Your not-so-flexible friend
When I first got a cheque book, there were no such things as cheque cards. If you tried to pay by cheque and a chop was a bit suspicious, they would ask you to write your name and address on the back. It was a kind of veiled threat that they might send the boys round if it bounced. No one seemed to suspect that you might put a fake address on the (stolen) cheque.
Then there were cheque cards (up to £30 I recall; it was still the name and address routine above that). Then there were credit cards for the likes of me (I’m sure the rich had had them before), then PIN numbers. And for a glorious few years you could spend money (if they’d lend it to you whenever and wherever you wanted).
Then it all changed. Nothing to do with the credit crunch, but with stolen cards. Any bit of credit card spending out of the ordinary that the computer noticed (and it was computers that enabled this kind of policing, the old push and slide slips couldn’t have managed it), and you’d be DECLINED. That could be an odd place (a sudden weekend in Dublin) or an uncharacteristically large retail amount (in my case Harvey Nicks or every other airline ticket I attempted to buy on the web). It was all for the spender’s ‘protection’ of course, but hugely inconvenient. The idea was that you ring up first to tell them your spending plans (and you know how long that can take).
Anyway, mindful of all this, the daughter emailed the other day from Djibouti, where she’s been working, to say that she had booked to stay in a hotel in Addis Ababa on her way back to Nairobi, but she hadn’t told her credit card company she would be in Ethiopia. She didn’t want to get frozen out of the hotel, yet phoning from where she was, was not easy.
The first instinct – to ring up her card company and pretend to be her – was rejected. Not only could it get you into trouble, but if the card company got a whiff of it, they would instantly stop the card completely, which would be a bit of an own goal. So the husband and I decided on a two prong approach. He would do the card company, I would see if I could guarantee the room with my credit card.
So he went into a central London Lloyds Bank where he met one of those rare Mr Helpfuls, who quite saw the problem. Indeed, he said, he would ring up the credit card department himself to explain that she was going to be in Ethiopia. So far, so good. But as Mr Helpful put it, the credit card department was in the hands of a boy pushing 17. When Mr Helpful explained the problem, the boy simply repeated, robotically, “I cant give you any information’. ‘I don’t want you to give me any information’, persisted Mr Helpful, ‘I am giving you information’.
In the end he thought that the Ethopia stay had been recorded ‘on her file’, but was uncertain enough to give the husband his number, in case there was more to sort out.
Meanwhile the Sheraton central booking office somewhere in Texas were pretty helpful too. But it turned out that to guarantee a bill, you had to send a fax of a xerox of both sides of your credit card. My best card (the one with some credit on it I mean) is black. Imagine how that comes out when xeroxed, faxed to Texas, and then to Addis. DECLINED. I did eventually get it there, faxing it direct to Addis.
And what did the daughter then do? The perfect old-fashioned solution. She paid in cash.