Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bank on it

If you plan on doing any sort of commerce while in the UK, you better bring your card and leave your checkbook at home. I'm not talking about shopping with an American credit be honest, I never really used my American account here. We set up our accounts here right away and for anything in between, I had cash. What I'm talking about here is the system for shopping here versus shopping in the States.

In the States you can usually pay one of four ways. Cash, credit, debit, or check. Obviously not all places accept checks, but until I arrived in the UK, I never realized how antiquated the check really is. Don't get me wrong...if I don't have cash with me, I will choose writing a check over giving Visa another opportunity to charge a merchant another fee. (Yes, I am one of those anti-'big bank' people.) But after I asked a few merchants here, "Do you accept checks?" and they looked at me as if I had a bleeding third eye growing out of my forehead, I realized they don't use checks like that.

What they DO use, however, is a fraud-proof card system that really seems to be a great way to cut-down on card theft. It is called a PIN and CHIP card. The card has a teeny little chip on it that only works when inserted into card reading machines - not swiped, but inserted - and the card reading machine requires you to enter your PIN...that part is like using a debit card in the US, except that here, the PIN is required for your credit card as well. And, unlike a debit card, there's no option for the customer to process the card as a credit card with no PIN required. Only the merchant can choose that option, and that rarely happens. If you forget your PIN, you are pretty much stuck.

So when you use your card at the register at any store, you enter your PIN. If you use it at a restaurant, they bring to your table a handheld unit where you have to enter your PIN. The guy at the table next to you can be using one, too....they are on a wireless system of some sort, and so more than one transaction can be processed at once. There's no waiting, which is good. (It occurs to me right now that I should have invented the handheld unit. Damn.)

So one more thing about the cards. I'm going to save you a moment of panic when you go to the ATM, pop in your card, plug in your PIN, and read the "One moment while we deal with your request" message. (They need to "deal with" my request? Sounds like I'm annoying them.) Anyway, your card will be spit back out at you with a series of loud beeps. It is NOT because you don't have any funds in your account. A few uncomfortably long seconds later, your cash comes out. Then there is a message that says, "Thank you for your custom" and you don't have to remember to take your card, nor do you have to dispose of a receipt. So once again, it's pretty efficient.

While we are discussing banks, let me add that if you are a bank robber, don't come to England. It appears to be nearly impossible to rob a bank here, and I say that not as a person who sized up a bank to rob. Rather, it was interesting to notice how different banks are constructed here. There are small branches with little or no lobby, open from 10:00 am until 3:00 pm, with two to four windows with tellers behind security glass and with slide out drawers on the counter to exchange stuff with you. (Like in a drive-through in the US.) That's not so unusual...I'd say it is comparable to a bank in the US that's in a really bad neighborhood or something, with all the security measures protecting the teller.

But the big branches of the banks here ARE unusual to me, as an American. At the entrance you will find a handful of uniformed staff with clipboards, ready to greet you and point you toward one of the dozen ATMs built in a semi-circle-shaped wall behind them. There is not a counter nor tellers anywhere within view. The ATMs have signs above them for deposits or withdraw (but called something else that I can't think of right 'taking out' or 'putting in', seriously.) If you need to talk to a person, you have to tell the clipboard people, who take down your information on their clipboard, walk over to a little kiosk with a computer, type in your details, and ask you to take a seat and someone will be with you shortly. Then, depending on what you need, another uniformed staff person shows up and takes you to the next section back (still no where near the actual tellers at counters, which may or may not exist at these branches) or up one level to another floor. Both of these locations look like an office with a bunch of cubicles. Still no counter or tellers to be found. And definitely no safe with a giant door leading to the safe deposit boxes like you see in the States. If you have cash to deposit as part of whatever you are talking to the bank employee about, they will take it and come back with a receipt. Where it goes is anybody's guess. Or I suppose any non-bank employee's guess. There must be a teller somewhere, as there must be a safe. But it's in a difficult place to get to, and probably an even more difficult place to get out of. I'd bet that any bank robbery here would have to be the result of an inside job. Of course that is just speculation on my part...I hope to never hear about it or see it happen.

So what I am saying about banking in the UK is this: PIN and CHIP cards are a great idea. If you are a bad guy, you'll find yourself particularly challenged in the UK. There's no easy way to use stolen credit cards, you can't forge checks because no one takes checks, and you can't go barging into a bank and rob it.
And again, I say this as an OBSERVER, not as a potential perpetrator.

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