Reader Drew went out of his way to ensure that he’d be able to get money from ATMs (using his Bank of America card), while on vacation. Despite his best efforts, he learned that a) putting a note on your account saying that you’ll be in England and b) drawing less than the maximum daily amount from your account is still not enough to keep BoA from putting a hold on your account. He’s written in with some advice for other Bank of America customers who are planning on traveling soon…
So in preparation for a trip to England last month, both my wife and I decide to contact Bank of America to let them know that we’ll be traveling overseas. We’d hate to be stuck in some little town in the Cotswolds with nothing but a few pounds and a crappy exchange rate between us and dinner. While my wife calls BoA directly and plays phone tag to end up at the right ATM division to have a note placed on her account, I go down to the branch office near my work where a nice Bank of America account rep gets to play phone tag to end up at the right ATM division to have a note placed on my account. So the only benefit to me going down to a local office rather than calling is that I get to have someone else wait on hold while I admire that freakish-necked woman, a creature of taut sinew and gnashing teeth, that adorns all the ads draped around the office.
Oh, and I learn that we will not be charged extra fees on our BoA ATM cards from Barclays ATMs. I guess that’s worth the nightmares of the BoA She-Gollum crawling across my ceiling to devour my flesh and credit rating.
Anyways, you don’t have to be a Consumerist reader for very long to guess what happens next: My card stopped working. I had attempted to withdraw 100 pounds from a Barclays ATM in Witney and was denied. I then tried to withdraw 35 pounds and succeeded. My wife withdrew 100 pounds from her account at the same ATM, no problem. I figured that I had tripped some sort of daily limit (the exchange rate is all over the place, so I may had gone over the 200$ daily limit by a few bucks) and wasn’t too worried – I had credit cards on hand for back up (as recommended by that couple who went to Japan on honeymoon and lost a day due BoA’s tomfoolery). I’d just try again the next day.
I did. It didn’t work. I waited another day. And it didn’t work either. I try again, this time in Oxford. Still, nothing. By now, my wife is getting tired of being the cash machine (it’s hard to pay for real ale and recommended donations with plastic!). Suspecting something beyond Bank of America’s passive dislike of letting people access their money, we stop in at an internet cafe to check my account balances and see if there’s some sort of notice. I really didn’t want to do that as most internet cafes are really, really sketchy and the only one we could find practically had an ‘Identity Theft Here’ sign on the door.
Sure enough, there’s an email from Bank of America in my inbox saying that due to unusual activity, my ATM card was suspended. My only recourse is to call up Bank of America and talk to a rep to have things cleared up. Luckily we had rented a cellphone for our trip and brought the international toll-free number just-in-case. So we retire to a pub (I didn’t know if I would need to access the internet or drop in at Barclays again so didn’t want to wait until we were back at our rented cottage in the country – also I was thirsty) by the river and I make my call. And wait on hold. And wait. And wait. Robotic notices that my wait time would be 2 minutes play every minute or so. After the tenth replay of this message, I order another pint. And then wait another ten minutes.
Finally someone picks up and I explain my problem to them. They want me to verify my identity by reading out all sorts of valuable information to them over the phone. So if my bank info wasn’t swiped in the internet cafe, it certainly could be picked up here. It didn’t help that the Bank of America rep was apparently a citizen of Northmumbletown whose phone was kept at the other end of a long hallway, thus requiring me to shout random answers about my financial history in hopes of answering her increasingly more difficult verification questions. I try to walk around the pub to a quieter side, away from the crowds, but manage instead to stumble into a crowd of angry swans.
So if anyone was in Oxford and saw an American tourist, cellphone in one hand and beer in the other, fleeing around a pub from a gaggle of pissed off, honking swans, you have Bank of America to thank for your afternoon’s entertainment. Next time, I’ll bring some Benny Hill music.
Once the Bank of America rep is safe in the knowledge that I am who I say I am and I am safe from the swans, we get down to business. I ask what the problem is and she says that due to unusual activity, my ATM card was suspended. I ask what was unusual about the activity. She says (well, mumbles from her end of the hallway) that it was being accessed in England. I ask if she can see the note that I had placed on my account saying that I would be in England. She pauses and says she can. So what’s the problem? I mean, I can understand that some sort of automatic block was tripped, but surely someone would see the note and then override it, right? Well, not really. The amount that was attempted to be withdrawn was really close to the 200$ daily maximum.
Wait – close to the maximum? Not over the maximum? With the exchange rate being what it is, 100 pounds came to something like $198. Apparently, in Bank of America-land, a maximum really isn’t a maximum. Being two bucks shy of the max is really the same thing as going over it due to BoA Magic Rounding, which is weird because I bet if I underpaid my credit card by two bucks, they’d slap me with a $35 fine in a heartbeat.
After my account is fixed, I complain about all this and the BoA rep assures me that it was being done to protect my account. Protect my account? Considering the steps I had to go through to figure out what was wrong with my account, using internet cafes and shouting out personal information over the phone, my account felt significantly less secure! As I type this, there could be a cunning swan somewhere in Oxford ordering up a bunch of goods using my ill-gotten account information. I took the time to learn Bank of America’s rules and made sure to play by them, but in the end they seemed to just ignore them, even to the point of ignoring the reasons why they put the rules in place to begin with.
And it’s not like they are even consistent when it comes to ignoring their rules! My wife had been happily withdrawing 100 pounds every day while my card was out of commission. Why didn’t her account get blocked? She had the same note and the same ‘close to the maximum’ withdraws…
My only advice for anyone planning to travel overseas with their Bank of America cards is to plan for hassle. Even if you do everything they say you should to ensure a smooth trip, something will go wrong and before you know it you will be on top of a picnic table talking to a distant Bank of America representative trying to get your account fixed while your wife hurls bread at an army of angry swans in order to distract them from the blood and account information they so desire. Plan for Bank of America to drop the ball. Make sure that you have a cellphone that works, the international contact number (001-770-491-4064), your own laptop, and an infinite amount of patience with you at all times.
Oh, and some crusty bread helps too. You know, in case of swan attack.
(Photo: meghannmarco )