Beware of Your Bank Teller

Despite online bill payments, direct deposits, and ATMs on every corner, somehow the local branch banks still have that air of a bygone era. With their brass appointments and echo-y marble floors, it's not a stretch to imagine Jimmy Stewart -- fedora in hand -- waiting patiently behind you in line. When the friendly teller wishes you a good day, there's no doubt about her sincerity. After all, she's been tending to your business for years.

Don't be fooled.

When you walk through those heavy wooden doors, you might as well have a big, red bull's-eye on your back. The moment the guard greets you, you've become a mark -- a potential customer for the institution's more lucrative products.

Banking got you in the door. But unless you're regularly bouncing checks and using foreign ATMs -- or, conversely, sporting a big-time balance in your account -- you're small potatoes to the bank's bottom line. But not for long, if your banker has her way with you.

Getting a cashier's check made out to Honda? "You may not know it, sir, but we do car loans here," your teller kindly lets you know. Depositing a tax return check? "You should talk with George over there in our securities department. No one should settle for the paltry interest rates we pay on savings accounts." If George isn't available, she'll take your phone number, and then -- like a fawn tiptoeing onto the highway -- you're officially in the system, and the cold calls will soon rush in.

Sound a little Big Brother-ish? Seems more Glengarry Glen Ross-ish to me. As your friendly teller clicks away on the computer, there's a good chance that she's receiving pop-up sales cues about products -- mortgages, car loans, credit cards, and brokerage services -- that match your money profile. That little old lady behind the counter is getting a commission for every live lead she refers to the sales department. Should the salesperson close the deal, her bonus check is even bigger. In this modern banking era, the greeting at the drive-through deposit window should be: "My name's Becky. I'll be your tattle teller today."

Still, you shouldn't dismiss a bank's services outright. Those teller tips can be useful in earmarking potential shortcomings in your money management. After all, checking and savings account interest rates really are pretty pathetic these days. But do compare the rates you're being offered with other loan providers. (We track current rates on everything from car loans to HELOCs in our Rate Center.)

Just recognize that your neighborhood bank may still look the same, but the mother ship that acquired it years ago has a different MO: Our business comes first.

Still, be polite to that friendly teller. She's only doing her job.

Want to get the best bank for your buck? Fools on theFinancial Products & Servicesdiscussion board can steer you and your money in the right direction.

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