I know a lot of your readers believe that local, mom and pop operations are the way to go — that big corporate companies are universally evil and local is almost always filled with nice, smiling workers who are far superior to their sell-out counter-parts. I’m here today to show you that, at least in banking, size doesn’t matter.
Last year, my (then) fiance (now husband) and I eloped to Las Vegas. He is from England, and once he received his fiance visa to enter the US, we had only 90 days to get married and file to adjust his status, so a big or expensive wedding was out of the question. We went to Las Vegas on the cheap, relying solely on my Farmer’s and Mechanics Savings Bank (NJ) debit card to pay for our $200 wedding and $1500 honeymoon for three days. It was quick and cheap, and we promised each other (in addition to the whole love and commitment thing) to save up and come back a year later for a proper honeymoon with nice restaurants, drinks on the beach, massages, and an actual batchelor party for my husband at the burlesque club Forty Deuce…
So we scrimped and saved. We used our FMS debit cards to pay the deposit on the hotel, hold a dinner reservation, make the spa appointment, and pay for our flights. We also got out $500 in cash each, just in case of some emergency (FMS has a policy to only allow 15 swipes of a debit card per business day — including from Friday at 3 PM until Monday at 9 AM, which is a long time when you’re in Vegas).
We weren’t too worried when the very lovely woman at the front desk of our hotel said my husband’s bank card was declined. We’d booked nice rooms and the cost was over $1000, which was larger than the average transaction my husband usually makes, so he whipped out his cell phone and called FMS bank, to give them ID or tell them where we were to remove the account flag or whatever the little problem was.
Quickly his face fell, and my heart sank when he said, “Thank you anyway,” and hung up.
He motioned toward the cash machines and said he was going to try and make a withdraw from what remained of his bank account back in England. “Why?” I asked.
“Because I was just informed that Farmer’s and Mechanics Bank have blocked all financial transactions in the entire city of Las Vegas.”
I couldn’t believe it. He had to have misheard. While he went to the ATM to try and get enough cash that (when combined with our emergency fund) was enough to at least get into our hotel rooms, I phoned the bank customer service number. I advised the girl that my husband and my cards were both not working, and before she asked me for account details, she said “Where are you right now?”
“Las Vegas, Nevada”
“Oh, that’s your problem,” she said. “The entire state is blocked.”
“You blocked the entire state of Nevada?”
“No, the entire state of Las Vegas.”
“Las Vegas isn’t a state; it’s a city.”
“Well, we blocked the state of Las Vegas, Nevada.”
“Okay, look, I’m not going to argue semantics so let me just explain what’s going on here. My husband and I are on our anniversary/second honeymoon trip to Las Vegas. We don’t even have enough cash to check into our hotel room. Is there anyway you can lift the flag on the accounts so we can at least check in? I’ll answer whatever questions you need.”
“No. The entire state is blocked.”
“The entire ‘state’ of Las Vegas.”
“And you can’t unblock it?”
“No, there’s too much fraud. The STAR network blocked it.”
“The STAR network blocked the entire city of Las Vegas.”
“The entire state.”
“…of Las Vegas?”
“Months ago. It’s on our website.”
“I’ve used the website in the last few months. It’s not on there.”
“Well, the last few weeks, at least.”
“I still haven’t seen it.”
“Well, it’s there. The STAR network is blocking all debit card transactions in Las Vegas”
“Well, I’ve seen plenty of people using other debit cards here, and we’re not trying to withdraw money, we’re trying to use the cards as credit cards, so I imagine this is a FMS bank problem.”
“It’s a FRAUD problem,” said the woman, getting irate. “We’re trying to prevent FRAUD, MA’AM.”
“Alright, well, can you wire us some money to the casino from our accounts? As soon as my husband gets back from the ATM, he’ll–”
“No, it can’t be done!”
“Can I speak to a manager?”
“They can’t do anything for you.”
“I’d still like to speak to one.”
After a few minutes on hold, someone else picked up the phone. She declined to give her name.
“Hello, I’m stuck in Las Vegas,”
“Yes, I know.”
“Is there any way you can wire money to a Western Union or to the Casino cashier?”
“No. As our CSR tried to explain to you, ma’am, we’ve experienced a lot of FRAUD from Las Vegas, so we no longer do any transactions within that state.”
“Well, all of my money is in my bank account. All of my husband’s money is in his.”
“Get someone else to wire you money.”
“All of my relatives also have FMS bank accounts, so that won’t be a very good solution, now will it?”
Now, at this point, most CSRs, and definitely any management worth their title would go “Oh crap, that’s two people’s accounts we could lose over this, plus their relatives, who I’m sure they’ll tell about this. We’d better do something fast! These kids are stranded 3000 miles away from home with no funds.”
Instead, she said, “Well, maybe you ought to use your credit cards. That’s what we’ve advised our other clients in this position to do.”
My face, according to my husband, was bright red at this moment as I lost my temper and yelled, “You know, some people don’t *want* to actively be in debt. I only have a $300 limit on my one credit card because I pay my balance in full every month and I want to keep it that way.”
“That’s not our problem, now is it?”
I ran through another list of options: sending us AmEx gift cards for the amounts in our accounts (a product the bank offers) or sending us Traveler’s Checks (overnight, obviously) in those amounts. The woman scoffed at both of those like I was asking for the world.
“Maybe you should just rent a car and leave the state.”
“…the state of Las Vegas?”
Here I paused, to regain composure.
“Don’t you think you should have told someone about this?”
“It’s on the website.”
I asked the clerk at the desk for internet access, and she kindly showed me to the business lounge and waived the fee to use it. I pulled up the website. (A screen cap taken today , over a week later, is attached to this email.)
“I don’t see where it says FMS bank has blocked all transactions within the CITY of Las Vegas.”
“Well, it’s posted in the bank branches.”
“That’s really funny, because my husband and I deposited vacation money in the bank LAST NIGHT, there were no signs in the branch at all.”
“Well, it’s not our fault. This only happened a week ago.”
“A week ago, so much fraud occurred all at once that you shut down the entire city of Las Vegas via the STAR= network? And you couldn’t be bothered informing your customers via email or letter about this, even though you routinely send letters via email and in our bank statements alerting us to current phishing schemes we are supposed to be aware of?”
“Ma’am, we are trying to prevent FRAUD.”
“And you’ve stranded me in Las Vegas with not even enough money to check into my hotel room? What am I supposed to do for this week?”
“Maybe you should carry more cash when you travel,” she said, scolding me like some foolish child.
“You, a bank representative, are really telling your customers to carry their entire vacation funds in cash because you can’t work up a decent system to prevent fraud. Listen, I worked for Barclay’s bank and Barclaycard for a year, and the standard we followed for dealing with this–”
“THERE IS NO INDUSTRY STANDARD IN BANKING,” she interrupted.
I paused, absolutely taken aback. “Listen, if you don’t want to lose a least myself and my husband as customers, not to mention my extended family, I suggest you find a solution to this problem of stranding customers on vacation with NO FUNDS and NO SOLUTION to YOUR MISTAKE.”
“We didn’t make any mistakes, ma’am. We’re PREVENTING FRAUD.”
This is where I hung up.
The semi-happy ending to this story is that we were able to call my credit card company (HSBC) and have them increase my limit by *only* $100 to allow the car rental company in the hotel to hold $350 on my card for the rental. We then drove to Boulder City, NV and were able to get $500 out each — the maximum amount for the day. Because it was a Friday, and we only had the car for one day, we were unable to get any more from our bank accounts for the rest of the trip and had to call my in laws in England. They put money in my husband’s account there, which we were able to draw from on the fourth day of our trip, thus ruining the first three days where we scrimped and once again ate most of our meals at the buffet.
FMS Bank refuses to apologize for essentially ruining the first three days of our long-awaited vacation nor will they offer any sort of incentive for my husband or I to remain with them. As far as they’re concerned preventing “fraud” (which I imagine is little old ladies losing their pensions at the slots and time shares) is more important than not only good customer service, but preventing customers from being stranded with no access to funds for an indefinite period of time.
We checked the FMS site and couldn’t find a notice about either the city or state of Las Vegas being blocked. Glad everything worked out . FMS certainly showed some poor customer service, and geography, skills, and we hope you’ve moved your money elsewhere.
But while we admire the tenacity with which you protect yourself from getting into debt, and gnash our teeth at FMS, that kind of situation might call for being less credit card allergic. You’ve already saved the money, why not bump up the limit on the credit card you had enough to cover and reduce it after the trip? Or, use traveler’s checks. Either way, access to finances can be rather important while traveling, so unless you’re an excellent dish washer, it’s a good idea to carry multiple forms of payment.