Sunday, July 18, 2010

Faceless bureaucracies, part II

Flash forward to 2010. This time: international tax horror! Greg got creative and authored this account of our tale to HM Revenue and Customs. Since I am not sure anyone at HM Revenue and Customs will ever read it, I thought I'd post it here as both an amusing diversion and a warning to all:

13 July, 2010
HM Revenue and Customs
Saxon House
Causway Lane
Leicester LE1 4AA UK

Dear HM Revenue and Customs:

Enclosed please find copies of my tax returns for 2009-10 as well as 2008-09, with my sincere apologies for being late with the latter.

No doubt you are quite busy, and probably not interested in hearing yet another tale of why someone’s tax return is being filed late. But, in case I am wrong, and at the very least perhaps to provide a bit of amusement, I will tell the sad tale of my 2008-09 return. First, you will notice of course that my UK taxes are not especially complicated. I live in the United States, and I am a United States citizen. I am neither resident nor domiciled in the UK, and have not lived in the UK since 2003. I happen to still have a bank account in the UK, however, and every year it earns a few pounds of interest, so I need to file a return. Each year, taxes are withheld, and, after a certain amount of mail and effort on all sides, around a pound is refunded.

Now, in the US, the big tax deadline every year is April 15. So, around January, I begin collecting various bits of paperwork for filing taxes. In fact, it was in January that I realized that the deadline for UK filing online was the end of the month. ‘No problem,’ I thought, ‘I will simply enroll and file online. How hard can it be?’ I was proud that this was the environmentally responsible approach as well. However, for some reason I couldn’t log in. I called the helpline (finding a helpline number that is accessible from abroad was actually something of a feat in itself), and learned that (1) I had previously tried to sign up several years before and, because I’d forgotten my password, I would have to have my account re-set, and (2) this would require sending something in the post that would inevitably arrive after the deadline. So, I resigned myself to being a week or two late, and waited for something to arrive in the post. At least, the gentleman on the telephone assured me, it was unlikely that any fees would be assessed, as I don’t owe any taxes. (Did I mention that my UK income in 2008-09 was 10 pounds of bank interest?)

Weeks went by, and nothing materialized. By the end of March, I was beginning to suspect that something had gone horribly wrong. I looked back again at the website, and discovered that, apparently, the sending of a user ID and activation PIN required me to actually sign up again. That detail somehow hadn’t gotten communicated effectively in my conversation with the helpline agent back in January. So, I tried registering again, and was presented with a message announcing that a newly issued user ID and PIN were en route to me. They would need to be used within 28 days or they would expire and have to be re-issued. Surely that would be plenty of time for a letter to cross the Atlantic.

I won’t even attempt to spell the name of that notorious Icelandic volcano, but suffice it to say that April was not the most ideal month for air traffic across the north Atlantic. Whether this was the cause of my next set of woes or not, I cannot say for certain. But some time in the third week in April, I received a friendly letter – dated March 31 – from the UK Government Gateway, providing me with a brand new User ID. I tried to use it to sign up, but it required a PIN, which I did NOT have. Obviously there must be a second letter, but where was it?

Then, on April 28, the postman brought the second letter from Government Gateway. The letter landed in my hands after I returned home from my day’s activities, a little after 4pm: 28 days to the day from the date of the letter. Converting from Mountain Time to GMT, I realized I had a little under an hour before midnight GMT. Just in the nick of time! I immediately logged in to the Government Gateway. Here’s what I saw:

Now, I promise you I am not making this up. I’m not sure I could make this up.

Of course, I tried again after the site was back up, and of course my PIN had stopped working. With a very deep sigh – and after a few weeks of trying in vain to find someone on the other end of a phone or email who could re-awaken my deactivated PIN – I finally succumbed to the inevitable, and re-registered for Self Assessment Online. Whether by grace of clear northern skies or some other mystery, this time my User ID and PIN arrived well in time. With an enormous sense of relief, I finally succeeded in registering online for Self Assessment. It was with that little sense of accomplishment that I set off on summer travels.

When I returned in July, I sat down to carry out the task of filing my UK taxes online. Guess what helpful little message popped up when I ultimately navigated to the key page?

As it happens, I am not a Minister of Religion, and I am certainly not a Lloyds Underwriter. However, as I believe I mentioned earlier, I am indeed both non-resident and non-domiciled in the UK.

Could it really be that all those cheery notices touting the many virtues of filing online had been leading me down the garden path all along? And why did those friendly and reassuring helpline agents, way back in January, fail to mention this inconvenient little fact? Filing online from overseas: it sounds so simple! So economical! So sparing of the international postal system! And, alas, so impossible.

Ah, well. I give up. I will go back to the annual ritual of sending paper forms in thick envelopes across the Atlantic, to officially acknowledge my earning of a few pounds of interest in a bank account. I don’t suppose it would do any good if I were to offer to let the UK government keep all future withheld tax as long as I can be spared the burden of posting these tax returns from afar? Please?? No, I thought not.

In view of these circumstances, and that fact that I don’t actually owe any taxes, please remove the 100-pound overdue penalty. Believe me, I have well and truly learned my lesson!

Repentantly yours,

Gregory E. Tucker

Faceless bureaucracies, part I

Large faceless institutions are the stuff of nightmares! I thought I wrote about my lovely experiences with our internet bank in the UK, but looks like I was wrong, so I'll have to recap here as a prelude to the current debacle. Really, I love this story! International banking horror!

When we moved the states in 2004, we needed to transfer our money from England. It was a fair amount of money as we had sold our house there, so a small percentage difference could easily be thousands of dollars. We did our research. We found a good way to do it online that avoided a lot of the fees banks will charge you (the banks won't disclose exactly what these fees are, they just say it is a percentage of the exchange rate) and we planned to do it over several weeks so that we could average out a fluctuating exchange rate. We learned that if we did an electronic transfer, it was free (unlike checks and wire transfers). However, our bank, an internet bank, which, according to Wikipedia, was "set up at a time when many banks were exploring opportunities to utilise new technology to reduce the costs of providing financial services" and whose motto was "the way all banks will be," did not make this easy for us.

It seemed very backwards to us, but we encountered the following difficulties: We could have an internet bank account but we could not have internet access to our account because we lived overseas. We needed to call on the phone to initiate a transfer (a calling card at least made the cost of this negligible). And, after failing a few times, we learned that this call needed to placed between 8am and noon, UK time. That's 1am to 5am Colorado time. No, I could not call the day before to initiate a transfer. I can't think of a worse 4 hr interval to make a phone call: 1am is a little too late and 5am is a little too early, but that was the deal. I'd set the alarm for 2am for each transaction. Sigh.

There were many, many frustratingly ridiculous interactions with this bank, but we muddled through. When at last our account was nearly empty, I told the teller on the phone I was ready to close my account and wanted to transfer the remaining funds out. He gave me the amount in the account and I arranged a transfer of that amount to another UK brick and mortar account. I did a little dance of joy now that I was rid of that clumsy internet bank that had been such a thorn in my side.

The next month, I was horrified to find an envelope addressed to me with the bank's logo on it. Whatever could it be? Sent to me across the sea was a statement for 1 pence. One cent. Unfortunately, between the time the teller had quoted me a figure and the time the money had been transfered, it had earned 1p of interest. My account was still open and active. I ignored the statements, hoping they would go away. They continued to arrive.

My conscience gnawed at me. All the paper, printer ink, and energy it took to mail these statements thousands of miles! I had to take action to close the account once and for all. So I bit the bullet and wrote a cheque, for exactly 1 pence, and put an 80 cent stamp on it to mail it across the ocean for someone to process in order to stop the madness. Just stop.

Then another letter arrived with the ominous logo. This time, it was even worse: a notice that we were overdrawn by 99p. Apparently, the bank where I had sent the cheque has misread it as 1 pound, not 1 pence. My good deed had resulted in penalty fees and interest that was mounting. Noooooooo!

By this time our calling card had been used up, but I didn't see what else to do. I set my alarm, got up in the middle of the night, and gave them a piece of my mind. Including being on hold, I think the call probably cost me about $30. But they did agree to waive the penalties and eat the 99p in the end. It was done. I never heard from them again. One faceless bureaucracy out of my life.