Dear oh interested one, I write from the battlefield of several personal and professional crises. Hapless ex-employees, broken cash cards, impossible-to-access bank accounts; I have been afflicted by all of these and more over the past few weeks. But it isn’t these problems themselves which bother me – it’s the fact that, everywhere I turn and whatever I try to do, I am stopped by security screening. The world has become obsessed with security and it’s gone beyond a joke.
About a week after you arrive in France, your main NatWest debit card decides that it will break. It’s not visibly damaged, so when it starts bouncing everywhere (both in shops and cash machines) you assume the bank had been up to their old tricks of overzealously blocking it whenever they see the first sign of something ‘unusual’ on your account – in other words, you daring to spend your money anywhere further than a five-minute walk from your home in the UK. But now, it seems they haven’t done anything to it this time (there’s a first for everything!), and you conclude that the magnetic stip must somehow have become damaged. Add to this the fact that you seem to have entered the PIN for your business account debit card incorrectly a number of times in Thailand (no recollection – one too many buckets, perhaps!?) and you end up with little old you stuck in the middle of France without a penny to your name, unable to withdraw the money you’ve got sitting in the bank.
(And I really was sat in the middle of France, at school, without any means of getting home to my flat. Couëron, just a fifteen-minute train ride from Nantes (or an hour on the bus and tram the rest of the time), felt very very isolated indeed that day.)
So your business card has been blocked for security reasons. You could withdraw cash on your Nationwide card, but don’t have the account set up on your NatWest online banking, to be able to transfer money in. To do this would necessitate having your card reader with your – another security measure – but you don’t. NatWest is able to add the payee and make the payment with you over the phone, but without the card reader it can’t go out until the next working day – another security measure, and not much good when you’ve got about 22 Euro cents in your wallet.
What do you do? Well, once someone at work has lent you the money to get home, and you’ve run out of options for how to get money out, you call mother. And, not being short of money but just not being able to withdraw it (that’s the most annoying part!), you’re able to transfer the money into her account, and use her debit card to send some money to yourself through Western Union. Despite it being an online process, this usually necessitates an additional phone call to Western Union to complete the process, and for mother to verify who mother is – another security measure. Miraculously, this time it wasn’t necessary, but we won’t let them off the hook that easily, because it usually is. Picking up the money of course needs a passport, as a fairly understandable security measure, but try and send or receive more than once per day and the lady in the French post office will tell you this isn’t possible – for security reasons, Western Union blocks any subsequent transactions by an individual. Add to that the maximum two online Western Union transfers you can send before you have to verify your identity (with no real clues as to how to go about this), and you’re left without very much room to manoeuvre.
All the while, you’re trying to get your French bank account finalised and validated so that, once you get paid at the end of the month, you’re actually able to get a hold of your money, and avoid needing to do any more expensive Western Union transfers from the UK. But validating your account, which they so happily opened with just a passport in the beginning, means taking in proof of your address – and no, they won’t accept your tenancy agreement, or a receipt for your phone and internet package. It’s got to be an electricity bill or your social security enrolment certificate – helpful when you’re still waiting for EDF to put the electricity account into your name and waiting for the social security office to pull their fingers out of their rear ends and sign you up. Oh, but wait – the bank will accept a home insurance certificate for the address you want the bank account registered to. A home insurance certificate you can get by buying a policy online – wait for it – without needing to do anything whatsoever to prove you even live there. So the certificate the bank are so happy to take as sacrosanct proof that I live at 7 Rue Marmontel, 44000 Nantes, is the same certificate I could have obtained whether I was in fact living in Nantes, Naples or Nicaragua. But hey, it’s a security precaution, right?
You finally get your bank account opened. You don’t get your debit card that quickly, though, so you still can’t access your cash when your salary arrives though (a day late – perhaps it’s a security precaution? To check how much you want it by seeing how long it takes you to e-mail payroll and ask them what the hell they’re doing when they’re not on two hour lunch breaks.) Perhaps incorrectly telling you that the bank card would only be ordered once you’d validated your account (not that it was ordered when you first opened the account and has been sitting there since), and incorrectly telling you that the PIN would be sent out only when you’d validated your account (not that it, too, was sent out right at the beginning, to your temporary address – how secure) – perhaps both of these are security measures to make sure that only someone with the patience of a saint actually gets their hands on your account – only you, in other words.
In the midst of all the excitement, a text message comes through. It’s Orange. After the gazillion-and-one messages reminding you that they’re going to cut off your line if you don’t prove who you are, there’s one telling you they’ve activated your line now that they’ve seen the copy of your passport you sent in to them about three weeks ago. Security measure. But they’ve conveniently forgotten to add the 5€ free credit to your account that made the verification process that tiny bit more worthwhile.
Then you want to use online banking. This, of course, requires a different client reference number, which should be on your bank statement, but you’ve not got one because you’re registered for paperless statements. But the friendly bank clerk can tell you what it is. It also requires a different, six-digit PIN. You get your hopes up when it seems this is sent by e-mail, even though it was meant to have turned up three days ago when you requested it. But no, for security reasons it’s sent by post. So, by the time the first one turns up, you’ve already requested another one, because you’re under the impression it’s been sent by e-mail and has got lost somewhere in cyberspace. For security reasons, the first PIN received by post has been cancelled now, because you’ve requested a new one – so you’ll have to wait for the second one.
When you come to need to make an international transfer from your UK bank account to France, you call NatWest to get it done as quickly as possible – they’re ‘the UK’s helpful bank’, after all. By this time, the money’s sitting in your NatWest account ready to go – you’ve tried and failed already to move it across from your Nationwide account online – as if the three different pieces of security information you supplied when you logged in weren’t enough, you’ve now got to tell them what your favourite animal is whenever you want to make a payment. Well, I don’t know – is it a pet? Then it’s a cat. Or a bigger, zoo-like animal? Then it’s a zebra. Or maybe a giraffe, depending on what sort of mood I was in when I set the answer (I don’t even remember setting the answer!) Or perhaps I’ve changed my mind since then anyway. Hell, I don’t even like animals that bloody much anyway – and, let’s face it, if someone’s already pried on me enough to know my customer number, ‘memorable place name’ and three digits of my pass number, chances are they’re going to have managed to find out what my favourite animal is. It could be any of those kids I did a ‘getting to know me’ class with today at school – not exactly classified information, is it! (‘Repeat after me, kids, the question is ‘What’s your favourite animal’, and the response is ‘Sorry, I’m afraid I can’t tell you that or Nationwide might let you at my gold bullion!’)
End result, Nationwide block your online banking account (security measure!) – well, for once another security measure works in your favour, because their insistence on having different pass numbers for internet and phone banking means you can still call up their automated service, which hasn’t blocked you (yet), and transfer the money out that way. Or else you really would be stuffed. Ironically, by this point you’ve begun writing down all your PINs and passwords – surely the one thing you don’t want to be doing if you don’t want someone to find out what they are – because, well, there’s just too many to remember, especially when they keep adding more to the list – they’re shooting themselves in the foot.
Next problem – NatWest isn’t that helpful a bank after all, because you can’t do it over the phone at all – you’re going to need to go into a UK branch. Again, helpful when you’re on the other side of the channel. (Why can European banks manage to do online SWIFT transfers, but not our own crappy little banks back home?) So it’s back to that trusty friend Western Union. But those two online transactions are already used up, don’t forget, and it’s become no clearer how to validate your account, so mother will have to make a trip to a transfer-flogging travel agent, where she’ll no doubt need to show her passport, just so they can track her down if she turns out to be a money launderer who deals in £100 transactions. SECURITY MEASURE.
All the while, you’ve still not got internet at home because – well, nothing too security related here, it’s just that, between them, France Telecom and SFR manage to be so damn crap that it’ll probably be the end of next year before they’ve come back to de-group that phone line. And then they’ll probably decide it’s time for a lunch break before they’ve finished, anyway. But anyway, SFR can’t loan you the USB internet key that they advertise – because they can’t verify you until the line’s been de-grouped and it’s got a valid landline number. SECURITY MEASURE.
Desperate to get online without having to sit in Cool Burger or McDonalds every night, you buy your own USB internet key on a pay-as-you-go basis, allured by the four days’ free access that’s on offer. Except that when you read the small print, you discover it’s not four days at all, but two days at first and then another two once you’ve – wait for it – identified yourself by submitting your passport or ID card details online. If you don’t do it then, surprise surprise, they’ll suspend your account after 30 days and then cut it off permanently sometime after that. If you were so dead set on using a USB key to plan a bomb plot, something tells me you’d be quite happy to go and spend another 30€ on a new key rather than tell Sarkozy where you’re hiding.
So much for 30 days to identify yourself, though. As soon as those two days’ free access have worn out, there’s no use trying to re-charge – even if you want to pay for it. You’ll get no further than a page for you to put in your personal information – and, when you think you’ve done all it wants, given it your passport number and fed it valium to keep it tame, it’ll show you a mock-up of the optically-readable tab of our passport’s photo page, with a few missing characters for you to fill in – the ones they obviously use to double-check it’s a real passport and not a fake. Hey, it’s a security measure, so you oblige, click the finish button and, hey presto – you get an error message. And no matter how many times you try, that’s what happens every time. Not only do they insist on ridiculous levels of security, but they can’t even get their own sodding web site to work. So no, you’re not getting online any time soon – any way at all.
By this point, you’ve begun to realise that you’ve been screwed over by your now ex-employee, who’s working for your UK-based internet retail business. You’ve to-ed and fro-ed over the idea, but really the only thing that’s going to keep your company from going under is for you to make an unplanned trip back home to sort out her mess. It’ll be pricey, but budget airlines will make the strain a little more bearable. You still can’t use any of your debit cards – for security reasons, the replacement for the one with a faulty magnetic strip has to be sent to your address in the UK, and then forwarded by family – so you’ll need to put the money for the tickets into mother’s account and use her card. Thank goodness for online printing of boarding passes, because otherwise the airline would no doubt need mother to be there with her card at the airport. For security reasons, clearly. You’ve still got that problem with train tickets – to get you from the airport on the UK side, you’ll have to miss out on advance fares and stump up the extra, because for security reasons you’ll need to have the payment card used for booking, when it comes to picking up the tickets. But of course you don’t have that, because it’s somewhere on its way across the channel thanks to – hang on, security measures.
Then EasyJet tells you it needs additional identification details to be submitted online, or you won’t be allowed to board the flight. No-one else asks for these, so clearly it’s not law. And it doesn’t matter that you’ve already submitted your passport details, or that you’ll need to have your passport scanned at the airport before you’ll be allowed within a one hundred mile radius of the damn plane anyway. Presumably they want similar details that the internet company does – those funny extra characters from the optical-whatever-it’s-called bit of your passport.
But you don’t find out if that’s the case for sure. Instead, you crawl into a corner and curl up to get away from it all – but then, that probably qualifies as suspicious behaviour, so you’re presenting a security risk and someone will report you to a member of staff or a police officer. You’ll likely cause unnecessary delays and you might even be removed, damaged or disposed of by a member of the security services.
But hell, it’s too late. The fraudsters, the hackers, the impersonators, the terrorists – they’ve got what they want. We’ve changed our lives because of what they do. They’ve won.
PS: Virgin just e-mailed, before they’ll activate my new mobile contract, I need to send them eight pages worth of documents proving I am who I say I am.