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ATMs, the Internet, and Foreign Policy

Sometimes you get blindsided.

Edward and I put a lot of effort into arranging our finances before we went on this trip. How were our bills going to be paid? How were we going to get money? How many credit cards should we carry, and which ones? How could we put our affairs in order to minimize the impact on our family and our tenant/housesitter?

Edward discovered an internet bank that not only didn't charge for using other banks' ATMs, (it didn't have any of its own) but reimbursed any ATM fees charged by other banks. So far, it's reimbursed about $130, a significant sum.

Wow! We opened accounts, got ATM cards, and arranged for transfers from our primary accounts. Banks use automatic fraud-detection software that can be pretty stupid. Edward once had his card blocked because of some overseas transactions his bank thought unusual. We didn't want that to happen again, so, to be safe, we gave the bank our itinerary.

I set up online bill paying for my bills from my other account. Edward, who has more bills than I do, signed up with an online bill-paying service from this account. Our tenant was wonderful about taking care of the few things we could not take care of.

Since June, whenever I've needed money, I've gone to an ATM, and gotten money. Whenever it's been time to balance my checkbook, I've gone online securely on Edward's tiny little UNIX box and checked my account history. When I've had to pay bills, I go online and pay them. Edward's bill-paying service has worked well for him.

We had a hiccup here and there, but nothing major. The bank was perfectly happy with my use of ATMs in Boston, New York, Washington, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Brazil and Portugal. Then for some reason, its automatic fraud detection software flagged my first withdrawal in Spain as potentially fraudulent. They didn't block the account, but did call, and left a message. I called, reassured them that I really had withdrawn the money in Spain, and gave them my itinerary AGAIN. I used ATMs through Spain, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Austria, and Italy, without any problems.

Then our tenant moved out, and I panicked. Where would we find a tenant or house-sitter we could trust to handle what we couldn't handle remotely? Turns out, we found her at Balboa. My colleague Emily hasn't even moved in yet, but is already wonderful. We breathed a sigh of relief.

Maybe I should have bought one of the amulets we see for sale everywhere in Syria and Turkey before I sighed.

We have just spent a fraught week filled with nailbiting and hours-long late-night phone calls to our bank. It turns out our carefully constructed financial arrangements were a house of cards, and they fell down.

This is what happened.

Syria has been on our itinerary from almost the beginning of our planning. When we gave the bank our itinerary, Syria was on it. If you've been reading this journal, you know that we had a wonderful time there, and are glad we went.

Syria is one of the US government's least favorite governments. There are economic sanctions against Syria. (Edward is telling me that the sanctions aren't against Syria, but against the Syrian government and certain individuals in Syria.) I found the regulations incomprehensible, but Edward is pretty good at reading that sort of thing. I trust him when he says that travel to Syria isn't like travel to Cuba. It's legal for US citizens to go there, and to spend money there. Doing business with the Syrian government is illegal, and flying Syrian Airlines is illegal. No problem. We figured we'd use private banks, and we didn't take the one direct flight from Rome to Damascus on Syrian Airlines, but instead, spent an extra 12 hours in transit and flew via Qatar.

We arrived in Syria on New Year's Day. At the airport, I went to an ATM of a private bank, and got some Syrian currency. I had no problem. Why should I? It was legal.

After our overnight flight caused by US sanctions, we wanted a comfortable hotel. Our comfortable hotel had internet and an in-room phone. How convenient! That evening, I tried to check my balance on line. I got a message: "We need to verify your identity. Please contact us." They gave a US toll-free number. The same thing happened to Edward.

You can't call a US toll-free number from overseas without going through some hoops. The hoops we were to go through were three links away from the message. I followed the links, and jumped through the hoops, but it didn't work. So we found a not-800 number for my bank, and made a very expensive phone call.

We talked to the bank. We were told we couldn't check our balance on-line from Syria. Okay. A little weird, but okay. Certainly not alarming, not an emergency. We were only going to be in Syria a few weeks. As long as we could still get money when we needed it . . . One ATM didn't work with my card, but the second one we tried did, and we didn't worry. I continued to use my ATM to get money whenever we needed it in Damascus.

When we've had to use a credit card, we've used Edward's. So we usually use my ATM card to get cash. We didn't try Edward's ATM card till Aleppo, when we couldn't find an ATM that worked with my card OR his card. We didn't worry, because a friendly Dane at our hotel had trouble finding an ATM too. He found one that worked for him but not us, but different cards are on different networks, so that wasn't that surprising. We changed some cash dollars, and, though we were concerned, we didn't worry too much.

We tried to call the bank a few times to find out what the problem was, using that expensive, non-800 number. We tried from Edward's international roaming cell phone, from my Syrian cell phone, and from a land line. We never got through. We put it down to Syria's serious infrastructure problems, and figured we'd call when we got to Turkey.

As soon as we got to Turkey, we went to a bank. I went to an ATM. I got money. No problem. Whew. Edward tried to get some money. Uh oh. His card didn't work. We figured we better call the bank as soon as possible.

Then I spent a day communing with the toilet.

Saturday night, when I emerged from the bathroom shaken and weak, we called the bank, and got a surprise.

We were told that our bank bans all transactions originating in Syria. It blocks any accounts with any transactions or communication originating in Syria. That means it honors no checks, allows no withdrawals, and rejects deposits and transfers -- from anywhere. As soon as we tried to check our accounts from a Syrian IP address, we were blocked.

"But Ruth continued to use her ATM card to get money." "That was an error on our part." "But we talked to you and you didn't tell us you blocked our accounts." "We left you a message." "Where?" "On your home phone." "Did you listen to the prompt on our home phone, to the part where it says, "We are overseas for a year, and will not get any messages left at this number." The part where it says, "If you want to reach us, leave a message at 415-xxx-xxxx?" " "That was an error on our part."

It turns out that, not only could Edward not get money with his ATM card, but they had rejected all payments from his account initiated by his bill-paying service. They had rejected the payment to his bill-paying service, so Edward couldn't even see what had been rejected. Had his health insurance been paid? The house bills? The bank had sent a deposit of his off into the void, and couldn't tell him where it had been returned to. My arrangements are simpler, so my affairs were not so confused.

We would actually have been better off if my ATM card had not worked. We would have tried harder to figure out what was going on sooner.

We ended up spending about 8 hours on the phone with the bank over 3 nights, and we're not quite done untangling everything. We caught things right before things got really messy, before accounts started getting cancelled. Another few days, and Edward might have ended up without credit cards our health insurance.

There have been some surreal moments. On our first call to the bank from Turkey, we got the same guy we had talked to on our one and only successful call from Syria. He remembered us. He couldn't do anything to help us for three days, because of the MLK long weekend.

On Tuesday morning, I made a withdrawal from a Turkish bank in a Turkish city with my ATM card, which was still working. That evening, someone from another department called us, on our Turkish cell phone with a Turkish phone number, but wouldn't talk to us on the cell phone, because he needed proof we weren't in Syria. Fortunately, we were at a good enough hotel to have a phone in the room.

The thing is, we did nothing illegal at any time. Our bank, on its own, decided that its customers shouldn't go to Syria, and that if they did, their lives would be hell. It's not in any of the account fine-print. They didn't warn us the two times we gave them our itinerary. They didn't tell us when we talked to them the first time from Syria, before things got really messy. They didn't block our accounts the same way, even though we had the same activity. They left us a message on a machine that told them we wouldn't get the message.

They know they screwed up. They've already offered Edward some money for his time and trouble, though not nearly enough.

But I'm angry that my bank makes travel decisions for their customers without warning their customers they are doing so. The problem for us wasn't our government's sanctions. It was our bank's sanctions.

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A year ago today, my travelling companion and I were en route from Rome to Damascus. It took us all day to get there: Travel agencies in the USA aren't able to sell tickets on the direct flight on Syrian Arab Airlines, so we went way out of our way... [Read More]

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 26, 2008 6:07 PM.

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