Dear S. Larson Of Citibank: You’re Not Real, So Please Retire

I’ve had a Citibank credit card since I was in college. That’s nearly two decades of being with them, which means that little table they stuck up one day at UC Irvine has provided pretty good ROI for the company. Over the years, I’ve had various letters from Citibank, usually signed by the hard-working S. Larson.

I was thinking about S. today. I recently switched to electronic statements, and I got my first email from him or her telling me that my statement was ready. She or he ended the message with:

We hope you continue to enjoy the many benefits of the All-Electronic Program.

S. Larson
Customer Service

S., of course, is not a real person.

I can’t recall when I figured that out, but it was many years ago. It annoyed me when that realization dawned on me, since like many others you can find on the web, I’d written on occasion to S. Larson as if they were a real person.

Why make up a pretend person? Either have someone real from customer service sign the messages or don’t use a name at all. I don’t need S. Larson to join (look away kids) the mythical characters of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy.

Tonight, I decided to see what I could find out about S. I’m not the only one. Over at Yahoo Answers, someone asked about them:

For literally many years now, I’ve been getting various letters about my account from a certain “S. Larson” at Customer Service, Citibank in South Dakota. I have no problem whatsoever with this person or my account, but I have always had a certain suspicion that this is in fact a dummy name and that this person really does not exist. A Google search turns up nothing of relevance (hey, it CAN happen!)

Just curious to know if anyone knows anything more about this famous and elusive “S. Larson” (gender unknown), who must by now be one of the longest employees in Citibank history!

I love answer number two:

I thought it was just me. They could make up a new name every decade or so, don’t you think?

Like the original person asking the question, it’s amazing how there’s nothing definitive that’s easily found about S. Larson. A Google search for “s. larson” citibank just comes back with lots of people referencing the ambiguous, non-gendered, never-aging, never-retiring customer service rep.

Yahoo did a bit better. AT&T Universal Card, S. Larson, and Account “Upgrades” was in the first page of results for the same search and says:

But I was curious: does “S. Larson” really exist, or is he (she?) a phantom generic identity like so many other of these credit card company people. So I called AT&T and asked for Mr. Larson, just to find that, well, he exists, but I can’t talk to him. Uh huh. So I checked the Citigroup annual report and if S. Larson does exist, he’s not important enough to be listed as executive staff. There’s also no mention of “Larson” associated with Citibank, Citigroup or Citi in the Wall Street Journal.

FYI, Windows Live had that result not just on page one but also ranked first, compared to Google oddly listing this PDF file in the number one spot. OK, it’s a funny letter, saying in part:

Let me begin with an apology. Custom dictates that I address this letter to “Mr.” or “Ms.” Larson. Your own letter is signed with a simple and ambiguous “S.Larson/ Customer Service,” a subscription that evades my efforts at reading your gender….

….In reading the letter, one wonders: have they forced you to collapse your first name into the initial “S.,” thereby exploiting your material presence as a worker in (and therefore convenient human representative of) the enormous AT&T Universal Card structure? If this is the case (which the strangely printed script “signature” suggests, as well), then just what happens to you, the individual “S. Larson,” who both resists the corporate erosion of sentiment (as we see in the double valence of “regret,” which is both personal and impersonal, both literal and figurative) and who capitulates at every moment in the brief letter?

But come on, tops for all the things about S. Larson, on the basis of what seems to be one single link? Man, those .edu links from Harvard must be powerful.

At least S. Larson gives proof to the fact that Wikipedia is not all powerful over Google. You know how normally a search there has you stumbling over a Wikipedia link that always shows up in the top results? Well, S. Larson doesn’t trigger anything from Wikipedia. In fact, S. Larson doesn’t warrant an entry at all at Wikipedia, something I hope will change. Stay tuned by monitoring the Wikipedia page about all Larsons here.

Over at Citibank itself, you’d think a search might bring up something about good old S. Nope. Nothing using either the site’s own search engine or a Google search for larson.

If the entire web has failed me in my quest for the origin of S. Larson, surely some newspaper has explored this over time. So I hit the Google News Archive, which supposedly goes back over 200 years of news material. I looked for “s. larson” citibank. Zilch. Well, one thing from 1994:

Worcester Telegram & Gazette : CONTACT
$1.95 – Worcester Telegram Gazette – NewsBank – Oct 13, 1994
JS, Millbury A Contact sent your questions to Citibank Cards, charging fees or surcharges to customers who charge their purchases,” said S. Larson.

Was the Worcester Telegram & Gazette actually quoting S. Larson as a real person?!!! I wanted to know, but not enough to pay the $1.95 to find out. So I did the time tested method of searching for the words around the last words I could see, to get the snippet description to expand.

This search got me an expanded description to the “front” of what I’d seen, the additional material in bold:

our bank does not condone the practice of merchants charging fees or surcharges to customers who charge their purchases,” said S. Larson.

This search got me more to the back:

charging fees or surcharges to customers who charge their purchases,” said S. Larson. As with all billing problems, Larson said, if you send a letter of

Working it more, I eventually got the rest of the question not shown here plus the answer. The person was charged $3 to call and verify her credit card was valid, causing her to write to the newspaper for help. That answer from the paper was:

Contact [the name of the newspaper column] sent your questions to Citibank Cards, Customer Service Center, PO Box 6500, Sioux Falls, SD 57117-6500

“As a member of MasterCard and VISA International, our bank does not condone the practice of merchants charging fees or surcharges to customers who charge their purchases,” said S. Larson. As with all billing problems, Larson said, if you send a letter of Citibank will assist you with this problem.

Yes, the local paper for Worchester, Massachusetts quoting a non-existent person from Citibank. I don’t blame the paper. I blame Citibank. It’s time for S. Larson to be retired. They have worked long enough.

Oh, wondering why I said “they” about S. Larson rather than he or she?

I’ve long used they, a plural pronoun, as a substitute for the singular neuter pronoun that the English language lacks. It’s very handy, and I hope more people do it. It’s an easy way to make any sentence not favoring either males or females. Consider:

  • A student, if they work hard, can graduate with honor.

That’s better than saying:

  • A student, if he works hard, can graduate with honor. (what, you hate women?)
  • A student, if she works hard, can graduate with honor. (what, you hate men?)
  • A student, if he or she works hard, can graduate with honor. (what, you like being awkward?)
  • A student, if s/he works hard, can graduate with honor. (now you’re just in my face being politically correct!)

Of course, usually any sentence that references a single person — and thus may require you to use the singular pronouns of he or she later in the sentence as an antecedent — can usually be turned into a plural form. That allows you to use they and be grammatically correct:

  • Students, if they work hard, can graduate with honor.

See my past post, Sneaked Versus Snuck & Past Tense Versus Past Participle, for more fun with grammar

Postscript (August 6, 2010): Barry Newman from the Wall Street Journal spent the past few weeks trying to track down if S. Larson is real. No luck getting any official confirmation. But it’s a great story to read:  Mystery Writer: Does Citibank’s S. Larson Really Exist?