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Pagers, faxes and cheques: Things that might seem obsolete, but aren't (bbc.co.uk)
62 points by Kaibeezy 10 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 151 comments

Where I work we move a lot of money around via ACH (which might as well be via cheque). We treat the account number as a secret and encrypt it because here in the US the extent to which a bank needs to authenticate the source of an ACH transaction is largely left to the discretion of that bank.

We're integrating with a company in Germany that is confused by our request for their public key (so we can encrypt the account numbers on capture for their eyes only). As it turns out, in Germany it's common to share your account number on your web site so that your customers can more easily pay you. They have an authentication step that is separate from the account number.

This of course makes our system look pretty silly. We give account numbers to everybody we write a cheque to, but then treat them like private keys in other contexts.

Maybe this is to be expected, as ACH and SEPA (which is the equivalent-ish system in the EU) are separate systems after all, but further research shows that there are other regional differences within the SEPA network re: whether the account number is a secret.

If we had a competitor trying to do the same thing with a system where authentication and addressing were both separate and part of the protocol (e.g. any cryptocurrency), they'd be done by now and making money. We've been at this for more than a year and we're getting nowhere.

The moral of this story is that cheques may not be obsolete yet, but the protocol that backs them will probably soon be. It has fundamental flaws that open the door for fraud and incur other overhead costs as well. Once there is a viable competitor it doesn't stand a chance.

The system you describe is normal for Europe since the '80ies. The protocol you describe is already obsolete for 30 years. I have in my life seen exactly 1 cheque - for buying our house. Bank brought it straight to the realtor.

Credit cards still use the same system where the public key is the same as your private key and all you need is to copy it.

Things are improving with chips and online verification via BankID here in Sweden, but everyone still doesn't use it.

ACH will eventually be replaced by real time payments (RTP)[1]

[1] https://www.theclearinghouse.org/payment-systems/rtp

In the finance world 'eventually' is a long time.

This is an industry that I am sure will 'eventually' eliminate mainframes from its tech stack.

My guess is that ACH systems will be maintained for a few decades as a legacy payment rail with countless promises of phasing it 'inn the next five years'.

Same day ACH had phase 1 in 2016 (amazingly recent). It's now "completely rolled out" and in practice still not very "same day" in most cases. The same day ACH expansion adds 2 hrs and a third daily transaction and isn't scheduled until March of 2021. Sure, technically, banks can have more than one initiative going on at the same time, but I'm pessimistic about seeing RTP or seeing ACH go away.



Maybe. Technical integrations in the payments space go painfully slowly. It'll be interesting to see what the payments landscape looks like by the time RTP has sufficient saturation for two randomly selected parties to be able to use it.

As I’ve said before: pagers are great: batteries last months. Easy to pass around and know when you’re the one on-call.

Limited teaching required to understand their use.

Can take a beating.

Work well in disaster scenarios because its network is far less fragile than the cellular network’s.

They don’t leak your location.

Their signal penetrates extremely well.

They make sure the person on-call doesn’t go too far from where they’re supposed to be on-call when they’re required to be within x km of base.

But they have major drawbacks, too. Like: no encryption and authentication. And that means that e.g. critical medical data about a lot of people can be trivially snooped from the airwaves. This is not just hypothetical, it really works, and you can find multiple newspaper articles and reports online on this subject by googling a bit.

Worse, it is trivial to tamper with this and insert forged pager messages. A lot of harm could be done with this, possibly even leading to death of patients.

> And that means that e.g. critical medical data about a lot of people can be trivially snooped from the airwaves.

Extending the model beyond "Call this extension" starts to go awry. There are ways of maintaining privacy: just don't connect the personal info with an identity. Yes, I know stuff like this can be deanonymized, but you need a lot of data to do so. "Consult requested for patient 432432434" or "Check results for 34334343" or "Consult required in 4W-34"

What medical data is sent via pages? All the times I've used them it is a simple code, and possibly a location.

A recent Canadian example:

> The data being broadcast includes the patients name, age, gender marker, diagnosis, their attending doctor and room number. Other broadcasts regarding medical tests such as x-rays are often associated with a patients last name or medical number, exposing their progression through hospital departments.


So don't include information that isn't necessary. rm name/age/gender.

If it's the organization's in-house medical number, that should be okay. It's literally a random identifier number. Or better yet, use a visit number, test number or result number to avoid linking them together.

I have a cellphone in my pocket just like almost everyone else in the US. Our ticketing and notification systems are scheduled based so on call people do not have to pas around anything. If the schedule says you’re on call then you will get “paged” if an incident with a high priority comes into our queue.

There are non-technical people that are on-call and still barely know how to use a smartphone.

You could fairly easily set up a similar system based on plain old phone calls. Just have a lookup on who's on-call and have the system ring their phone. It'd be a trivial 20 line script given access to the db that stores that info and a twilio account or equivalent.

Checks will be around for a while, especially for B2B transactions in the US. Checks are the easiest way to move a large amount of money with minimal fees. Accounts payable departments already have their workflows setup to use checks. Also, banks don't make it easy to do transfers. ACH and wire transfers can take as little as 24 hours, but some banks don't expose this functionality on the web to make the transfers easy to initiate.

The Federal Reserve conducts a triennial payments study to track the number and value of non-cash payments made by U.S. consumers and businesses. The 2017 annual supplement[0] reports that checks account for approximately 17.9 billion payments worth an estimated $29 trillion dollars, give or take a few million. Unsurprisingly, these numbers are trending down over time; however, according to a 2016 survey published by the Association for Financial Professionals [1], 51% of B2B payments are still made with checks.

[0] https://www.federalreserve.gov/paymentsystems/2017-December-... [1] (fee login required) https://www.afponline.org/publications-data-tools/reports/gu...

How can a paper check be the easiest and cheap option?

Doing the same transfer of money via electronic means should be significantly cheaper to execute. And it should be cheaper for all participants. No paper to print, transfer, read, process, send to the bank (physically!).

Honest question, why do Banks in the US do not replace this process with something cheaper?

Paper checks are cheap for recipients, depending on volume, because the processing fees are really low. An individual simply needs to scan the check with their phone. Processing large volumes of checks (e.g. thousands per month) as a merchant can be outsourced to a lockbox facility if needed. Payers can write and mail a single check in a couple minutes or use a bill pay service that will do it all for you with a few clicks.

Banks are trying to replace checks. Zelle, which sits atop ACH, is an effort to simplify P2P transfers. Real time payments (RTP) are on the way, and will have some invoicing functionality (e.g. line items). The challenge is to get enough banks, covering enough of the population, to make the system feasible. Zelle or RTP don't succeed if I have to fall back to using a check or cash because my friend's small bank/credit union does not support the service. Also, this all requires an investment of time and money to upgrade backend systems. That investment is easier for some institutions than others.

Write a check, pop it in the mail. You’re done.

Integrating with some ERP or payment system is a pain in the ass, especially for a one time or infrequent payment.

So in Germany you can, since the 80, probably also longer, fill out a small (standardized) form, bring it to your bank (possibly by mail) and they will transfer amount x from your account to the recipients.

Since the 90, this can be done electronically, so you don’t need anything physical.

This is now further harmonized by SEPA all across Europe. Where apparently something similar existed in most countries.

I find it difficult to see the benefit of checks over the above process.

I totally agree, but we don’t have such a system in the US, and the alternatives being proposed today are all inferior. Checks are still easier.

But why? What’s the reason this has been solved differently in the US and in the EU, when pretty much everyone agrees that the EU solution a) works and b) is probably cheaper? Or asked differently, why does something like the EU system not work in the US?

7.1 cheques per household? I understand a rent check, but what are those others? Or, since that's an average, is it that most households write just one, but then enough elderly people are writing checks at the store (that I invariably am stuck behind) that it inflates the average?

My gas bill. Paying them electronically involves a third-party, which charges a fee. It's easier for me to simply write a check. That's 12 checks a year.

The same goes for my real estate taxes, which have a 2.2% convenience fee, as well as a transaction fee. That's four checks a year.

Family gifts and settlement between friends. Middle aged people use plastic but definitely not Venmo.

Medical billing is also a big one. Most practices will also let you write down your credit card number on a piece of paper, but at that point a check is nicer.

Charity. A check means your whole contribution goes to the organization, instead of having Visa take a cut.

Yeah, I thought about gifts and paying an older person who doesn't rely on tech (my mother is 60, she takes Venmo). Didn't think about medical billing (I've never written a check for that either; I assume you mean mailed bills, but I just call because that's less effort than either, and doesnt run the risk of the check getting lost in the mail). But either way...more than 7 a month for that stuff? That's nearly two a week, per household. None of those listed items seem like 'monthly' occurrences for most people.

I don't know the last time I've written a check in the store and I have a lot of things set to autopay but I still do write a few a few checks every month: housekeeper, various money I owe my neighbor, pay people for food on weekend trips, furnace maintenance, contractors, etc.

(If you count the checks my bank writes and mails for me, then I'm certainly up in the 7 or 8 a month range.)

I haven’t written a check in over 10 years, but I do use my banks bill pay.

Sometimes your bank's billpay writes a check for you.

I have ongoing medical services and a lot of smaller places have archaic billing systems so I regularly write checks. When I call a plumber or electrician I often end up writing a check. I'll still send a check if there's a fee to pay online or via credit card (like DMV or property taxes).

I find it a bit silly and wish there were other options. My co-workers in other countries find it very backwards, too.

I usually pay my property taxes via check, which are due twice a year. Sometimes I just eat the online processing fee ($4).

The last one-off check I wrote was to a plumber who charged 3% fee for credit card.

I write them sometimes for vendors I don’t like. Like my local electricity utility that charges me demand charges as if I were an industrial user.

Sincere question about cheques: How do people in the UK (or other cheque-less places) deal with the transfer of large amounts of money between private or nearly private parties?

I own a small business and have worked for small businesses, and it's my experience that checks make the world go around in the woodworking field.

All of the shops I've worked for have paid me by check - nobody wants to screw around setting up direct deposit for one or two employees.

Several of them pay suppliers by check; suppliers don't want to take the hit on credit card fees.

And all of them take checks for payment from customers regularly (and I do to), for the same reason, among others.

The only downsides I see to cheques is that they're insecure and that there might be insufficient funds. If you're dealing with a trusted party (or at least somebody you reasonably believe to be acting in good faith), those are basically non-issues.

The upsides are pretty extensive:

1) They don't require carrying around large amounts of cash

2) They don't require third party cooperation (at least to write)

3) They don't require internet access

4) They don't require any sort of set-up, which reduces the friction for one-time or infrequent transfers.

5) There's basically no fee for the volume we use them in [0] except for buying the cheques.

6) If a payer does bounce a check (unintentionally) the payee can insist on a more guaranteed form of payment in the future. The friction is added to the party that screwed up in the first place.

Edited for formatting and to add:

All of this requires an informal web of trust. I've definitely used cash for one-time large transactions with people I don't have in my network. I've sold a car for cash to a random private person and bought a bicycle with cash from a different random private person, for instance.

[0] My business checking allows enough free transactions a month that I should be covered for a while; if I start exceeding that, I probably won't be super-worried about the cost of the fees)

[1] A buddy worked at a cabinet shop whose plywood supplier wouldn't take their checks. They switched to counter checks or money orders, or something else that guaranteed sufficient funds at the time of issuance. Hypothetically they could have gone to another supplier. In practice, finding a good supplier is a lot of effort, there aren't many in the first place, and word gets around fast if you make a habit of burning people without making it right.

> Sincere question about cheques: How do people in the UK (or other cheque-less places) deal with the transfer of large amounts of money between private or nearly private parties? > I own a small business [...] woodworking field.

In Hungary it depends on whether the businesses are trying to evade taxes or not. If yes, cash is king. If no, then just transfer money to a bank account (I guess this is the same as "direct deposit"). All banks have online banking for this purpose.

> [...] setting up direct deposit [...]

There is nothing to set up for a one-off transaction. You log in to the online banking site or use the bank's app. Fill in the recipient's name, account number and amount, confirm with SMS code and it's done.

But it's equally easy to set up a recurring transaction online for every week/month/whatever.

Similar in Canada. Interac e-transfers cost a flat $1-2 (depending on your bank) and the funds are debited as soon as it's sent so when you accept one it's guaranteed available and deposited and available immediately.

Just send via SMS/email from your banking app. The other person gets a link that will open in their banking app and allow deposit.

> nobody wants to screw around setting up direct deposit for one or two employees

Then it's obviously too difficult to set up in America. Other countries do direct deposit, exclusively.

A company trying to pay in any other way would look very shady over here.

Replying to you and https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21166029

It is, and most places that set it up typically require a voided check. I was working as a contractor for a large legacy big data company a couple summers ago and getting paid through their contracting agency. Said contracting agency sent me a check image (of my own check) by email TWICE [0].

I was pissed, had to close that account and re-set-up a bunch of banking stuff, and told them they were going to pay me by check because they clearly hadn't the faintest idea how to handle an account number securely.

Having a system where you can do this yourself online or with an app without sending check images around is so obviously superior it's laughable that we still do it this way in the US.

Lacking a superior system, it's preferable to use a system that doesn't involve trusting a bank account number in an electronic form to a (possibly incompetent) third party.

[0] I'd faxed it to them originally along with my I-9 docs. They couldn't read my passport, so they emailed me the image that also included the check. Nevermind that I'd told them that I would not, under any circumstances, be emailing them that data. Sigh.

What do you think is so secret about the info on your check? You're literally giving it to everyone to whom you write a check.

The information on your check is literally the all of information needed to take money out of your bank account.

Crucially, if you give one person a check, you're giving that information to one person (and their bank). If you email it, you're giving it to (potentially) all the people. And I'd hazard that the sorts of people who actually try to intercept emails are precisely the sorts of people who wouldn't have qualms about misusing said information.

In the US, at least, your doctor's office won't send you anything of substance by email for this reason (probably actually because HIPAA won't allow them to by law for that reason). If email isn't considered secure enough for medical information, it certainly isn't secure enough for bank information.

I'm not actually interested in investigating what security has been added to email in the several decades since it's been invented. If banks[0] and the government don't trust it, I'm not about to either.

[0] Mine was aghast that anybody would be so foolish as to send a check image by email. They got the wheels moving to close the account and start rejiggering stuff with surprising alacrity, like "this is what you need to do, and Alice the manager will assist you right now."

>Crucially, if you give one person a check, you're giving that information to one person (and their bank).

Well, them, and every other person you've ever written a check to or who has processed direct deposit paperwork, etc.

Sending check images by email isn't a good practice of course, but it's really not exposing especially sensitive information given the way checks work in the US.

In Denmark we have a secure (government controlled) email for communicating securely with government entities and banks. It's where I receive any medical updates from my doctor and any official information from the government. I also receive my payslip, pension info etc.

It has cut down a lot on paper usage and made communicating way more efficient.

Just plain bank transfers. You get an employees/contractors account number, or read it off an invoice, plug it & the amount into the banking site or app, done. Compared to the general overhead of doing accounting (and in the case of an employee, doing all the employment related things), it's not really effort.

> nobody wants to screw around setting up direct deposit for one or two employees.

What's there to set up? You just ask for the account number and transfer it.

In the UK you can get someone's account number (8 digits) and sort code (6 digits) and send them the money electronically. It's convenient but there are several disadvantages compared to a cheque:

* No checksum or other checking possible. If you get a single digit wrong the money will end up in someone else's account and be impossible to recover. If it's a repeat payment then this is somewhat mitigated because your bank will remember the details from last time, and you cannot transfer money to closed or non-existent accounts. Usually for large amounts people transfer a token sum first and ask the receiver to verify it got through. The banks have been asked to set up a system where you get to see the receiver's surname before doing the transfer, but have so far failed to implement it (for years). Not coincidentally, the banks are not liable if you screw up a payment by getting the digits wrong.

* There's a certain amount of fraud associated with it. A common one is the receiver's email account is compromised and you get an email saying to send the money to another account instead (which is the fraudster's account).

If you can, make the payment using the IBAN instead. I believe all our banks have to publish this now (probably due to EU regulations), and it will often be on ones bank statement.

Even though the latter part of the number is simply the sort code and account, the early part of the 'number' (text + digits) includes a checksum over the whole lot.

And these days they cross-reference the IBAN with the entered name as well, giving another round of are-you-entirely-sure.

> Sincere question about cheques: How do people in the UK (or other cheque-less places) deal with the transfer of large amounts of money between private or nearly private parties?

When I was freelance consulting in the UK I would put my bank sort code (routing number) and account number on the invoice so the customer could pay me. Same for settling up among friends, quick and easy with internet banking. Payments normally show up in your account instantaneously.

The thing I miss most from UK banking is the standing order. I believe it was introduced in the 1960's or 1970's and you could set up a regular scheduled payment through your bank to pay your rent. Closest in the US is bill pay which ends up sending a paper cheque to my landlord and is delayed in the post a couple of times a year.

Consumer and small business banking in the UK was completely free so long as you didn't go overdrawn. Free cash machine withdrawals at all bank cash machines too. (The small machines you see in convenience stores have a surcharge.)

> Closest in the US is bill pay which ends up sending a paper cheque to my landlord and is delayed in the post a couple of times a year.

As I understand, most US bill pay systems will do electronic transfers if the recipient is willing to provide the relevant information, and use checks as a fallback.

Pretty much every country has a standardized form to issue a payment request (e.g. see for example this mobile phone bill from Swiss mobile provider: https://www.salt.ch/media/filer_public/95/7c/957cfb3f-ce55-4... - the orange part).

The payee issues filled out form (it contains name, bank account number and reference) number to whoever needs to pay. The payer then can then go to a kiosk, post office, bank, or mobile bank to scan the form and pay the requested amount. He also gets a receipt automatically. This is effectively just a normal bank transfer just with a bit more paper trail.

This is pretty much how you pay most of the things - rent, operator bills, expensive item purchases, etc.

The same for Germany. But the physical thing gets slowly replaced by all digital transactions.

I feel like a lot of this is rooted in some assumptions that are not being said aloud that you may not even be aware that you have. This is no in any way an attack on you - I find this entire thing absolutely fascinating. I've seen a check twice in my life: One time and old lady tried to pay with it, when I was working as a cashier - I had to call in help, as we were no longer being trained in how to accept them. The other time, I had to get hold of one when I was studying in the US, as I had to pay some fee that was only payable by check. Took me a month and cost me $30 to convince my bank to help me with it, as they told me they weren't sure they could even do it - they hadn't done it in years.

For context, I'm from Denmark.

First of there's absolutely nothing secret about our account numbers. All they can be used for is for transferring money _to us_.

No one carries cash around. Ever. Anywhere. I have not paid anything by cash in at least... I don't know, 10 years? 15? It's mostly used as gifts. Taken out of the bank, handed over, then carried back to the bank.

Basically all banking can be done online or via app. The only time I visited my bank was in regards to my mortgage, and even most of that was handled by email. If I want to do a direct deposit / bank transfer, I can just log into my app and do it. Takes maybe 1 minute.

However these days, most private transactions are done using an app called Mobilepay. Nowadays every single person has it. It's completely free to transfer money for regular people. You can also set up a business account, which I believe may carry a fee but it's minimal (just checked, 10 cents pr transaction in the priciest tier - roughly 4 for the cheapest).

For something like a woodworking business, the way to handle business-to-business transactions, you would probably go with something like an invoice. That's usually completely automatically handled by (free )software, and would only really require the other persons email to get started. The other person receives an invoice with (for example) a direct deposit address and an amount. The transfer is free and require no setup from the payer.

Internet access is everywhere and incredibly cheap. As en example, 6 GB and 6 hours is $10 a month, unlimited data and hours is roughly $20 a month.

Check bouncing is not a thing. You can verify the payment before you deliver the service. Mobilepay payments are instant - I get a notification on my phone that I have received the money as soon as the other party finishes their transaction.

>I had to pay some fee that was only payable by check. Took me a month and cost me $30 to convince my bank to help me with it

FYI a money order is basically equal to a check and you can buy one for 88 cents at Walmart.

Speaking for the Netherlands here, though I'm assuming it's the same in most EU countries.

> How do people in the UK (or other cheque-less places) deal with the transfer of large amounts of money between private or nearly private parties?

Bank transfers. If someone wants to give you money you give them your account number and they can then either transfer money directly to your account from the banks website or if that's too modern you can fill in a slip of paper and mail that to the bank though I don't know how common that even is these days.

Do note that an account number is enough for transfering money in, it's not enough for transfering money out. That generally requires at the very least a username/password/one-time-code combination.

> All of the shops I've worked for have paid me by check - nobody wants to screw around setting up direct deposit for one or two employees.

There's nothing to set up. You ask for an account to deposit the money and that's it. Presumably banks don't feel like receiving money is a security risk.

> Several of them pay suppliers by check; suppliers don't want to take the hit on credit card fees.

Normal transactions cost €0.20 at most, if a supplier feels that that's too much they probably have other things to worry about. Some companies charge the customer this fee, but still it's not a large amount.

I'm not entirely sure on what the costs are of taking money using chip&pin but I'm assuming the costs are roughly in the same ballpark.

I've got some nits to pick on the upsides you mention for checks as well:

1) Banking with chip&pin or transfers doesn't require carrying any cash either. I can't recall the last time I had actual money on me and not just a debit card. 2) Fair enough.

3) If a company wants your money they can instruct your bank to send an "acceptgiro" by mail. You fill it in and return it by mail to your bank. The bank from there on out processes the transfer the same way as online transfers. To be fair this does cost €0.50 since it involves all this kerfuffle with scanning in handwritten digits and whatnot.

4) Unless you count getting a business account or collecting account numbers as set-up, neither do bank transfers here.

5) Unless you deal exclusively in transactions that are less than one euro it's generally free to a rounding error here as well.

6) Transfers, once confirmed -- which takes seconds, are definitive. No take backsies. If money needs to go back then that's a separate transaction. It's not the banks job to check if transactions are fair, or if breach of contract has happened.

I hope that answers some questions, If not feel free to follow up.

Faxes are better than email because you know it didn’t get filtered out from the inbox for some reason.

My employer reports that 99% of the emails it gets are blocked. And many employers are tightening up further to prevent malware attacks.

If I need to send a purchase order, it’s nice to know it was received and have an automatic copy of it without having to think to print a confirmation.

>Faxes are better than email because you know it didn’t get filtered out from the inbox for some reason.

Not necessarily. I faxed information for a hotel reservation last year, showed up around 9pm on Friday to check in, they apparently hadn't received any of the info, despite having confirmed the reservation and emailing me a confirmation. It ended up being a big hassle. In the end it was because the person working that day hadn't bothered checking the fax machine and it had been thrown away. They were pretty rude about it in the end and never stopped acting like it was our fault. Even after everything was figured out. We finally got into our room at around 11pm after some tense waiting around not being sure where we were going to stay that night.

In that case, though, your fax had indeed been received; it was just thown out after receipt. With an email, there was a good chance it might have never hit the inbox of the receiving party.

From one side or both, faxes usually don’t reach an actual fax machine. eFax has been around for over a decade.

No one is going to notice when the last fax machine is turned off. I wouldn't be at all surprised if a majority of "faxes" sent today never touch a fax machine.

Spam faxes are a huge problem in my experience. It was not worth keeping a fax machine around.

I heard a story about a guy who setup a fax machine in the 90's and used it to print money. He would just wait for spam faxes to come in and then he would research the company and send a form letter he had commissioned from his lawyer. It explained the fee the sender would get from the FCC and offered to settle for half that amount. Rumor is that he lived off of the proceeds for a while.

There's at least a federal law on the books that allows for a $200-500 claim against each unsolicited fax.

It was a good enough deterrent for decades, until the recent age of spoofed caller ID. Also, it would be more effective if the claim could be made against the benefactor, not just the sender.

If you give fines based on beneficiary without verifying that the beneficiary actually caused those faces to be sent, a bad actor could bankrupt their competitor by sending a bunch of spam faxes "benefiting" them and waiting for the claims to roll in.

Agreed, although that might be easier to prove/disprove.

Also to be clear, it's not a fine, but a type of civil claim made through the FTC instead of a court. With the main difference being: you receive the spam fax, then you get the $200.

I've come to appreciate the pragmatic utility of faxing, because many businesses will accept a faxed signature and/or notary stamp in place of a mailed hardcopy.

On the other hand, the image quality is terrible. I'm in a three month long process to recover a check lost due to a fax image quality issue, presumably between two document management systems - a "5" was transmuted to a "6" in a postal address. The receiver of the fax has said it is a clear "6" - I'm not sure if this is due to that well-known glyph-based compression bug in one of the document management systems or something else.

I've also had occurrences of businesses accepting faxes, only to have the person actually doing the work request a higher resolution scan be emailed. Some businesses have moved to plainly announcing the acceptance of scanned documents by email, but really everyone should.

Do you know?

I've worked in places where incoming faxes were automatically converted to pdf and sent as email attachments.

Yes or the alternative:

All faxes pile up in copy room in huge disorganized piles (page 4 of this mixed in with page 2 of that) which no one can disentangle so they are eventually all ignored / thrown away.

It’s funny you say that, because about 15 years ago I setup a fax to email gateway for a payroll department that had to receive 800 faxed timesheets every two weeks and was always losing them.

Still sounds like a procedure problem...

Absolutely, for a long the company was too cheap to pay for real time tracking software and the timeclocks.

The timesheets have to be digitally signed, printed out, and faxed. Because sanity is totally optional.

The nice thing about a check is that you can give it to anyone. You don't need to know where they have a bank account or even if they have a bank account. (Check cashers may charge usurious fees but I'm glad they exist, as a backstop if nothing else.) On the other hand I can't send money via PayPal to someone who only has a Venmo account, or vice versa, and PayPal and Venmo are the same company!

The inter-bank services like Zelle and Popmoney might be a little better, though I've never used them and don't know if they're really catching on. Can you send money via Zelle to an account at a non-Zelle bank? I know it's all ACH under the hood (even most checks get turned into ACH these days) but I don't really know how the permissions around that work.

As for the unbanked, there's always cash.

> The nice thing about a check is that you can give it to anyone.

I live in Europe. I haven’t seen a single place accept checks for at least 3 decades.

But hey, we have working banking systems. Maybe that helps explain it?

AIUI, the paper giro was a direct interbank transfer decades before ACH was even a thing. They were widely used in Europe but never introduced in America. That might be part of it.

Also, America has a lot more banks per capita than the rest of the world. Until the 1990s banks weren't allowed to operate in more than one state, and although there's been a big wave of consolidation since then there are still a bunch of tiny banks in out-of-the-way small towns that are very set in their ways and don't want to spend money on newfangled technology. In the rest of the world, you get the major commercial banks on board, and maybe the dominant network of savings funds/cooperative banks/credit unions, and that covers just about everybody.

It can work with anyone which was OPs point, a lot of places just don't accept them because they're essentially extending credit to every person they accept checks from because they can't be instantly cleared.

Checks are almost a specialty item now. I was shocked at how much they cost even from the discount mail order printers. If I keep the same bank, this order, the smallest they produce, likely will last the rest of my life. Guess they have to cover their costs on what is no longer a high volume business.

I'm reminded of their existence when visiting Canada / US. Their continued existence is baffling.

Housekeepers and babysitters like to be paid in cash. Sometimes it's more than we have on hand, so we write a check.

I've pleaded with my housekeeper to accept CashApp or Venmo, but he refuses. He wants a check. He's, perhaps rightfully, distrusting of new payment tech.

Babysitters are 50/50 on Venmo.

I was always under the impression that it was against the TOS to use Venmo for business transactions.

Looks like I was right unless there's some sort of separate business account


>Venmo may NOT otherwise be used to receive business, commercial or merchant transactions, meaning you CANNOT use Venmo to accept payment from (or send payment to) another user for a good or service.

Then about 99% of the transactions on their platform are in violation of their own ToS. If someone pays for a joint meal, then you venmo your half, you're paying for a good or service.

I'm guessing they have that in there to try and get around some KYC or due diligence requirements? Or is this another Paypal-style tactic so they can shutdown people's accounts for ToS violations and confiscate their monies? Yes, that's probably it.

Isn't venmo just ACH underneath?

Only when you take it out of their ecosystem. Otherwise you can send the balance to other Venmo users.

There's also a debit card linked to the balance, like Square's Cash App and card. So you can spend the balance that way, too (assuming the merchant takes cards).

My (soon to be) former apartment complex only accepted checks or money orders for rent payments

My last apartment complex was the same way. They looked at allowing people to pay electronically; but, that would mean passing on the credit card charge to residents. The first apartment complex I lived in, which allowed you to pay by credit card, charged 3.3% to do so.

If I save $40 by writing a check, I'll write a check.

>Checks are almost a specialty item now. I was shocked at how much they cost even from the discount mail order printers.

Really? I just got a box online from Walmart for about $12. That's a few year supply for me. (I usually write several a month for my housekeeper, money I owe my neighbor, random service people, etc.) My bank also writes some for me but I'm not counting those.

I certainly don't write as many checks as I used to but they're not really rare. [This is US.]

How are you buying cheques in a shop? Here in the UK I've only ever seen cheques handed out by banks preprinted with your account details on them. Why would anybody accept a cheque with a handwritten source account?

You just give the printer your account details. A check is just a piece of paper at the end of the day. Of course, many people will only accept an official looking check but you could get one printed with any arbitrary info you cared to.

In US you or anybody can print checks, provided they gave the account number, routing number. Name, address, Bank are optional.

>Bank are optional

Well, the routing number tells you the bank so it's really on the check even if the name isn't.

You're right about name and address being optional--although historically people might have refused to accept checks that didn't have this information printed on them.

I've hand written them in the past. Also branches used to have partial preprinted cheques available on which one could complete the details.

However recently I've seen Bank T&Cs require that one use the banks own preprinted cheques, yet not provide them - essentially removing the cheque facility.

You can print checks in your house if you wanted, all you need is a check printer


Yeah, and here upon receiving the cheques you have to register them with the bank before using them.

Actually tried buying checks from Wal-Mart. They rejected my order claiming my bank was in Italy and they didn't do international checks. I double checked the routing number and it was correct. Whoever Wal-Mart contracted with the do check printing, they don't have a very good system in place of at least not on that day.

Ah yes the darn cheque "printing business" is another side of this anachronism.

Whenever I needed cheques (some 10 years ago on my "developing country" bank) I would just go to an ATM and it would print me cheques on the spot, just pick how many you want. No extra fees. (Of course they became obsolete with time and direct transfers between accounts, also for a very cheap fee)

You can order checks from third-parties, not just your bank. You might also walk into a location and ask if they can print you courtesy checks (a sheet of 3-4 checks).

Look harder. I just purchased 1,000 for $7.

At USAA the basic checks are free. I average 1.3 checks per month. One box will last 9 years.

The fact that pagers are still in use by hospitals is a bit scary. POCSAG isn't encrypted, and it's possible to intercept messages in the area. One of my former coworkers did that as an art project: https://brannondorsey.com/project/holy-pager

Why is an unencrypted pager message any more scary than an announcement over the loudspeakers? Aren't pages generally just "go here" or "get to a phone"?

Mostly due to the range (well outside the hospital itself) and the content. Pages can be just "get to a phone" but that's evidently not universally true:


Right, but the point is that you can use them without revealing any personal health info.

I worked at a large telco until 2015, and they had a written policy where it was their goal to get a fax line added to every home.

The last time I saw Richard Stallman talk he had a pager.

I’m actually interested in getting one, it would be cool to get push notifications for things I normally get on my phone. I wish there was a watch that had pager service.

Remarkably, what you describe was the foundation of Research In Motion. They started out in pagers, advanced along with push email and then like most, feature bloated chasing a consumer market into the annals of history.

They should have stuck with consumer markets, but clinged to hardware when what they had was winning software.

If they stuck with messaging software (BBM), they could have been WhatsApp. Which was sold for 6x what they’re worth now.

They only made it platform-independent way too late.

Their core business was Business customers, the company grew out of that. They then pivoted around the time of the pearl towards a consumer market, which was also a couple of years into launching a consumer service BIS, as opposed to BES which required you to have the backend BES software. That was when the focus shifted and at a time in which the Apple and Google offerings started to appear and the rest is all she wrote.

They did offer their messaging software for other phones for a while in the early days, Microsofts CE offering with blackberry connect (iirc the name). It worked, yet didn't traction that well as anybody who really needed it, would be better of buying an older RIM phone and using that and many did stick with the older phones come the rise of the colour screen and onwards.

What they did do well was effecient comms over 2G, once 3G became palatable for chipsets and more so, cost of use, that along with the rise in alternatives from the likes of Apple and Google, helped Blackberry push themselves into an also ran for trying to compete instead of focusing upon the real bread and butter - the Business customers.

But life is always full of what-if's. But all companies have their retrospective if we knew then what we know now moments.

Totally a thing and "it is a marvel of miniaturization" --> https://www.upi.com/Archives/1990/07/31/Motorola-unveils-wri...

What's the Tamagotchi to get nowadays (in Europe)? I would like to buy some as gifts. There's a whole bunch of different models and I'm a bit lost.

Cheques and faxes died with the phone booth 20 years ago in Europe and the developed world outside the US, right?

It was a bit easier because I think prescriptions by fax never took off outside of N. America, but it was the better way.

Unless DEA hasn't bothered to update their website, they still require prescriptions for scheduled drugs to be on paper or via fax. If they actually cared about security (which they don't; nobody in the US government does with the possible exception of the NRC) they'd only allow electronic prescriptions signed by an accredited CA.

Japan says 'Hi'.

Faxes have one crucial advantage over email. The police need a wiretap authorization to intercept them. Of course if your fax machine is connected to the internet (as most are today), they can get around that by hacking.

Even though the US has moved to e-prescribing, there have been some arbitrary limits imposed that didn’t exist on paper. E.g. the instructions line was limited to 140 characters on one major hospital EHR.

Another limit is that it is harder to shop around with an e-prescription. I cannot find a way to get Kaiser's pharmacy to tell me what a given drug will cost out of pocket on my Kaiser plan unless I present them with an actual written prescription. Then they can tell me what it would cost to fill it right there.

So I have my Kaiser doctor, who can easily send e-prescriptions to any pharmacy I choose, instead write me paper prescriptions just so I can find out the Kaiser price, and then decide if I want to fill it there or take somewhere else and use a GoodRx coupon or pay cash.

Analog multimeters

Very useful, especially when tuning or calibrating equipment. I find optimization so much easier on an analogue scale than a digital one.

Yep. Sometimes you only need to know whether or see which direction not how much exactly at this exact moment.

business cards

punch-down patch pannels

"call for quote"

Call for quote to me spells 'go away'. If I have to call for a quote you are (1) going to overcharge me and (2) are afraid that your competitors can beat your price and/or (3) harass me for months afterwards with 'follow up' that I have no desire for.

> Call for quote to me spells 'go away'.

There are many cases where this is by design.

I was recently in the market for a new couch. I walked into a neighborhood furniture store, and I began looking around the showroom confused why there were no price tags on any of the furniture ("ask for the price").

A minute later, the sales person approached me and said "Welcome! [...] Our prices start at $4500 for a lovely sectional. Our store never has sale prices and we don't negotiate price. Our couches are custom order and are delivered 8-12 weeks from the time of purchase. May I take you around the showroom?"

Since I was looking for something delivered next week (at a lower price), I walked out of the store happy that the sales person was so upfront.

Some businesses do not want you as a customer, and use techniques like "Call us for a quote" to weed out customers they know won't buy. Also, some products are inherently difficult to give upfront pricing for before understanding more parameters of the purchase.

Edit: This is especially true of B2B SaaS. A significant number of leads we receive request custom integrations between our internal systems and the customer's internal systems as part of their purchase. In these cases, it's literally impossible to give a quote without multiple calls understanding the complexity and set up cost.

Sure, but does it actually improve things for either side?

That couch business wasted both your time AND the sales rep's time. Who does it help to not post prices?

For B2B, sure, you can't give an exact quote until you figure out the custom logic, but the customer can at least ballpark what long term operation costs will be based on any published pricing you have. I've never talked to a SaaS vendor without some idea of ongoing price, even if we're going to need upfront work that will be priced separately.

> That couch business wasted both your time AND the sales rep's time. Who does it help to not post prices?

Because there isn't a price to show.

The missing detail I left out in the original comment is that the sale rep also said "We have hundreds of fabric and color options available, and we can accomodate any configuration."

Sure, I guess they could post prices for the models sitting on the floor, but that price would only be for that exact configuration. The point is, the sale person wants to spend 1-2 hours working with the customer to determine their fabric preferences, then color preferences, then configuration / shape of the couch. The store does not cater to people who want the ability to walk in, point to something and say "I want that, how much?" - those people are not their customers.

> For B2B, sure, you can't give an exact quote until you figure out the custom logic

In the couch example, it's the same, exact "custom logic" is instead fabric, color, configuration, pull out vs. no pull out, ottoman vs no ottoman, etc.

(For the record, I hate non-transparent pricing as much as anyone. Heap is an example that has been on my mind lately since we're looking at analytics solutions at our company: https://heap.io/pricing - it's impossible to infer the "contact us" pricing, since the only other plan they have is "Free" -- we're on their "Startup" plan for $499/mo, and I have no idea if we're being ripped off, or if that's what everyone else is paying too...)

They can show a breakdown with the base cost of each module, the surcharges for the different fabric and colour options, and a price example for the display unit. It's not rocket surgery, IKEA manages to do this just fine.[0]

[0]: https://www.ikea.com/se/sv/planner/gronlid-planner/

It sounds like that furniture business is trying to gain prestige through a "If you have to ask you can't afford it" model, which can be a viable strategy for very high end goods (though I wouldn't exactly say a ~$5000 sectional fits in that category). The big purchases in such a model make any extra time investment worthwhile versus normal retail

Business cards are definitely not obsolete. I don't receive and give them out as consistently as I used to but they're still common as a way to remember people and maybe make a quick note.

I've had two people ask me for a business card in 10 years. I don't even look to have them made any more.

I'm sure it depends on the job. I regularly use them at customer and partner events and as a way to remember someone/make a quick note at an event. I do use them a lot less consistently than in years past but I still carry them.

Calafornian state department insist on cheques or cash. Now I live in Europe I cannot issues cheques, and I cannot mail cash internationally via courier (law). So how the Dickens do I get my children's birth certificates apostilled (born in US)?

(Ans use a person I trust in the US, but without a social network it's beauracratically impossible)

Use a bill pay service. Most US-based banks offer a bill pay service that will mail a check to the payee. I'm not sure if such a thing exists outside of the US, or if your European bank will mail a USD check.

Euro banks do not issue checks. Maybe bill service could work, can they forward the cheque along with documents like birth certificate originals?

> Euro banks do not issue checks

is not entirely universally true: at least here in Germany, especially business accounts might be able to write cheques, because businesses sometimes have to deal with companies in places were cheques are normal. Do you really need to send it in the same letter as the documents? That makes it harder, since many banks will have a partner bank in the US directly send it instead of handing it to you, but the latter also is possible with some banks. So it could be worth researching if you can use such a banks services, e.g. through someone trusted locally. Bit of a long shot, but ...

I'm in Germany. I am not turning into a business for this. I dunno how you could even say that with a straight face in Germany... Have you seen the paperwork? I asked at Deutsche Bank, but they could not help or think of another bank that could help.

Can't you ask your bank branch to print a cheque for you?

no cheques do not exist anymore in many countries

Would they accept a wire transfer or Western Union?

No, just cash or cheque

Cheques can by definition can never be obsolete as they are simply "a written order directing your bank to pay money [to someone]" and don't have to be on a bank issued and numbered format.

Maybe so but your bank is not going to send money to someone unless they have proof that you are the one sending the order. I doubt you can just mail a letter to your bank and ask them to send money out of your account.

Have you tried? I bet you they would. Mine does it with a phone call!

how do they authenticate over phone. Just curious. Key generator? Something else?

Banks don't necessarily need strong authentication, because that isn't what they are trying to guarantee. Banks have contracts that often guarantee something closer to "eventual consistency", where the ability to rollback or correct transactions is more important than guaranteeing any single transaction is correct at first. In the unlikely event of a problem, they can fix it. The bank judges how much risk they want to take and uses whatever level of authentication they feel is necessary, which might be as little as asking your name and/or account number(s), or calling your phone listed on your account.

My bank has audio biometry (Tatrabanka, Slovakia), they verify your voice during your call automatically. The voice sample is recorded when you open your account. Only if it fails they may ask for additional proof. But I never call the bank since all can be done through the app or web.

Some will have you answer your own security questions.

That's how I learned, red faced, to make sure my answers are something I'm comfortable reading over the phone.

In theory, if you give a bank an instruction, you are the principal and they are the agent, and that means they have to follow your instructions pertaining to your account.

If it's a written instruction, they do need to authenticate it, but they could call you to do so. Or they might charge a big fee for it.

Or they might drag their heels by claiming you have to perform the transaction online because of some policy they have that you don't care about.

But they definitely can't ignore a letter you send them.

And if your bank no longer accepts written orders like that, preferring modern electronic security measures?

It'd be interesting to see them refuse to accept it if it came on a law firm's letterhead.

I wouldn't be surpised if some of the online-only banks popping up in Europe referred that to their online portal too.

I'm sure that fraudesters have attempted that trick and that they have a procedure to authenticate it.

I mean, they are all obsolete. Just because people still haven't upgraded doesn't mean they're not obsolete.

Also surprised they didn't mention the use of tapes by the police: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20556330

Advantages of tape for evidence is that it is way easier to prove that it was an original, not tampered with than a digital form.

WIth that, I worked at the BBC in the early 2k period on a project to replace the last bastions of tapes in radio towards a complete digital system. Remarkably one of the drivers of this move was that the tapes used had stopped being manufactured. Ironically though like many things tech that from a user perspective - just work, parts of that system are still in use today.

But then like many things - if it works, why change it does seem to play out more often than not.

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