Using Fear to Sell Pens

Uni-Ball is using fear to sell pens.

I admit that check washing is a problem, but I don't like the fear-mongering in the advertisement.

EDITED TO ADD: Here's a Youtube link to the ad that's still good.

Posted on September 3, 2007 at 9:42 AM • 48 Comments


Zachary BravermanSeptember 3, 2007 10:14 AM

Having lived outside of the US for a long time, it now seems so weirdly quaint to depend upon little slips of paper to transfer money. Here in Japan (and from how many other advanced countries, I wonder) you can, from your computer or at any ATM machine, wire money to anyone in the country instantly and easily. This is how money is transferred almost always. Why still the outdated use of checks?

Mike RankinSeptember 3, 2007 10:34 AM

The US banks still charge a substantial fee for use of the wire system. Many charge as much as $15 or more. I've seen International wires as high as $25.

The US ach system charges about $0.15 per transaction.

Rice Checks CerealSeptember 3, 2007 10:53 AM

Having moved outside the US and discovered that NO ONE ELSE USES CHECKS - followed by conversations with friends back home who never realized that there was another way -

I have to agree - the US check system is the problem here, not check forgery. (For many, many reasons; inefficiency being the biggest.) Mind you, that is protected by many, many laws becaus of the money involved with the transfer fees, the postal system for moving money about via slips of paper...

In addition, I like how there's a fellow there who's an expert on ID Snatching. Next time I need an ID Snatched, I'll know who to hire.

David MagdaSeptember 3, 2007 10:55 AM

Well, it is a bit lame that they're using a scare tactic, but the pen itself is actually of good quality: specifically the ink will last a long time on good quality paper if you're worried about your notes or memoirs being around for the long-term.

Mike Shea had a review of several types of ink, and the 207 came out at the top (along with Noodler's, if you use fountain pens):

Rick AuricchioSeptember 3, 2007 11:02 AM

As for ink embedding into paper fibers, there's always the liquid-ink pens: fountain pens and Sharpies.

Nowadays, though, most banks use check paper that shows obvious evidence of washing. There's often a pale underprint on the face of the check that changes if it's been washed.

Of course, that assumes somebody actually looks at the check.

yoshiSeptember 3, 2007 11:13 AM

The use of checks is a cultural thing which is slowly changing by the fact that many merchants (typically gas stations, restaurants, and small business owners) have stopped accepting them. Many (typically older) people have the impression that checks are "more secure." Here in MN checks are especially ingrained. It wasn't until just a few years ago when my father stopped locking at the built in credit card readers in the gas pumps as a novelty and starting using them.

I write two checks a year. One to the MN Dept of Revenue and the other to the IRS.

anon tooSeptember 3, 2007 11:23 AM

I've had my current checking account for ten years. I've written exactly two paper checks, although many of my bills do not accept direct bank transfer (ACH), so the bank itself sends out paper checks.

The funny thing is that my annual payments to the IRS, the state tax agency, the DMV, and other agencies, confuse them. These agencies still do not understand that the check and any forms may come from different addresses. My cure? I now buy money orders to send to government agencies with the required forms. They understand it and my maximum loss (due to fraud or theft) is the amount I paid for the money order.

Fred X. QuinbySeptember 3, 2007 12:04 PM

I agree. Using fear to sell pens is lame. It dilutes the whole "fear-advertising" matrix. If this keeps up we will become desensitized to fear... and when that happens the terrorists will have won... er... lost... maybe.

merkelcellcancerSeptember 3, 2007 12:16 PM

I agree that check writing is becoming a thing of the past. Check washing is also a crime for those that would risk a higher penalty, that is stealing mail. I never leave outgoing mail in my mailbox on the curb (at the house).

Martin SchröderSeptember 3, 2007 12:17 PM

It's even worse: If you do an online money transfer with Bank of America(!), the recipient get's a hand-written(!) cheque by mail.

But of course, spending billions on security theater at air ports is much more important.

Martin SchröderSeptember 3, 2007 12:27 PM

It's even worse: If you do an online money transfer with Bank of America(!), the recipient get's a hand-written(!) cheque by mail.

But of course, spending billions on security theater at air ports is much more important.

SwashbucklerSeptember 3, 2007 12:39 PM


It's for people like my mom, who has one of those Uniball pens, but doesn't have an ATM card because she doesn't trust them.

SnarkSeptember 3, 2007 12:57 PM

Check writing is way 20th century!

UniBall is marketing to people like Swashbuckler's mom who live in the past.

David RobartsSeptember 3, 2007 1:11 PM

Checks? I'm with yoshi - they aren't needed for transactions with merchants. Credit Card or Cash for me (Debit card if Credit isn't accepted and they don't charge a fee). Bills paid online…the service sorts out who accepts electronic payments and who needs a paper check. I also use handwritten checks to pay individuals I know and for donations to my church.

ReasonableSeptember 3, 2007 1:45 PM

I don't see this as fear-mongering at all.
If you make a pen that protects against check-washing, and if check-washing is a real threat (which it is), how can you advertise it without mentioning check-washing, explaining it, and outlining the consequence? it would be fear-mongering if check-washing was such as unlikely event as to not warrant protection.
I still think a $12.95 pen is a bad deal for most people as the probability of being subject to check-washing is low; but for those who prefer security over efficiency, it's a reasonable product. I'd buy it myself only I don't write checks...

gilbertoSeptember 3, 2007 2:07 PM

Checks still have a place in the 21st century. an individual check can be forensicaly studied and authenticated for forgeries. electronic transactions also have a place, but when I finish paying my mortgage I wil have all the checks I paid with my signature on them. banks also loose information in case you did not know (surprise!!)

AlexSeptember 3, 2007 3:31 PM

In Europe France is one of the last countries where personal checks are still used. It also has one of the most backward economies of the continent.

@gilberto: no doubt banks loose information and make mistakes. But just count the steps in the 'paying by check' proces and see the ample attack vectors both by insiders as by outsiders.....

ChrisSeptember 3, 2007 4:13 PM

Fear-mongering is a very bad tactic, but on the bright side, Uni-ball pens (the 207 line included) are by far the best pens I've ever used.

Matthew SkalaSeptember 3, 2007 6:01 PM

I pay my rent, in Canada, with cheques. I don't know of any other payment format that would be even minimally acceptable, let alone an improvement. Credit cards would charge my landlord 2 or 3%, which they'd pass on to me - and private individuals can't get credit card merchant accounts, which would have been a problem when I was renting a private individual's basement. I don't trust my landlords with access to my account for pre-authorized debits, and that also would be hard to do with a private individual as the recipient of the payment. Money orders are a pain to get, and involve a fee of at least $5 each. Wire transfers, as others have mentioned, cost at least $15. Banks here have "electronic bill payment" systems for things like phone bills, with no user-visible fees, but few if any landlords are big enough corporations to qualify as recipients for such things - and they have to individually arrange it with every bank. Exchanging cash in the amounts and with the frequency involved in paying rent would be a security problem for both me and my landlord. Most people in the general public (as opposed to computer geeks) don't have PayPal, I would refuse to use PayPal for this sort of thing given their lack of consumer protection, and the smart landlord would also refuse to use PayPal for similar reasons. There are a few other online payment systems that might possibly be trustworthy enough, but none that are popular enough for me and the landlord to be expected to agree on one.

As for security, there's a lot to be said for low-tech. Everyone knows or can be taught how to keep their chequebook secure. Everyone can understand what cheque-washing is and what reasonable precautions can be taken against it. But can the *entire population*, including the ones who think that using Windows is a clever idea, be expected to keep themselves safe against keylogger trojans, phishing, and so on? Until they can, I'm not going to be enthusiastic about "Oh, we should do all our payments over the Net instead." Properly used online systems may be more secure than paper-based ones, but paper-based systems are often easier to use properly, and tend to fail in easier-to-understand ways.

CPSeptember 3, 2007 6:30 PM

I would rather they advertise that these pens can be used as weapons on airplanes to stab terrorists.

skateSeptember 3, 2007 8:50 PM

At least those pens probably hinder check washing...

It is those lame counterfeit "detecting" pens that are nothing but starch reactive iodine that I despise. I think people have been falsely busted for their bills failing such a test, but in San Francisco a man was arrested for using a legit $100 bill after the bill **passed** the starch test--and the clerk still called the cops because she was too young to recognize a pre-Big Head $100 bill.

deputyclericSeptember 3, 2007 10:17 PM

I believe personal cheques are still used in the UK, but not so much anymore.

When I lived there, I paid all my monthly bills, including rent, via direct debit. Most everything else was via ATM or credit card.

Here in the US, I am still obligated to pay rent via check. I can pay most bills via credit card (I have a checking account with VISA check card for the purpose) but my power company is still limited to checks and direct debit.

Joseph A Nagy JrSeptember 3, 2007 10:59 PM

That is a pretty rotten way to sell you're product, but I imagine that is something a lot of folks are worried about, or at least something Uniball wants you to be worried about.

ParanoidSeptember 4, 2007 12:32 AM

I have been using Pentel Permarollers for years. Haven't tried "check washing" the ink but they resist fading and smearing well enough to convince me that a solvent attack would fare poorly.

$13 does sound a bit excessive. And check washing just doesn't scale as well as credit fraud.

MarkoSeptember 4, 2007 12:58 AM

I lived couple years in UK before Y2K. The cheques were still there an item which was of monthly use.

-99 our bank in UK introduced an internet payment facility that was capable of showing also our statements online. Only I was not too thrilled due using such systems since early nineties or so back home. Of course first they were terminal applications and only due to internet and web were they more user friendly.

But the point being: I do some shopping of tools & stuff as a joint venture with my brother. I usually pay him online because that saves me the trip to ATM. (We see each others every week and live less than 2km apart, ATM is on the way). There was no charge. I have even paid people small amounts like 1-2€ - for example if I bought something from an online auction. Normally I would pay someone upon producing a parcel-follow-up-code (basically telling me that the seller has mailed me _something_ which has weight ;-).
Last time I visited UK I returned my chequebook as I see that I will not have any unfinished business with Inland Revenue.

But I can see that a charge on money-transfer - being even less than $1 will make people to use whatever method is free - especially if it is something thay are fairly comfortable with.

Some time back my wife sold something worth 20€ and gave her account number to the buyer. The money never came in and she requested the buyer to produce a receipt/statement for the payment. Somewhere on the way the account number had transferred to something else. The money was refunded by the bank after some clarifications were made (took 2-3 weeks) and the buyer "repaid" my wife. Case closed.
If you mailed your cheque and it got cashed out - well tough luck. How do you clarify such an issue?

This is not perfect world. I think that there is a chance of fraud in our system as well. Still I think that it is a bit more secure than mailing out paper slips representing arbitrary amounts of money. Even being that enormous amount of care and security technology is being put into use when doing so.

csrsterSeptember 4, 2007 1:22 AM

Even when I moved to the USA in 1991 it seemed very old-fashioned that I had to pay my utilities by writing a check, putting it in an envelope, sticking a stamp on it and putting it in the mail. In Britain I would have visited the bank (any high street bank) once a month and paid the whole lot by Giro - and come out with receipts in my hand to prove I had done it.

supersnailSeptember 4, 2007 2:26 AM

Payment systems vary wildly form country to country, but, in most of europe you can transfer money from your bank account to anyone elses bank account with a simple online transaction or a visit to an enablmed ATM -- for free.

This is how most bills are paid. Even the older French/Belgian/Dutch paper system "le virment" was more efficient than checking as the bill contained a "transfer to" form and you only had to fill in your account number and sign (if you ticked a little box your account number would be preprinted next time you got a bill.

The driving force behind these easy to use electronic transfers was cost cutting -- getting the customer to do the data entry and having no paper to handle saves a fortune in operating costs.

I think you USains and Canadians are being taken for suckers once more. By keeping the charges for a very low cost electronic service high they can continue to hit you for 15 cents each time you pay a bill.

bad JimSeptember 4, 2007 3:04 AM

It does sound like those sneaky Yurpeans once again have a superior system.

I actually enjoy writing checks for the opportunity to exercise my fine fountain pens. I even visit the post office to stock up on commemorative stamps with which to festoon the envelopes in which I mail such checks.

Yes, I am retired. kthxby

JuergenSeptember 4, 2007 4:02 AM

The sneaky Yurpeans even use public-key-cryptosystems for their homebanking applications, with the key safely stored in a smartcard, and the smartcard-reader having its own little keyboard to enter the PIN.

Next step will be a wide-scale rollout of smartcard-readers with little displays that tell you just what transaction your smartcard is asked to sign - once that is available at mass-market prices, we'll be able to "download" money from bank accounts directly onto the smartcard and pay with that instead of cash.

Paul RenaultSeptember 4, 2007 6:24 AM

I've been using those Uniball pens for about a year now:
The ink sets into the paper instantly and doesn't smear onto your fingers - a consideration if you're left-handed, writing with your hand above the line, like me. They're great for doing the crossword on newsprint.
I do find, however, that the nibs don't last as long as the ink supply does.

As long as people are spouting generalities, yes, we still use cheques in Canada - at least those giant-sized ones, for our free-of-income-tax lottery prizes. So that makes it three, THREE, countries' banks that still accept cheques.

ErasmusSeptember 4, 2007 7:49 AM

If you get married or register a birth or death in the UK you are not allowed to sign the official document with your own pen: the registrar will hand you her special fountain pen with a permanent ink that can't be tampered with.
I presume this is a similar concept, just a lot, lot older?

Matthew SkalaSeptember 4, 2007 8:40 AM

In addition to the other concerns mentioned above, it's a problem to require that everyone have a computer (costs a few hundred dollars at least), Internet connection (costs at least $20/month), and secure space to keep and use them privately (unavailable at any price, if you are living in a situation where you don't financially trust your housemates) to use a payment system. Here in Canada, banks are required to provide a cheap chequing account to basically anyone who needs one, precisely because being able to write cheques is necessary for participation in society. Requiring secure private Internet access in order to use the payment system, isn't acceptable.

Some of the systems used in other countries, as described above, work through the ATMs, so you only need to open an account to get access. That's the right way to do it; it raises concerns about coerced use, but those can be dealt with in reasonable ways. Some of the substitutes suggested, involving the user's computer, are unacceptable if they don't also provide an option for people who don't have trustworthy computers.

bobSeptember 4, 2007 10:28 AM

All advertising, from pens to pet food to politicians is designed to convince you that [whatever they are selling] is a solution to a problem you have. Once you acknowledge that this pen is a legal item, then you pretty much have to let them tell people that check washing is a problem and this pen will fix it.

Personally I use CheckFree and would change banks or tradesmen before giving it up.

bobSeptember 4, 2007 10:30 AM

@Zachary Braverman: I thought Japan still had those little styluses you stamped your seal into wax with?

JimSeptember 4, 2007 11:08 AM

Playing on fear to sell stuff isn't new -- seen an ADT ad recently? What's really amusing about that page is that it refers to "One of the most respected ID theft experts, Frank W. Abagnale..." Many words could be used to describe Abagnale, some of them even complimentary, but "respected" probably isn't one of them.

Chris SSeptember 4, 2007 12:42 PM

@Matthew Skala: "to require that everyone have a computer"

It's more 'have access to a computer' and connection. So - use a public library, making zero cost to you for both the machine and the connection.

Yes - you will need to be more careful in your choice of time, place, and your awareness of surroundings, but that's doable.

And for person-to-person, in Canada, most banks support an "email money transfer". (Only the notification goes via email, and you only need to know the recipient's email address to send one.) These typically cost about $1.50, but many service packages include one or two free per month. And - it is actually possible to receive such a payment without banking online.

Cheques are disappearing here, but slowly. Most big merchants, though, will now refuse personal cheques entirely. A debit card transaction costs both you and them less - the only people writing cheques for groceries are likely the ones without the money in the account right now.

WimperSeptember 4, 2007 1:28 PM

Oh Boo Hoo!

Don't like the product? Don't buy it. Don't like the commercial? Change the channel, or TIVO your programs and stop watching commercials.

Why don't you complain about fear-mongering that you're forced to pay for (and then consume)? (see below)

JamieSeptember 4, 2007 8:20 PM

Here in New Zealand, we've been using electronic payment methods as long as I can remember. The number of places that still accept cheques is small, and growing smaller every year.

By far, the most popular system of payment is EFTPOS (electronic funds trasfer at point of sale) using a swipe-and-PIN debit card. EFTPOS can also be used with credit cards (sign or PIN), but a number of merchants accept only debit cards. It's rare to find a store that doesn't have EFTPOS available.

Another thing that's common here is the use of internet banking. All of our major banks allow direct credit transfers to another NZ bank account. This is incredibly useful for items bought over the internet, either from e-tailers or via TradeMe (NZ equivalent of eBay).

ChuckSeptember 4, 2007 10:17 PM

I like the pens. I quit using the pens which this company used to make a couple of years ago because the ink was VERY washable. They have greatly improved their product and it seems reasonable of them to point it out. It does seem a little curious that they don't point out that they used to make much worse pens in this respect. I guess "Improved" is no longer a good selling point.

ChuckSeptember 4, 2007 10:19 PM

Very sorry about the above. There was no response to clicking the Post button. Have I participated in some sort of study?

Ink BlotSeptember 5, 2007 9:44 AM

1. A bit much, but they make pens.
2. Aside from the ads and whether it actually works as advertised, I also like the Uni-ball® 207™. It's become my pen-of-choice for everyday applications.
3. I still write lots of checks. I suppose I'm over the hill.

bobSeptember 5, 2007 1:41 PM

I always carry my own pen with me. Its nothing special, just a basic pilot fine pt, but I am used to it and I have a "quick draw" reflex to get it out of my pocket when I need to write/sign something.

However, companies should not be letting me sign stuff with it; for all they know it is radioactive or disappearing ink or something.

moonglumSeptember 5, 2007 3:21 PM

I fnid this rather humorus as an FDA auditor deminstarted why useign a uniball gell pen on my SOP's could have landed me in federal prision... He rather vividaly demonistrated that gell pen ink can be licked off the page

sondbaxSeptember 6, 2007 2:37 PM

I'll second the approval for Noodler's 'way upthread. I'm less concerned about check washing than about what I've written getting rained on. I've seen their publicity mention check fraud as well, but my distant recollection is that they were more graceful about it.

Bill NeuendorffSeptember 17, 2007 7:49 PM

>It may seem trivial but it can be a great pain in the ass. Our local
neighborhood mail box was robbed. I had posted an envelope with a $156 check in it. The thief used a commonly available chemical/plastic to
remove the payee name and wrote in his own name and cashed it at
my local bank branch. The bank replaced the money. However, it is the
bank’s policy that in the case of an altered check the account must be
closed. They didn’t tell me that – they just said, “you really should
close that account��?. The account rarely has a large balance and I
didn’t think the level of the theft indicated a high risk of a repeat.
I rarely use checks and the ones I do write are small so I considered the risk small. When I didn’t close the account, the bank closed it arbitrarily without notifying me. That and some other stupid behavior and dumb correspondence caused us some grief. Opening a new account is not a trivial thing either. Automatic deposits and automatic bill
payments all have to be redirected. I spent a lot of hours on this adventure. A truly indelible pen would be
be useful. Of course better authentication would really be better. BTW in an email to the bank on a related subject I asked them when they were going to follow the industry trend and implement two factor authentication for on-line transactions. The answer was "please explain what that is..."

Jonathan WilsonFebruary 16, 2009 10:07 PM

The problem is not cheques, the problem is the backwards US banking system.

Here in Australia, I can transfer money to anyone in the country assuming I have their BSB number (which identifies the bank and branch) and account number, neither of which are of any use to gain access to money in their account on their own. It takes me less than 5 minutes to do it on my on-line bank and I don't pay any fees for doing so.

I can make the payment a 1 time payment or a recurring payment (I have a recurring payment set up to pay the rent every fortnight).

Other things such as my Internet, health insurance and home insurance get debited automatically (I just had to fill in a direct debit authorization form IIRC) and again it costs me nothing.

For bills such as power, home phone and mobile phone that come as pieces of paper, I can log on and pay easily via bPay (either as a 1 off or a recurring payment) and pay no fees.

I can take money out from any ATM in the country (although if I use an ATM that is not part of my banks network, I do pay a fee) and I can pay for stuff (and take cash out if the merchant supports it) via EFTPOS from any merchant that has an EFTPOS terminal. I do not pay any fees at all for using my own banks ATMs or for using EFTPOS.

The only fees I pay are a 75c/month fee for having on-line banking, a $1.50 fee for having a Visa Debit card, fees for using someone else's ATM (which is why I don't use someone else's ATM if I can avoid it) plus a fee for buying stuff in a foriegn currency with the Visa. (and that last one is actually charged by Visa and just passed on by the bank I believe)

Leave a comment

Allowed HTML: <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre>

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Co3 Systems, Inc..