Friday, August 03, 2012

A new low

I have several times been less-than-happy with the Bank of East Asia, the Hong Kong-based bank that I switched my main Chinese account over to at the end of last year (see here and here for reminders of why), but this week they have been achieving new levels of brain-squelching incompetence and unhelpfulness.

I was due to pay my landlord another quarter's rent (something of a leap of faith on my part, given that I don't yet know whether I am going to be granted a visa to return!). I thought it would be relatively straightforward to arrange this via the BEA's vaunted 'cyberbanking' facility (ah, foolish optimism!).

Well, not that straightforward - because it is impossible to 'cut & paste' information into the online payments form. You have to select the payee's bank from a drop-down menu. It's entirely in Chinese - even on the 'English' version of the website. And it's in tiny, tiny font that would cause even the most proficient reader of Chinese some difficulties. And there are a good 30 or so different banks in China to choose from. And they nearly all have rather ponderous names, often many characters long - making it extremely difficult for a duffer in Chinese such as myself to recognise the appropriate bank to check. Luckily, most of the banks' names include 中国 [China] and/or 股份有限 [Limited Company]; excluding these characters made the task just about manageable for me - after several anguished minutes of jumping back and forth to my landlord's e-mail to compare the name of the bank he'd sent me to the options on my cyberbanking page.

However, this initial success soon began to seem a hollow victory - because Chinese banks always insist that to ensure a successful interbank money transfer you must also specify the address of the payee's home branch, IN FULL. Again I was faced with a drop-down menu: this time it had 60 or 70 options to choose from, and many of them contained upwards of 20 characters each. When the banks say "address IN FULL", they mean "... Beijing City, Beijing Municipality, China, The World". And most of the addresses include not one but two (different!) expressions that mean 'sub-branch'. Out of the 15 or 20 or 25 characters in each address, there are usually only 3 or 4 which designate the particular street name you actually need to look out for.

With some perseverance, I managed to master this gumption test as well. It took me rather a long time, because BEA's cyberbanking page times out "for security reasons" after about two minutes - which, given how slow and glitchy the website is at the best of times, is not really enough time to fill out the whole of the interbank transfer form even if you can swiftly recognise and select the correct bank and bank address from the menus. I was further thwarted by the fact that the page several times froze on me, not allowing me access to one or more of these troublesome drop-down menus. I must have logged in and part filled out this dratted form at least a dozen times; it took up a big slice of my Sunday afternoon, very nearly two hours.

And, after ALL THIS, I was still not able to complete the transaction... because my cyberbanking security settings require me to use both my USB-stick security key AND a password sent to my mobile phone by SMS for each transaction. Real belt-and-braces stuff, this; super-secure!! I don't think I'd really wanted to be this secure. I think this was the default setting on the account which I had failed to take notice of. Rather inconvenient - since my Chinese mobile phone does not work outside of China, and I thus have no way of receiving the passwords, and no way of carrying out any online transactions. I tried to change my security settings to 'USB key only', but.... I needed an SMS password to implement that! Aha - I was able to change my mobile phone contact number without a password, so I tried switching it to my UK number. No joy - they won't send passwords to overseas mobile numbers, it seems. Nor do they answer their customer service helpline. Or respond to e-mails marked 'URGENT'.

So, I'm stuffed. I can't access my main Chinese bank account to make the rent payment to my landlord, and I don't have enough money left in the UK to wire him the money from here.

However.... I was in London at the start of the week. And the BEA, I discovered, has a branch on Shaftesbury Avenue, near Chinatown. Excellent! I'll drop in there and arrange the transfer in person.

Oh no, you won't!! No. I don't know what the hell kind of corporate structure the BEA operates under, but I was assured by the manager of their London office that the bank is essentially a distinct entity in each country, that the London bank cannot communicate with BEA branches in other parts of the world, and that it cannot provide any services to a customer who holds an account in another country.

I'm winding up my BEA account as soon as I get back to China.

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