Saturday, November 30, 2013

How to survive Mexican ATMs

Looking for the most unfriendly and unhelpful bank manager? Look no further than here in La Paz, Baja

As you probably read in my earlier post, getting cash out of an ATM in Mexico is not without risks. This time though it's not credit card skimmers or tape fraud but the bank itself that stole our card. According to the HSBC it's legally required in Mexico to destroy any ATM card found stuck in an ATM machine. What a customer friendly approach. Even if you can prove you are the owner and even if the card is working fine, you just won't get it back. According to other banks we spoke to that's not always the case, as far as we understood, it's basically up to the bank manager in question if you get your card back or not. The HSBC policy is to only give back cards from HSBC customers, cards from other banks will be destroyed. To me this is all wrong. A machine makes a mistake and instead of helping you out retrieving it, they deliberately destroy a card that isn't theirs in the first place. Still, we have to get cash somehow and so we went looking for a better way to withdraw it while in Mexico and thus went looking for alternatives to HSBC ATMs.

One thing we have learned over the past week or so is that the HSBC in La Paz doesn't help you at all. They are without any doubt the most unfriendly bank we have ever met. Talking to local people, cards stuck in ATM machines at HSBC in La Paz is very common. While we were at the branch today, we saw another card being consumed… The machine did exactly the same as with our card, it dispensed the cash, went on error and the card was not returned. Instead of keeping the machine out of action, the manager simply reset the machine to make it operational again…ready for the next card to consume! It's the same machine we saw consume a card 5 days earlier…
The reason we were at the HSBC is because we now have only one ATM card left and were for obvious reasons not keen to put that in an ATM machine as well. I assumed that HSBC would be a little bit sympathetic and help us to make a cash withdrawal at the counter. After all their ATM got us in this situation. But I was wrong again. Making a cash withdrawal at the counter is nothing special. It's what we did for decades before we had ATM machines, so we didn't ask for the impossible. Just to be on the safe side I had passport, credit card and drivers license with me. Still, HSBC La Paz flatly refused…! Banorte next door had the same 'friendly' attitude, as did Bancomer. Great, now what?

A bit further on is Santander, I explained the situation again but they refused as well. By that time we were really getting to the stage of 'How the hell are we going to solve this?' I simply could not afford having the last card we had swallowed by an ATM machine as that would mean no cards and no cash. Living on the streets in La Paz on handouts was not what I had in mind when I crossed the border with Mexico. We needed the card to book the ferry on the same day as well. Banamex was a little bit more sympathetic, although the person I spoke to wasn't really sure if she could do it and referred me to another line of people in front of another counter. Half La Paz must have been in there and after 20 minutes and no movement in the line at all I decided to try my luck elsewhere. 

The Scotia bank was next on my list. What I noticed immediately at Scotia bank, in sharp contrast to all the others mentioned above, is that the manager was more than willing to listen… and even talk to me… and he also speaks English! I explained the situation and the reply was that it was no problem to organise a withdrawal at the counter…! What a relief! He also alerted me to the different type of ATM they have compared to HSBC. Theirs is a simple static slot that won't swallow your card. To my surprise it was cheaper to use than the HSBC as well. The only drawback is that the maximum it dispenses is 3000 pesos. That may sound like a lot but is only about US$230,- Still, this ATM is safe to use and you can always come back tomorrow for more… if it's on the account of course. 

What surprised me the most was the very different attitude at Scotiabank. Trying to talk to HSBC, Bancomer and Banorte is like trying to ask a deaf person to listen to you. It's futile to even attempt it. The standard answer is 'No'. The manager at Scotiabank didn't use the word 'No'. It's what we Australians call 'a can-do attitude'.
Lesson learned. When in need of cash, look for an ATM with a static card slot. The claim that the ATMs that swallow your card are safer is utter rubbish. If they make a mistake, any mistake, you loose your card. Is that safe? Our neighbour at the AquamarinaRV park alerted me to another ATM in La Paz that doesn't swallow cards; the Banamex ATMs on the SW corner of Abasolo and Colima - diagonal from the old CCC, now Chedraui, supermarket.

Getting a new card is easy… or is it?
'Why didn't you simply get a new card?' I hear you ask, 'it's easy!' Of course we looked at that too. Banks are, in general, for some reason very keen to block your card and send you a new one. They will tell you that it's easy and there is no need to worry if a card has been consumed by an ATM. Simply give them a call and they will take care of you. So they say. But how easy is it? First you have to call from Mexico to Australia and somehow convince them it's actually you that is calling. In our case that would mean, because of the time difference, that we would be standing at a public phone in the dark with all our identification on display. Maybe not such a safe situation. So I opted to open internet banking and send a secure message, we have a joint bank account after all. That message was quickly replied to… it only took a couple of days! The reply was somewhat unhelpful; my wife had to sign in with her card, they said. It's impossible to sign in with a card you no longer have… Finally they accepted that my wife's card needed blocking, so they blocked mine instead! We then found ourselves in a situation where we had no card and no cash. It took 6 hours and 11 secure messages through the night to get my card working again. Then they promised that a replacement card would be made quickly. But how quick is quickly? In our case, a card from the Australian NAB bank will take 3 weeks to get here…Three weeks! Of course they want us to sign for it on arrival so we have to know where we are in 3 weeks, what the address is and if it's delayed we will have to wait for it... If we are delayed then the parcel will be returned to Australia and the whole process starts again. We have lost so much time already that we simply can't afford to stay somewhere for another 3 weeks. 
If you are on holiday for a couple of weeks you will most likely be out of the country before that new card reaches you. Hopefully you have a second card, like we do, or you will miss your return flight…

How many cards do we need?
With the benefit of hindsight I suggest to open a bank account with a second bank before you leave and get both a credit and a debit card. You will then have 2 cards each, from two different banks and two different systems. Our NAB Visa Debit card works fine but is not always accepted for some unknown reason to me. If you do find the cash register does not accept your card at a store then insist on trying it at the help desk, for some reason that has always worked for us. We have also noticed that the self checkouts at bigger stores have the newest card reader and have no problems reading foreign cards. 
We have always had cash with us as well but in the USA, Canada, Alaska and New Zealand had little need for it. In Baja Mexico that is another matter. A lot of the fuel stations, including the ones in major towns, don't accept a foreign credit card. You will need cash in Baja. It's difficult, and sometimes impossible, to hire a car on a Debit card… but that's another story. Do inform the bank of your travel plans too or they will block your card when it suddenly starts showing foreign payments. 

Looking at this from a bit of a distance made me realise just how archaic the whole bank card system is. Cards that get eaten, magnetic strips that become erased, cards being stolen or skimmed… why do we still have to put up with this? Which brings me back to my other post; What if the world went fully digital?