Sunday, May 2, 2021

Barend Vlaardingerbroek: Do I have a right to my own money or not?

I never thought the day would come – BV having a cell phone.

Over the years I have said lots of nasty things, some of them recorded in these annals, about androids glued to their little plastic-and-silicon control boxes. Admittedly that has mostly been with so-called smart phones in mind, but I am only marginally more favourably inclined towards cell phones. Alright, some people need them for their work – medics, for instance – but most of us don’t. I am one of those who don’t – or thought I was. 

Now, beside the tele, there lies a little plastic bag containing BV’s cell phone and a little pad in which I have written instructions to myself on what buttons to press and when. History has been made. What has brought about this momentous turn-around?

Answer: my bank in NZ. 

For years, I have been using internet banking to conduct my financial affairs in NZ, which is where all my money, other than a few tens of millions of near-worthless Lebanese Lira and a small stack of old US banknotes, is held.

But then a message appeared to the effect that a payment could not be confirmed because of the lack of a mobile number. Oh dear, what now? After much gnashing of teeth and a deluge of choice commentary which had best not be repeated here, I went to a local phone shop and purchased a wee Nokia.

I had never used such a device before and the instruction leaflet is in Arabic, so I had no clue what to do. The guy at the phone shop showed me but all I could see was flashing fingers – nothing sank in. I had to get onto a Call Centre to let them know that I now had a mobile number to which end I enlisted the assistance of my greengrocer, an engineering graduate (that’s why he sells spuds and carrots and caulis to make a decent living – this is Lebanon, folks) with good English. So there I was, sitting on a shopfront patio in a street in Hamra, trying to conduct a conversation with someone in Wellington. (Stupid conversation it was, too – who’s my favourite musician? Depends on my mood, mate……. how do I know what mood I was in when answering that question so long ago I don’t even recall being asked it? Was it Mick Jagger? No? Oh well, maybe we’ll do better on where my mother was born…..)

I knew that I would eventually have to crack this thing myself, so I ambushed a friend on his way to his office at the university and would not release him until he gave me a tutoring session, which we did in an undergrad science lab. He said he didn’t know much about Nokias, but anything he did know was a great deal more than I did, so kindly share with me. At the end of the session I made a quip about asking the first 9-year-old I ran into to help me should I get in trouble. “Nah,” he replied, “This phone is far too old-fashioned for 9-year-olds. They moved on to smart phones at the age of 6.”

Sarcy tutors notwithstanding, the session put me on track and I now know how to use some of the functions on the blasted miniature black box. One of the problems had been that I hadn’t realised that the big square button does different things depending on whether you press the top, bottom, left side, right side or middle. Well how the blazes was I supposed to know that (rhetorical statement, no question mark).

So all is well that ends well, right? No, wrong. Next, I am being told that I need an ‘activation code’ so that the machine will enact my mobile number. We’ll send it to you as a text message to your phone, says the bank. But the message never arrived.

Suspecting there might be a problem sending a text message from NZ to Lebanon, I asked a rellie in NZ to send a message to my newly acquired gizmo. About one minute after emailing her with that request, there was a message from her in the little Nokia’s inbox.

I kept on hassling the bank about it and finally heard from their IT dept. They asked me whether my phone ‘roamed’. I assured them that it is always in the plastic bag I keep it in and never roams (couldn’t resist that one – I still don’t know what the verb ‘to roam’ means when applied to cell phones and don’t really want to know).  They passed the problem on to their service provider from whom I never heard a squeak.

The bank tried to call me but the system was unstable and we couldn’t talk. Nothing is working as it should in Lebanon. Power outages are frequent and not always predictable. Communications networks are unstable. It’s hit and miss. Problem not solved.

And a problem it was starting to look, given that we are leaving Lebanon soon headed for Turkey where I can devote my time and energy to the arduous task of getting us back to NZ when I’m not too tanked up with excellent Turkish pilsner (the Germans taught them well!).

In the good old days, you needed three things when travelling abroad: passport, tickets and Traveller’s Cheques. The last of these have been replaced by a daunting set of tasks involving digital communications and bits of plastic. I have never had a credit card because they’re a rip-off, but ‘needs, must’ so I enquired about getting one. That will involve analysing three months of bank statements here in Lebanon, says my NZ bank. Good idea, says I; we’ve been having hyperinflation here and I have been spending more than I earn. Oh, how sad, no credit card then.

 I had a debit card sent to me instead but was a bit alarmed when the PIN hadn’t arrived 2 weeks later despite having been couriered. A second PIN was sent and delivered. But could I use the card without a validated mobile number? A bank advisor said yes, but that’s not the way I read the regulations. My bank here told me they couldn’t help me ‘activate’ the card and warned me against shoving it into the slot of a Lebanese ATM. I kept at them and eventually – weeks later – received an email telling me they could activate the card for me. Doesn’t solve the problem of the missing mobile number activation code, of course…

They also sent me a telegraphic transfer form. Why am I willing to bet a pound to a peanut that won’t work as intended?

Time for Plan B: I told them I would be sending a very large cheque to a relative in NZ who will act as my banker by sending me money while in Turkey through Western Union when we need it and will arrange for the payment of our repatriation fares. They said they would lift the block on my sending her the money by direct transfer on that occasion so I saved myself over half a million Lira in courier fees. Problem solved? Not really. It’s utterly preposterous that a retired nurse should have to take a crash-course in international finance and become a banker for a NZ couple stranded in the Near East whose access to their money in a NZ bank is far from assured. But it beats having to take to street-busking when we get to Istanbul.

A question that has arisen in my mind in the course of these tribulations is: do I have a right to access my own money or do I not? If I do, at what point is the bank behaving in an obstructive manner by setting up technical barriers that I am unable to negotiate because of my current location?

The question has arisen before in the plural context – our money. My wife is a disabled person who is unable to communicate by means of the written word in either direction. It has never been an issue for us that all financial dealings are seen to by me – it’s part of my spousal duties, like doing the cooking and rolling the ciggies for her. Of course, as you get on, you start making provisions based on the approaching prospect that one of you will snuff it and needs to leave the other well provided for. I took up the issue of making my accounts joint with the bank a couple of years ago but was presented with such a raft of bureaucratic requirements – some of which could probably not be met in Lebanon – that we decided to leave it until we get back. I’d better go easy on the smokes and the booze in the meantime.

It should be a no-brainer: it’s MY lolly, every cent of it legitimately acquired, none of it borrowed, and in the absence of a court putting a freeze on my assets, I damn well have a right to use it. Putting this right into effect is no problem in the case of Joe and Jane Bloggs living in Remuera and holidaying on the Gold Coast, but a big problem – insuperable is not too strong a term – for the likes of us two. Technical barriers to access should surely be waived in such instances, especially where the persons involved have been clients of that bank for decades. I have now asked the Banking Ombudsman for an opinion on the matter.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek BA, BSc, BEdSt, PGDipLaws, MAppSc, PhD is finishing off as an associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut. Feedback welcome at

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