Friday, May 04, 2012

Banks - a medieval instrument of torture?

Six months ago, on the recommendation of a (Chinese American) colleague at one of the management consultancies I occasionally write for, I switched to using the Bank of East Asia. I'm not sure what their ownership structure or history is, but they're headquartered in Hong Kong, and thus I fondly hoped that they might be a little more rational and a bit more customer-friendly than their mainland counterparts. 

Perhaps they are a little, but not much. At least they have an English customer service hotline - which I am obliged to resort to rather too often.

The recommender had particularly praised their online banking service, and this had been the main reason for my adopting them. I used to get paid almost entirely cash-in-hand, but over the past year or two there has been a shift to most of my employers insisting on trying to make payments into a bank account for me. It is a royal pain-in-the-arse trying to monitor who has paid in what and when with a regular Chinese bank. In fact, it proved to be just about impossible. So, the facility for being able to check my account balance and recent inpayments quickly and easily online was the major selling point for me.

But I haven't been earning much lately, so... I hadn't bothered to check my account for two or three months. And when I tried to do so the other day, I found that the bank had just revamped its cyberbanking website. I tried to be optimistic about the change (after the initial irritation of taking some moments scouring a cluttered and unfamiliar homepage to try to find the tab that would take me to the cyberbanking area): it seemed that the 'new look' was somewhat more streamlined.

Unfortunately, on this new log-in page the previously available options to sign in using your name or a 'username' appeared to have been removed, or were at least temporarily suspended or dysfunctional. The only way to sign in was via the account number - which is a cumbersome 19 digits long. And I found that the entry window only admitted up to 15 digits.

I tried entering the full account number, thinking that perhaps it was registering somehow with the bank's website even though it wasn't all being displayed on my screen; but when I hit 'Submit', NOTHING happened. Not even the little swirly thing that tells you your computer is trying to do something; certainly not an 'error message' of any kind.

I tried a few more times. I tried omitting the last two, three, or four digits, thinking that perhaps they might be some sort of bank code and not after all part of my account number. Still no joy.

In a spirit of experimentation, I decided to query this via the online customer service link. When an operative finally got back to me 36 hours later, their message was.... my account number couldn't possibly be more than 16 digits.

Oh. Well, I'm looking at it right now, and it is definitely.... 15, 16, 17... yes, 19 digits long. And your dratted input window wasn't registering anything more than 15 digits anyway. WTF???

Call me old-fashioned, but I find it particularly disturbing when bank personnel appear to be UNABLE TO COUNT. Perhaps they're not using base 10??

Later that day, I found that the cyberbanking log-in page had changed again. I was now once more able to log in under my 'username' (although, having not used it in nearly three months, I struggled to remember it at first). But guess what? My 'account details' page now displays only a balance, not a list of transactions.

I am still waiting to hear from the customer service drones what the hell is up with that.


John said...

Do you think there's a connection here with China's problem with the concept of free-lance workers?

Froog said...


John said...

Didn't exactly put that very clearly did I? What I meant was that you were talking the other day about visas and how China would rather not know what a freelance worker was at all; so if banks are poor at itemised statements there, might it be right to assume that this may be because the average Joe Ching (who is a regular worker) wouldn't need such a service? Chances are he also still deals for the most part with cash thus negating the need for his bank to also tell him how his expenditure was distributed for the last month.
Or is this new bank just as crap as the old one and China isn't used to the concept of good banking yet...
But wait a minute, what of HSBC? Do you happen to know why they aren't a viable option there?

Froog said...

I think keeping a record of transactions is a pretty basic service that anyone might expect of a bank. Even if you're just putting your money in the bank to keep it safe for a while, and deposit and withdraw it in a single lump sum, you might want a written reminder of when you did that.

In fact, my problem the other day was just down to the website being crap (on top of my Net connection being crap, and the bank website requiring the use of IE - which is beyond crap). You have to pick your way through a bunch of drop-down sub-menus to whistle up a transaction list, and they were all frozen or not displaying on this occasion. Furthermore, they've now added a very discreet 'specify the period you want to search' feature, with the default being TODAY. I missed that first time, so I thought they were just telling me they're hadn't been any inpayments.

Of course, I still have the problem that the source of the inpayments is not identified - so I have to take care never to charge anyone the same fee twice, otherwise I can't work out who it is that's paid me!

Froog said...

HSBC is a British colonial bank, not a Chinese bank.

I don't think any of the international banks are yet able to offer personal banking services in China. The financial sector is supposed to be fully opened up under WTO rules, but I don't think there's any timetable yet in place for this, so it's still a de facto monopoly for the domestic banks.

When I first got here, I found one - very small, discreet - branch of HSBC, but it was just a rep office. The manager shame-facedly explained that he couldn't actually do anything for me, other than perhaps wire some money in from overseas. I don't think much has changed in 10 years.

BEA is also a colonial era Hong Kong bank, but a Chinese one - thus an interesting blend of the competent (online banking, English-language customer helpline) and the incompetent (the website goes down all the time, it only works with IE, staff don't know how many digits there are in an account number...).

JES said...

the entry window only admitted up to 15 digits

This is a classic user-interface cock-up. Although I did sort of laugh to myself, wondering if you could use diphthongs.

Froog said...

It's a number-only password, JES.

And a further annoying little wrinkle of this UI is that you can't copy/paste your far-too-long-for-any-reasonable-person-to-remember account number into the entry window. You can't even input the password using your keyboard. No, they have a little pop-up number pad on screen that you have to key with the mouse. And just to keep you on your toes - they randomise the sequence of the numbers on the pad!

This seems like one of those innovations that automated password crackers will find little challenge at all, but will perpetually catch out us mere humans.