Monday, November 3, 2008

The Perfect Fraud Protection System

When we started planning for this adventure, we went through a number of “What if?” scenarios in an effort to make sure we prepared for unforeseen situations. And then, we discussed our plans with family and friends to see if we could uncover anything that we might have missed. As reality of our adventure began to gather steam, our son, the soon-to-be lawyer, suggested that it would be a really good idea to prepare wills and powers of attorney before we left the country, just in case. We did these things, in part to humor the boy, but also because they sounded like a reasonable suggestions. As our departure drew near, we began to have conversations with the companies that we do regular business: phone, utilities, credit cards, the bank. We wanted to make sure that all the bases were covered. How much time did the company need, for instance, to turn off the phone? Was paperless billing available? If so, we converted to paperless billing. Did we need to order new credit cards because the ones that we have will expire? The lists of questions seemed endless at times, especially those to the banks.

All banks have very efficient fraud departments these days, for which we should be very grateful… And most of the time, we are. A lot of the fraud protection is automated, so we needed to know how to work with their systems. Credit and debit cards are great for international travel because you will generally get a more favorable foreign currency exchange rate on your purchases. But there is a dark side that we had learned about the hard way… Scott went to Costa Rica a couple of years ago, planning on using the credit card for his larger purchases. Unfortunately, we were unaware that we needed to let the credit card company know that he was going to be out of the country. So when he used his card the first time, the company’s fraud detection system automatically shut the card down. It took us three days and a number of conversations with the fraud department to get the card reactivated. Meanwhile, Scott was in Costa Rica with only a few dollars in his pocket. Although we do understand the need for these systems, we were very unhappy with the company and their procedures, as it made life really inconvenient for several days. So armed with this knowledge, many of our questions were about how to do business with them while living in Spain. We did not want our cards shut down when we would be depending on the credit lines for cash and living expenses until we could get things set up in Spain. What sort of notice did the banks need? What papers did we need to sign? And the open ended… Is there anything else we should know? Other questions we should address? And the big one… What have we forgotten?

I went into our bank, in person, sat down and asked my questions about international money transfers? How is it done? Do I need to sign any forms to enable an international bank to pull money from my American bank account? By this time, one of the bank representatives, Holly, knew me personally, and was familiar with the Wild & Crazy Adventure. My bank does not have the capability to exchange currencies so it did not dawn on either Holly or me to address the question of what was necessary in order to initiate an international money transfer from my American bank account. Well… as it turns out, our Spanish bank cannot initiate an international money transfer that pulls money from an international account. The Spanish bank can exchange currencies when it receives a transfer, and it can initiate a transfer that sends money to other accounts, but international money transfers must be initiated at the bank that sends the money. Whoops!

Luckily, I had had the foresight to get Holly’s contact information. (When leaving the country… Always, Always, Always get personal contact information for all important financial entities!) So I sent Holly and email… and we waited… and the days passed without a response (which is very unusual) and the exchange rate began to grow more favorable, and we waited… and so I sent off another email without response, and the day s passed and the dollar gained more... and we began to wonder if perhaps Holly was on vacation. So, after about two weeks, I signed onto the bank website and sent an email to the online bank requesting assistance. They forwarded my email to Holly. Spam filters are a wonderful thing, except when they are not. Apparently, since my Spanish email is on Yahoo, my messages were being blocked by the bank’s extremely efficient spam filters. Anyway, Holly responded promptly, sending us the proper forms to sign. We do not have a printer, so we went to the library and printed the documents. A side note: Europe does not embrace Microsoft products as America does. So it can be difficult to print Word documents. Fonts and formatting do not always translate properly. So our documents printed with a different font and some creative word spacing. But they were legible, so we signed them and put them in the mail back to Holly.

A week and a half passes… the dollar gains more ground, and we begin to get nervous. The world economy is in the toilet, but as the dollar gains ground, we are making money in terms of buying power. That is if we can convert our dollars to euros before the dollar drops again. Then an email arrives… Holly has received the forms, but the bank’s fraud department will not accept them because the font and word spacing is wrong! (Augrrrhhhh!!) Holly is a dear, and sends us the documents in a picture file. By now, Scott has access to the school’s computer system, so we take the bus out to Fatima to print the documents. The picture file doesn’t print well. But luckily we still have the original file, and the school’s computer can work with Word documents. So we print the documents, sign them again, a mail them off to Holly. At the same time I shoot Holly an email, explaining our concerns about the exchange rate and asking if Scott’s mom (armed with powers of attorney) can just sign for us, so we can get the transfer started. Mind you, we aren’t without money. We have the credit cards and we can withdrawal about 600€ a day on our debit card and then walk over to our Spanish bank and deposit the money into our account. It is workable, but seriously inconvenient. (Especially when we had to accumulate the deposit, first month’s rent, and the realtor’s commission in cash.)

A little over a week goes by without an answer from Holly, and we begin to suspect that my email has been blocked again. I hate to be a nag… but then again the dollar is beginning to lose ground and the election is now only days away. We have some concern that the pending election is part of the reason for the still favorable exchange rate, so I sign on to the online bank and ask them to ask Holly to contact me. At the same time, we shoot an email to mom alerting her that we may need some help. Holly responds very promptly. (She is truly going above and beyond the call of duty. I truly appreciate this woman’s diligence and assistance.) No, the forms have not arrived. She suggests that we wait a day or so before we send in mom and the powers of attorney, but suggests that mom can initiate a test transfer. When mom arrives the next morning to initiate the transfer, Holly has our forms in hand. So mom sends the test transfer. With any luck, the test will clear in the next few days, and then we will be able to access our funds in America.

Wow! Who would have believed it would take over 5 weeks (and still counting) to get a wire set up. I am truly grateful for Holly’s diligence and patience through this situation. I am grateful (I think…) for the fraud department’s efficiency that is so effective at blocking me from getting to my money. I am sure that we will laugh over this in the years to come. But I will reserve that judgment until after we actually successfully complete an international transfer.

Our bank may have the perfect fraud protection system, so tight that not even we can get to our money!

Cross your fingers that the exchange rates hold…

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