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A Banking Breakdown in Mexico

A Banking Breakdown in Mexico
Written by publishing team

This is a story about a stupid American traveling to Mexico (me), a conman’s attempt to keep the peso away from tourists and the restrictions on traditional banking.

It starts with a broken ATM.

I recently traveled to Mexico City. I know less Spanish than the average young child. On my first day in Mexico, at the ATM, I inserted my card…and the machine swallowed it. I pressed the red cancel button. nothing. I have pressed more buttons at random. nothing. I talked to a lady inside the bank, she couldn’t understand a word of what I was saying (not her fault), and after we found a translator, she explained that this ATM was broken and that if I understood Spanish, I was to read the on-screen warning. (Again, that’s also on me. We’re in Mexico, and it’s my fault that I don’t speak the language.)

I will have to call my bank, Fidelity, to get a new debit card in the mail.

I’ll be in Mexico for the next two weeks, and obviously I’ll need more money. So I called Fidelity to cancel my card and send me a new one.

Problem 1: Fidelity says they’ll happily send me a new card, but I’ll need to contact another company, Visa Emergency Card Services, to send me a new card. Fidelity handles my check, but they seem to outsource things like debit cards.

So, I call Visa.

Problem 2: Visa told me they need permission that I’m already a Fidelity customer, and this may take a while. So wait. Meanwhile, I can’t get any money.

I haven’t heard anything from Visa for two days. I still have no money other than the peso a friend lent me.

(Jeff Welser/CoinDesk)

Problem 3: Visa finally told me that I would actually need to contact “PNC Bank”, because PNC Bank – another partner of Fidelity’s – is actually the group that handles the back end of the screening. or something.

I had never heard of PNC Bank before. I’ve been a Fidelity customer for over a decade, and have never seen the phrase PNC Bank on my debit card, in my bank statements, or on my login screen.

Problem 4: “Hello, thank you for calling PNC Bank,” the rep said. “Can I get your account number?”

I said “I have no idea”. “I am a Fidelity agent, and they have asked me to call you.”

The PNC representative checks her computer, then tells me that no, in fact, I’m not a client, and that I should contact Fidelity.

I go back to fidelity. The Fidelity rep told me that, no, I shouldn’t have called PNC. They say I received misinformation, and that I need to contact Visa.

Problem 5: Call again Visa. They told me they were trying to reach fidelity.

In this age of cryptography, the pin can only be delivered via a parcel, which means their technology hasn’t been invented since the days of Benjamin Franklin.

“Do you know Fidelity’s phone number?” The visa agent asked me.

“I’m the customer! Don’t you know the number?”

“One second, sir,” said Visa, who put me on hold to find the number. soon back. “I have fidelity on the line,” he said, so now the three of us are in conference.

“Can I get your account number?” asked the faithfulness rep.

I give it to her.

“Sir… can you repeat that? I don’t see it in my records.”

It’s weird. I repeat the number.

“Are you sure you’re a member of Fidelity Kansas City?” asked the delegate.

“Excuse me?”

“This is the local branch of Fidelity in Kansas City. Are you a member here?”

Apparently the Visa representative didn’t release the Fidelity base number – which he should know – but instead called a random branch.

Problems 6, 7, 8, 9 … 37: I will go ahead and summarize the series of calls. This kind of clumsy miscommunication — between banking partners working together, all under the Fidelity umbrella — has happened for days. I spend hours on the phone with Visa, Fidelity, and PNC Bank.

So far I have left Mexico City, and I am in a small beach town, Sayulita, which for the most part does not accept credit cards. Criticism is king. All my American friends have gone home, I’m traveling alone, and I have no way of getting cash. I rely on that debit card from Fidelity. or Visa. or PNC Bank.

In the grand scheme of things, of course, this is a first world problem in every sense of the word. I’m a privileged American who finally had access to resources, and I knew my pinch was temporary. Millions of people suffer from real and painful problems. I only have a slight headache.

But the headache seems to go away when I finally get Visa and Fidelity on the phone together. A Fidelity representative, James, confirms to a Visa representative that I am in fact a customer, and that Fidelity is in fact authorizing Visa to send me a debit card. James provides his employee ID number. James makes this happen. James is the best. (Most of the reps I spoke to were great. The failure was not due to human competence; the failure was a squeaking system held together by duct tape.)

“So do you have everything I need?” I asked the visa representative.

They assured me that I do.

Problem 38: Another day goes by. I got a message that I need to call Visa back, because there was another problem. Visa says they need more information from Fidelity to mail me the card, because they are not sure if it should be printed as “Jeffrey J. Wilser,” “Jeffrey J. Wilser,” or “Jeffrey J. Wilser.” This stopped everything.

I still can’t get the coins.

More calls, more waiting, and more Fidelity and Visa connectivity. Finally, they authorize the card to be sent.

win over!

You’ll be sure to reach me at Sayulita, via DHL priority mail, on Friday. For perspective, I arrived in Mexico the previous Thursday. For a week I couldn’t get the money back.

Friday comes…no card arrives. It was suspended at customs.

But do we hope DHL will deliver it on Saturday? No, DHL does not work on weekends in Mexico.

Now I desperately need the money. I call Visa and ask if they can make an emergency wire transfer. They said they would be happy to do so, but they need to get approval from Fidelity. Now I feel PTSD.

In the end, Visa gets fidelity at stake. I am qualified in.

“I accept the wire transfer,” the Fidelity rep said.

“We will need your authorization code,” Visa said.

“Which symbol?” Delegate fidelity confused.

“We need a code to process this,” Visa said.

“One second,” Fidelity said.

Fidelity puts me on hold and tries to find the “access token” that Visa needs. I feel bad for the Fidelity rep. I feel bad for the visa representative. It’s Saturday afternoon, and we all like to do something else. I come back on hold, and now suspended music is the soundtrack to my life.

Delegate fidelity back. It cannot find the required code. Never heard of this symbol before. He asks his fellow Fidelity and none of them knew of any such code.

Then the Visa representative realizes that it could be a moot point – to allow wire transfer, it would actually need approval from another entity… PNC Bank.

I literally laugh out loud.

“PNC Bank?” I asked. “Okay. Wow. Can we get PNC Bank to agree to this?”

Issue 39: The PNC Bank, or at least the relevant department of PNC Bank, was closed for the weekend.

The Fidelity representative says he feels bad about me, and I believe him. We’ve now been on the phone for an hour, he’s heard my sad little story, and he’s as amazed as I am at being redirected to this mysterious PNC bank.

But wait! Perhaps there is a clever solution after all. I also have a Fidelity credit card, but again, this credit card is operated by a third party (Elan Financial Services.) My credit card is not set up for use at an ATM; I don’t have a pin. What if Fidelity could change this and let me use a credit card at an ATM?

“It might work,” the Fidelity rep said. “Let me look at that.”

Wait on hold. (In two weeks in Mexico, I spent more time waiting than I did at the beach.)

The good news is that, yes, my Visa credit card can be converted into a card that works at an ATM. All they have to do is give me a pin. The bad news is that they can only do this by mailing the PIN.

This is no joke. They need to mail the pin. In this age of cryptography, the pin can only be delivered via a parcel, which means their technology hasn’t been invented since the days of Benjamin Franklin.

“So there is nothing we can do?” I asked him. “There is no way to get cash?”

“I’m afraid not.”

I told him “system crash”.

(Jeff Welser/CoinDesk)

(Jeff Welser/CoinDesk)

Once again he apologizes, and he basically agrees with me. I want to stress that everyone I spoke to was qualified and courteous – and it’s not their fault. (I should add that I’ve generally been a happy customer of Fidelity; their customer service is usually top notch. I called Fidelity a few weeks later to ask if they’d like to comment on this story; far from an email apology that sounded fairly typical What, but they refused).

Now here is where Bitcoin enters the story.

mixes. I don’t know that cryptocurrency – at least with existing infrastructure – would have solved my problem. Taco stands at Sayulita do not accept bitcoin or chip. This is not El Salvador. I could probably use something like LocalBitcoins to exchange bitcoins (some of which I own) for peso. Perhaps that could have worked.

But I know that when people in the US say, “Encryption doesn’t make sense, because my credit card is working fine,” that’s only part of the story. Yes, it works “well” when everything is running smoothly. It works “well” if you don’t mind paying fees, either directly or indirectly. It works “well” when other countries are not involved. But when did that bubble burst? Banks cannot speak for themselves.

Now this is where the crook enters the story.

You have reached the last 50 pesos. This equates to about $2.50.

Thanks to this mini-collapse of the banking system, I turned into a pathetic pesos scammer

I have one last step to take.

I headed to the gringo tourist bar, and ordered a beer for the last 50 pesos. (Fortunately, beer is cheap.)

Saturday afternoon. Play college football. I’ve discovered a plump American woman who is an Oklahoma cheerleader. So now I’m cheering for Oklahoma. I went to college at the University of Texas. Oklahoma is our archenemy.

“Go to Oklahoma!” Screamed.

Soon the lady and I are talking. We flirt. Now I feel like a con man. “So, I have a crazy question,” I said with a smile, “but I’m wondering if you could help me…”

I told her my manta, or at least a very condensed version, and asked her if I could Venmo her US dollars for the peso. She agrees. I soon have a pile of 1,000 pesos, feel a flood of cash, after which I repeat the same trick with another American tourist. Thanks to this mini-collapse of the banking system, she turned into a pathetic pesos swindler.

More flirtation, more hustle, more pesos. And soon I can buy the tacos and beer I want. And two weeks after I arrived in Mexico, literally the day before the day I traveled back to the US, as soon as it was no longer needed… DHL hands over my new debit card.

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