that there is a way that they can report wrongdoing and that action will be taken. This means that a company with a whistleblower system should distribute literature and hold training sessions on ethics, processes and how to report any financial wrongdoing. Several years ago, I caught a cab from Manhattan to Brooklyn. During my ride, the cab driver complained about having to drive to Brooklyn and tried, several times, to drop me off at a subway station. I insisted that he take me to Brooklyn, as I had requested. He then spent the rest of the ride swearing and protesting. Once we reached my destination and I stepped out of the taxi, he yelled out the window, “Bitch”, and drove off. Suffice to say, I was upset by this experience. Shaking, I walked into the building and called 311, New York City’s non-emergency information and complaint service. I told the operator about my experience and gave her the taxi driver’s medallion number. She took my report and asked whether or not I wished to remain anonymous. I chose not to, wound up facing the driver in a hearing, and winning my case. I did all this because I did not appreciate how the taxi driver had treated me and felt that I should not let him think that it was okay for him to behave in that manner. More importantly, I did this because I knew about and had access to an easy, and well-publicized service where I could lodge my complaint and have my issue investigated and resolved.

I have mentioned that publicly traded companies in the United States are mandated to set up a whistleblower system. It is in the interest of other entities to consider a system by which anyone who comes across financial crime can report the crime, knowing that something will be done about it and that no one will come after them for making the report. Sometimes something as simple as an anonymous mailbox can make a big difference – just knowing that there is a way to report crime gets people reporting crime. Then again, as an employee or a third-party, such as a vendor or a customer, there may be times when you feel as though the corporate culture is so corrupt that no one within the company will respond to your complaint. At times like this, you should look to the law for assistance. In New York City, you can call 311 for guidance and assistance. You can also visit the District Attorney’s website for information on how to report a financial crime. The power of people speaking up when they see something amiss cannot be underestimated and voicing your concerns is easier than you imagine; remember whistleblowers are the number one (by far) way in which fraud is discovered. So, really, if you see something, say something. You don’t even have to worry about the train leaving you behind.

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