Error leads to check mix-up

COVINGTON - When C.J. Hamilton made her regular trip to the bank last week to check her account balance, she knew something was off. There was more money than there should have been, at least if her nearly $3,000 property tax check had cleared.

Hamilton examined her bank statement and quickly found the problem: A property tax check had cleared, all right, but it wasn't hers. Somehow, a payment in the amount of $1,171 by someone named Diane Tucker had been deducted from Hamilton's account.

Even stranger, the two women had different banks: Hamilton banks with the Bank of North Georgia, while Tucker uses Lockheed Credit Union.

Hamilton found Tucker's number in the phone book and called to warn her about the error. When Tucker looked at her own bank statement, she discovered a similar mistake: A check written by Joseph and Gloria Saunders had been deducted from her account. The Saunders bank with Wachovia.

A call to the Saunders revealed that they were dealing with the same perplexing problem, involving yet another taxpayer's check.

Hamilton, Tucker and Joseph Saunders all say they can't understand how this could have happened.

"We never did get a straight answer," Joseph Saunders said. "Nobody knew how it happened, who did it or how it was going to be straightened out."

Dana Darby, deputy tax commissioner for Newton County, said the error was with Farmer's and Merchants Bank, where the Tax Commissioner's Office deposits checks at the end of each business day. The checks are then passed on to the approprivate bank.

"After it leaves us, it's banking information. There's nothing else we can do after that point," Darby said.

Kristy Mayo, customer care specialist with Farmers and Merchants, declined to say how the error occurred, citing the Banking Secrecy Act. Mayo said she did not know how many customers were affected, but said the error involved only one batch of checks processed on Sept. 19. The checks would not necessarily have been processed the same day payment was made, she said.

"Farmers and Merchants Bank experienced a machine malfunction when transmitting items, processing work for clearing purposes. As a result, some checks used for the primary purpose of paying real estate taxes were misrouted to incorrect accounts for payment," Mayo said in a prepared statement. "There were several banks involved and several corrected the problem at presentment. There were relatively few customer checks involved and misrouted. We take protection of personal account information very seriously and have implemented a number of additional safeguards to help prevent any similar occurrences. We sincerely regret any inconvenience or concerns caused by this incident."

Mayo said all accounts have been re-credited, but she did not know if the appropriate deductions have been made yet.

Mayo asked that anyone with questions or concerns call her at 770-761-5846.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.