About a year ago, I described my travails trying to buy a relatively simple product from a very big bank to point to the franchise-value challenges of a company some argue is simply “too big to manage.”  Now, let me turn to an incident in which this same banking behemoth appears to have mislaid my husband’s identity.  Apparently, when this bank has your accounts in its clutches, it thinks it can communicate with anyone it thinks might just be you even if they’re not.  No wonder hackers keep battering the ramparts of the very big banks – even the banks are confused by their own operations.

So, what happened?  My brother-in-law called us this week in some surprise at a letter he received at his home in New Jersey with my D.C.- resident husband’s name as the addressee. My brother-in-law too is among the bank’s millions of retail customers, but was more than perplexed to get a form letter addressed to my husband advising that a branch near the White House was soon to close.  The bank nicely apologized for any inconvenience, but my brother- in- law was actually far more inconvenienced by the letter and the alarm it espoused about internal controls than the closure of a branch at which the bank asserted he had opened his account but which, in fact, he had never visited.  To deepen the mystery, my husband – who opened his account many years ago at this departing branch and still visits it – has yet to be advised about its closing or apologized to.

Is it reassuring that this big bank kept its communications to my husband within the family and that the mistaken missive was so inconsequential?  Of course not.  We can think of no way the bank could have known of the relationship between my husband in Washington and his brother in New Jersey.  How many other customers with the same last name bank with this big company and will we soon be hearing about branch closings in Spokane?  How about their overdrafts or loan applications?  Want a mortgage on us?

The opacity of this communications gaffe is in sharp contrast to the remarkable precision of a recent transaction glitch with Amazon.  A pair of running shoes purchased from a vendor failed to show up and it turned out that the USPS tracking number provided was a fraud and the vendor had departed the Amazon marketplace.  It took Amazon about two minutes to track our order through its labyrinth and refund the money.  Would it be so easy for us if the next letter from the mega bank to someone it decides is us includes confidential information that the recipient chooses to use?  I fear not.

In one day-to-day transaction, a big bank goofs in a mysterious way that undermines confidence in its most critical franchise asset: trust that it knows whose money is where and will keep it safe and sound.  In the other, a tech company with obvious ambitions to envelop retail finance reverses a complex transaction in an effortless, non-confrontational way and funds are returned without loss of time or dispute.  The future of finance?