Point of View: Flushing bank scare brings gambling into focus

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For a couple of days last month, scores of Asians queued up in front of the Flushing branch of Abacus Federal Savings Bank. My intuition was that the bank was probably doing a promotion gimmick — giving gifts away in exchange for deposits.

Years ago when I lived in Manhattan I saw new banks open one after another across the city. To attract business, those financial institutions gave each customer a gift worth $5 to $50, depending on the amount of their deposit. The minimum required was $50, but you could withdraw it after three months.

My assumption, however, was wrong this time. The customers were doing just the opposite, withdrawing money as rumors flew that the Chinatown-based bank was on the verge of bankruptcy. The same situation happened at its branches in other boroughs and in Philadelphia.

The chaos continued for about three days, despite bank officials’ efforts to defuse the situation. Few knew the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, or FDIC, had insured their money up to $100,000.

In fact, many worried customers rushed to the bank and its branches to take their cash and valuables out of their safe deposit boxes that were uninsured.

It was reported that new Chinese immigrants, particularly those from Fujiang Province, are used to storing their cash and valuables in the safe deposit boxes, which they consider as their savings bank. Another reason they lock up their greenbacks in these safe boxes is that they don’t have to pay income taxes on them.

To many, the bank is the most trusted financial institution. But some older folks trust their shoeboxes or pillows more than the bank’s safe boxes. As far I can recall, about $50,000 in cash was found in a shoebox of a “poor’’ fellow who died of natural causes in Chinatown two decades or so ago.

Last month’s unfortunate episode was blamed on a branch manager, Carol Lim, who is accused by federal investigators of stealing $1 million from accounts at the bank, the TimesLedger reported earlier this month. On May 18, the New York Post reported that investigators are pursuing a theory that Lim may have stolen to support a gambling habit.

It’s regrettable that the bank failed to discover earlier the other side of Lim’s alleged lifestyle. It was reported that because of her people skills and local connections she had helped her branch gain a number of customers.

The investigation caused jitters among the bank’s customers, although it only affected account holders of the branch on Canal Street that Lim headed, it was reported.

The event created quite a stir in the media and local Asian community. Three weeks later, business at Abacus Federal Savings Bank and its Flushing branch on Main Street have returned to normal while the FBI hunt for Lim continues.

Like smokers, gamblers find it hard to kick the habit.

According to a recent NBC-TV report, Washington is trying to do something to curb Internet gambling. A retired woman addicted to it has lost all her savings, including funds she set aside for her funeral. It’s very sad. And a 70-year-old retiree has gambled his pension away. He said it would take him 20 years to pay off all his debts.

The latest data show that the number of seniors visiting casinos has increased from 20 percent in 1974 to 50 percent in 1998. No wonder casinos are mushrooming and doing brisk business these days.

According to the May 12 issue of Newsweek and other reports, William J. Bennett, former education secretary under President Ronald Reagan, lost $8 million in about 10 years at casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

He has touted almost every moral issue in “The Book of Virtues’’ except one — gambling. And he says he has made no secret of his gambling. “I’ve gambled all my life, and it’s never been a moral issue with me,” he said. “I liked church bingo when I was growing up.’’

Well, it seems Bennett’s addiction to gambling has contradicted what he’s preaching. Those reports will definitely tarnish his image as a crusader of morality.

Wishing to win something big in life is human nature. But those wishing to hit the jackpot often bite the dust in the end, inevitably causing marriage breakups or domestic fights.

Who are the real winners? Casino owners, of course! This is why casinos are housed in the world’s most luxurious hotels, where the high rollers are treated like kings and queens who can stay in suites with golden facilities for free.

Posted 7:06 pm, October 10, 2011
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