Low Dollar and High Finance

22 01 2015

Just when you thought the Canadian dollar couldn’t drop any lower, the central bank dropped interest rates another 0.25% the other day to 0.75%. I thought that was low until I checked and found Switzerland’s is currently -0.75%! (Does that mean they pay your mortgage for you?!)

Anyway, the drop in interest rates obviously meant that Canadian dollars became temporarily less attractive and so the exchange rate with the UK’s pound tipped a little more in the UK’s favour. Despite living in Canada for many years now, this wasn’t actually such a bad thing in my particular case…

Before Christmas I decided I’d move a little of my “idle” UK money into Canada in preparation of the expected credit card bills post-turkey. Being an uncomplicated man, I simply wrote a cheque against my UK bank and presented it to my Canadian bank. Thank-you very much and a signature or two later, $1770.60 was sitting all warm and fuzzily in my Canadian account.

HSBC: The world’s local bank (as long as you live near the bank)


And Christmas came. And along with my two beautiful daughters visiting from college, it left again.

And then I got a statement. A totally random debit was made from the account for $1876.78 in early January. It was made on a day when neither myself nor my wife had visited the bank, yet a call to the bank could only tell us a “sundry” transaction had been made. Apparently in person, but there were no other details. It matched no bill or any other legitimate debit I could imagine. They checked that neither of us had presented the necessary plastic card on the day, that neither of us had lost our cards, and sundry other basic checks. Satisfied, they promised to check video camera feeds and get back to us after the fraud investigation.

And then I got a letter (posted a couple of days earlier and from the same bank branch that had just claimed to have no idea about what the heck had happened.) It turned out that when the UK cheque had been presented to my UK bank, they’d refused payment. This, along with a drop in exchange rates and some not inconsiderable fees for doing who knows what (apart from repatriating the original cheque to me) had resulted in me being charged $106.18 more than I’d been awarded in the original transaction. And a Merry Christmas to you too!

ScotiaBank: my actual local bank

Many phone calls later, I learnt that my UK bank had unilaterally decided that since I didn’t use my account very often they’d freeze it. Now to be fair, they’d sent me a letter to this effect last July. It had arrived two days after their “if we don’t hear from you by…” deadline, so I was none too pleased at the time. I had to pay for many long distance, international minutes on the phone since despite being “the world’s local bank” they do not have any freephone numbers outside the UK. It all got sorted out, and mid July, my account was unfrozen. No mention was made of the fact that they’d freeze it again 60 days later if I continued to not use it. So, roll on Christmas (well after the 60 days) and my cheque suddenly became invalid. No mention or warning that this might happen. They even continue to send me paper statements (how quaint – do banks in Europe still do that?! More on this later) illustrating that I have plenty of money in the account… if only I could get to it.

So anyway, after Christmas I learn that indeed the account will continue to be frozen unless I make transactions on it every few days. Plainly I’m not the only person impacted by this policy. It’s intended by the way to avoid “dead” accounts when the owner is, well, dead. By freezing them, the bank supposedly saves money administering the dormant accounts. The irony of the fact they were sending a single sheet of paper with the same numbers on it every single month at great expense to Canada seemed to be lost on them. So to allow people such as myself a little freedom they’ve created a new type of account that you can only create and use online (which helps if you are abroad!). As suggested by the nice man on the phone, I set up a monthly standing order whereby a single pound is transferred every month from my main account into this online account and therefore keeps the main account active. Talk about creating a complex solution to a self-caused problem! So now, if I really DO die, the automated payments will continue… at least until the main account finally gives out in 450 years or so. They’ll keep sending paper statements at vast expense to an address that likely will be underwater, and all just to justify stealing $106 from me!

So anyway… back to interest rates. The Canadian dollar is now slightly less attractive in the world markets and so each of those UK pounds will buy slightly more Canadian dollars. I tried to open an account with Canadian ForEx, which confusingly is actually Australian. For a flat rate of £7 I can transfer money willy nilly to Canada. If I were flush enough to transfer £3,000 or more, it’d actually be free, but let’s not get carried away! The trouble is though… there are anti-fraud laws that require them to prove I really am me. They attempt to do this by asking me to scan a bank statement with my name, account details and a recent date. Trouble being… my bank only gives electronic statements, and since I have to log in to get the statement, they decided there was no point putting my name on it. Furthermore, since I know my account numbers, there’s no point taking the risk of putting the whole number in the statement, so they use a mixture of asterisks and a small selection of the numbers. All this to say… I could not fulfil the anti-fraud requirements as stated. It took a whole week of to-ing and fro-ing, creating PDFs and scanning other statements relating to lines of credit and inside leg measurements, but finally I got it sorted.

Ex-pats wouldn’t give a Canadian ForEx for anything else

So, all’s well that ends well. The exchange rate offered means that I’ve recovered all but a few cents of the $106 I was ripped off by HSBC’s stupidity (and I will still try and recover that anyway via the UK’s ombudsman). And to-boot, I’ve just had a very nice conversation with an Australian guy confirming my transaction, and checking I was happy with the experience.

I’m still angry though that a bank in which you have an account in good standing for THIRTY YEARS could re-freeze an account without warning – verbal or written, and think it perfectly reasonable to refuse to honour a signed and legal cheque. Not to mention having an international marketing campaign about being “the world’s local bank” and then forcing foreign customers to pay long distance charges. They only handle the interaction via phone. No email or online chat options. UK office hours only. Remind me… which century is this again?!

The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

4 10 2014

And Hell is where bankers are created!

I have a very good friend and work colleague who is currently in Europe on business. She was expecting a cheque, representing a considerable amount of expenses from a previous business trip to be paid her by the company, but knew she’d have already left. I was quite flattered that she asked if I’d mind depositing the cheque into her account so she could use online banking whilst abroad to handle her various domestic banking affairs. We determined that the requisite flavour of bank was indeed available in the town where I live, and we jointly made sure the various company finance people involved in the cheque cutting and distribution process knew that I was to receive the cheque rather than keep it under lock and key until her return.

So far, so good…

The cheque was due on Wednesday, and she was relying on the financial promise it represented to be safely sloshing around in her bank account by this coming Monday. For reasons unknown, the expense cheques weren’t processed until yesterday… Friday. Because of our careful preparation, there was no problem getting her particular cheque raised in priority to acquire the two necessary managerial signatures and safely placed into my possession well before I left for the weekend.

Then the fun began…

I ambled up to the appropriate bank’s local branch and briefly took my turn in the Saturday morning queue. The polite young man asked how he could help and I explained my task, handing over the company cheque and the card number previously supplied to me by by friend. “But this is a VISA Card number” I was informed. I explained that my friend – clearly identified in type on the computer printed cheque – was a customer of this august establishment and felt it was not beyond their means to identify her chequeing account based on the provided information from their own VISA number. Politely, the cashier explained he’d need to talk to his manager. After a few minutes where I felt I was being scrutinised by many unseen eyes, and frankly felt like some dodgy bank robber, he returned to explain that the cheque was not “certified” and that were it to “bounce”, my friend would be required to pay fees associated with that event. (Here in Canada, the recipient of a fraudulent cheque is charged by their bank rather than simply not having the funds made available to them!). There was a fee of $35 – payable by me  – to have the cheque certified, and I would have to travel in person to the branch of the bank used by our company, in order to have it certified.

At this point I checked my watch… no, I hadn’t slipped back in time. This was still the 21st Century. Here I was, trying to place money INTO an account, yet I was being treated like a fraudster trying to extract money illegally. I had already had to show ID to establish my own bona fides and now I was being expected to travel physically to downtown Vancouver and pay my own money so that the issuing BRANCH (not merely a random branch of the issuing bank) could verify that it was indeed from our company’s account and that they had sufficient funds to honour it. “But there’s good news” enthused the cashier – “It’s with the same bank, so we may be able to do it on the phone from here.” Oh joy! We have at least recovered time back up to the ’70s.

Having reluctantly agreed to pay the $35 to have my friend’s money deposited into her account, he went back to check the process with his manager. After a further interminable wait, and phone calls, he returned and apologetically gave me the cheque back. They had decided that since my friend had not flagged her account to tell them that she was leaving the country, and had not informed them in writing ahead of time that a third party was to deposit the cheque, they could not assume that I was in fact carrying out her wishes. What if she had really wanted the cheque depositing into some other account?

I was gobsmacked! Here in the internet age where utility companies insist on charging you money if you want a paper copy of your bill, and we encounter steady pressure to go more and more to a paperless business world, I was in a position where I couldn’t place money INTO an account on behalf of a friend. Other banks let you take photographs of a cheque and email it. This one wanted me to travel on a 100km round trip to have a business cheque physically certified AND obtain written permission from the account holder before they would accept the cheque.

Hours later, I still find myself snorting in disbelief. Their only offered alternative was for me to give them CASH (my own).

Bureaucracy… mankind’s greatest triumph!