Sunday, July 18, 2010

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.


Dais said...


cda said...

Loved these two posts for the marvelous intricacies and complexities (and frustrations), but now I'm really scared about how I am going to go about closing an old account I have in the UK, too. I need to do it (my tax accountant says so). Oh, dear.