Friday, July 24, 2009

Learning the Hard Way: Tips on Foreign Banking and Missionaries

Last night my wife and I received an emergency phone call at 1:43am from our daughter serving in the Taiwan Taipei Mission concerning the fact that she was not able to pay for a repair on her bicycle since our bank had frozen her account. She had the grand total of $90 U.S. in her account and the bike was going to cost her $30 Taiwan New Dollars (U.S. $1). The bank refused payment when she tried to pay the bike shop. My daughter says she forgot to call the bank and tell them she was going to be in Taiwan. The bank had let her use her card a couple of times without freezing it. Her mission president didn't want her to call the bank directly and told her to call us the parents to handle the matter so as not to waste valuable mission time.

The General Instructions Checklist states:

In case of an emergency, you should carry $100 cash while traveling to your mission (Does not apply to senior missionaries)
The most convenient way to send funds is through a personal debit card, which the missionary sets up before arriving at the MTC. Additional funds should be minimal and can be used to obtain local currency from ATMs as well as for purchases and cash advances at most businesses. All missionaries leaving from the U.S. and Canada should have a personal debit card when they arrive at the MTC, with a minimum balance of $100 to cover any additional expenses such as immunizations.
I was a bit perplexed by his request, having lived in Saudi Arabia myself and knowing he was a former military man that had lived in other countries, that he didn't realize this is a common problem and needed to be handled directly with the bank by the account holder. It is not a big deal and requires about five minutes effort from the account holder instead of the one hour we wasted trying to talk to the bank who refused to help us and our daughter who called us twice. I didn't get back to sleep until 3am. I am going to save other parents a bit of grief by telling you how to avoid ATM card problems.

The bank's toll-free number was on the back of the card and all my daughter had to do was dial the country code (002) and the toll free number 1-800-XXX-XXXX or the number and the area code. My wife is on the account but banks only like to talk directly with the person who is the primary card holder and refused to help her. The bank representative said our daughter had to call. If you are dishonest you could pretend to be your child but your cellphone might give you away. My wife chose to be honest. My daughter who is obedient to her mission president conveyed the request but the bank refused to cooperate. My wife went through the useless exercise but had the presence of mind to tell our daughter to call back in fifteen minutes. In the end our daughter ended up calling a foreign toll-free number. The bank wanted the last two transactions to verify that the account holder really has the account which my wife gave our daughter.

When I lived in Saudi Arabia I had four occasions when despite having thousands of dollars in my account they refused payment until I called even though I had filed a travel plan for both me and my wife for her own accounts. Luckily I had a cell phone and called from the ATM or store which refused my purchase or cash advance. Missionaries all don't have cell phones so make sure you give them an international calling card that allows them to make such emergency calls from a pay phone.

The bank wants three things when an account holder calls: the account number or bank card number, the last four digits of their social security card, and one or two recent transactions ro verify the account. The first two are not a problem the latter though when a missionary is at a store and not near a cybercafe on P-Day nor at the mission office can be problematic. My wife looked up the last two transactions on her computer and gave them to my daughter with the date of the transaction and the specific amount and vendor.

Before going on a foreign mission a missionary needs to give their bank a travel plan which can be done orally or in a branch depending on the bank. You say to them after verifying your account number, social security etc "I am John Henry Smith I will be going to X foreign mission in foreign country until a specific date." Make sure you calculate a date for their release accurately. The minute the missionary arrives in a U.S. air port they should call you and the bank in case they need their ATM card as they go across the country. Banks are bureaucratic and they flagged accounts that move from one country to another. It is a hit and miss proposition and may or may not happen.

When I came back to the U.S. I had a couple of stopovers. They took the card the first time in NYC and then froze it at the second Atlanta. I had to make a call which was cleared up again in less than five minutes. They aren't as restrictive in the U.S. when traveling between states or cities but foreign travel is more restrictive.

Another problem is that missionaries aren't good at calculating exchange rates. If a missionary in a foreign country tries to take out more than they have three times, the bank might freeze their account. The bank will freeze their account until they call them and then they could be transferred to a different division who handles fraud. The missionary might think that an account is frozen if they try it a couple of times and no money comes out but it might just be they don't have enough in their account. Missionaries in foreign countries with U.S. bank cards need to be aware they need to ask for less than they have or the card could be frozen. This is just your bank trying to save you from theft or misappropriation of your account.

The church doesn't really encourage parents to send much cash because of a variety of reasons such as lavish spending that could demoralize companions and distract from the work or to stop missionaries as targets for possible theft. When I was on a mission one missionary actually bought a couple of televisions that were eventually confiscated by the mission president. In addition it is hard to maintain unity if one companion eats steak and the other Top Ramen or one eats good restaurant food and the other dislikes him and doesn't share. I think it is good to have one or two hundred in case of snafu's like the ATM card being locked out temporarily even the MTC recommends $100 cash while traveling. It is a time waster in that not every store will take it and if they do they have to convert it holding up the line or the missionary has to convert it which banks won't do if you aren't an account holder.

The other angle is theft in some missions they carry a few buck in case of a mugging. A thief has less of a chance to get the missionary's money if he or she carries an ATM card. Each mission has different specific rules for security purposes of minimal amounts to carry like five or ten bucks. If you send your kid cash from time to time make sure you give them change not all twenties unless you like to support the local economy in style.

We were actually out of compliance since we didn't keep up with her account and notice that her ATM account had dipped below the $100 figure. My wife transferred an additional hundred bucks before she called the bank but that still didn't help with her frozen account and it won't show up for an hour or two. Once our daughter unfreezes her money by calling it will help her in the future pay for incidental expenses not covered by the mission. It is more costly to be in a bike area than a car area I am discovering. The mission maintains their fleet but for some reason not their bikes. I would prefer my daughter be in a walking area or car area since I have to scrimp to pay the four hundred each month. This bike has been a pain in my behind from the beginning since I had to shell out three hundred and have it repaired twice now. She got her raincoat stuck in the spokes which really mucked up the bike.

I didn't realize they have occasional zone and district P-Day activities like going to an acquarium or zoo that were inexpensive and she might need a few bucks until she emailed me a month ago. I never gave my other two daughters a single cent while on their mission other than paying their $400 monthly expense. Every mission has different monetary practices and entertainment policies. My daughter assured me she could just not attend but it sure breaks you heart when the other missionaries are going to a park or museum and your kid is left out.

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