The Embarrassment of Having a Check Denied at the County Clerk’s Office

by Kevin on January 24, 2013

So here’s a fun story that I forgot to tell you from a few months ago.

I sold my trusty Honda Accord to buy something with a little more room, a 2003 Audi A4 Avant Wagon. (It’s awesome.)

It was a private party sale from Ohio and we met in Lexington, KY to do the transaction. Great seller, great car, great ride home.

Except for one thing: I didn’t have plates. Apparently in Ohio the plates are tied to the person or something like that. And I couldn’t get temporary plates from the Ohio Department of Taxation nor the Tennessee Department of Revenue. You have to have title in hand to get even temporary plates which makes doing a private party transaction somewhat more difficult.

Nonetheless I went through with the purchase and just made sure I had all kinds of documentation: bill of sale, signed over title, and so forth. My hope was that if I did happen to get pulled over I would have enough documentation (and a wife following me in her car) that a reasonable (crossing our fingers here, aren’t we?) officer of the law would give me a pass since I had just purchased the car that day.

It went off without a hitch.

That is until I went to register the car in Tennessee to get a Tennessee license plate.

How to Avoid Having a Check Denied by State Government

I’ve been writing about personal finance for over 5 years now dating back to January 2008. I’ve published hundreds of articles here at No Debt Plan and completed hundreds more assignments on a freelance basis for other personal finance bloggers. Understanding personal finance is a passion of mine; where numbers and spreadsheets confound other people, it just makes sense to me.

In short, I have my financial stuff together. My wife would tell you I’m a mess, but I’m not a mess financially.

Imagine my surprise then when I handed over my check to the County Clerk employee, only to discover my check was denied.

Denied?

Are you kidding me?

When she ran the check through their electronic check system it printed out a code that she wrote on the check, then she kindly called the number and once again input all of the check information on it.

“I’m sorry, sir. It is saying we can’t take your check.”

My face turned red. Really, really red. Remember I have my stuff together. I don’t bounce checks, write bad checks, and so forth. My account balance had a lot more money than the $80 some odd dollars for the registration fees.

I didn’t lose my cool with her, however. (This is key when dealing with any tough customer service situation. Remember this!) It wasn’t her fault. Whatever error that was denying my check wasn’t because of the employee at the County Clerk office.

“Are you sure? I mean, trust me, there is a ton of money in that account. Do you know why this might be happening?”

She looked at me with that pity you show someone that is asking you a question you don’t know the answer to but you’ve been asked 10,000 times. “I sure don’t. I’m sorry. You can call the number on the receipt to see what the problem is. But I can’t take that as payment.”

She also had that look of I know you’re broke and I’ve heard every excuse in the book. Only problem is I’m not broke. It was embarrassing.

Paying State and Local Government Fees with a Credit Card

I did have another option. I could pay with a credit card if I would pay an extra $2 or $3 processing fee. Thankfully I was working on meeting some minimum spend requirements for one of my cards and could mentally ignore the small fee since it would get me a few dollars closer to a bunch of airline miles.

I smile, shook my head, and handed the card over. The transaction went through just fine, of course, and I walked out with plates and a number to call so I could see what the problem with accepting my check was.

Electronic Check Systems are Based on History

Here is where the problem was: the electronic check systems that my local government uses to process checks is like any other check processor in that it is based on history. Having other checks processed by them at other retailers (likely for smaller amounts) helps you build up a history of trust with them. When the check is processed I’m guessing it doesn’t immediately process. (I would think it would check your account balance for available funds, but apparently not?)

The problem with this system is it is based on people writing a lot of checks. How many of you write a ton of checks each month? 

Exactly.

I rarely write checks. We used to write them to pay our utilities (which were processed without a hitch) but now use bill pay or automatic draft to pay those bills. It is going to take us a long time to go through a stack of checks.

The customer service rep I talked to at the check processing company apologized and took my information so I could “register” in their system to hopefully avoid problems like this in the future. (Yes, she said hopefully … as in, this may not fix the problem.) But I’ll never build up enough history since I rarely use checks.

I was reminded of this story this week when my tag renewal reminder came in the mail. I could go down to the County Clerk’s office, stand in line, pay the fee, try to use the check, end up having to use a credit card for a few dollars more, and be done. Or I could pay the fee plus the processing fee plus a $2 mailing fee online to get the tags sent to me.

No standing in line, no check denied, small annoying fee to pay.

I’ll let you guess as to what I ended up doing.

Has anyone else had this happen to them? How often do you write checks?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Jane Savers @ The Money Puzzle January 25, 2013 at 8:46 pm

The last cheque I wrote was in early 2012 to a small local business that installed my new furnace. The only accept cheques or cash.

The federal and provincial government offices no longer accept cheques for things like license plates and new passports. Debit or credit or certified money order.

I am not even sure my sons know how to write a cheque. They both have them. I made them get a few because they have had to submit blank, voided cheques to employers and to their universities for direct withdrawl of dorm fees.

I do not miss the monthly scribblefest that was bill paying.

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JoeTaxpayer January 26, 2013 at 10:55 pm

Hmm. Wrong reason to ignore the $3 fee – miles. Right reason? The time you’d have wasted to use a cheap alternative.

I’d never heard of this being an issue, I wonder if you had called the bank first to pre-authorize, if it would have gone through.

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Jamie January 28, 2013 at 4:35 pm

Oh my gosh, I know exactly how you feel. I’ve actually had this happen a couple of times. Like you, I blog about being debt free and having my you-know-what together. This happened to me with my debit card. When Wachovia was bought out by Wells Fargo our bank went from bad to worse so we decided to undertake the enormous task of moving multiple accounts (both personal and business) to a private bank. The one thing they failed to tell us in this move was that there were daily limits on our debt cards. The first time I was paying for some dental work that exceeded the daily limit. Of course the card didn’t go through. This was a new dentist for me so of course they had no reason to believe me when I explained that “there should be plent of money in that account.” I know the looked you talked about. After calling the bank I got it straighten out but I don’t think she ever really believed me. It happened another time when the amount was under the limit but since my husband had used a card attached to the same account to make a large purchase earlier in the day, when I went to pay with my debit card it was declined again. I shouldn’t but I got very embarrassed, thereby making myself look even more quilty. I think I do because there was a time in my life that I’m not proud of when checks and credit cards getting denied where for real. I understand your pain. Thanks for sharing, it makes me feel better for whatever thats worth.

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