Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sense of humor required

I’ve lived overseas long enough that I can no longer recall whether the following scenario, which is representative of many of my customer-service experiences here in the UAE, would be considered normal back home. My American readers can judge for themselves.

On Monday, I went to a local supermarket to pick up a prescription at the pharmacy. I stopped at the HSBC-owned ATM machine to get cash to pay for the prescription, but absent-mindedly inserted my credit card instead of my debit card. I didn’t notice though, because the machine went through the normal motions - asking for my PIN number, which I entered, and then asking me to choose the amount of cash I wanted, which I did.

I still wasn’t aware anything was wrong until it suddenly spit out a receipt with the following message: “Cash withdrawal cancelled. Card retained. Please contact the bank.” I opened my wallet to find my debit card snugly tucked inside, and I finally understood my mistake. But there was no second chance, no “invalid pin” or “invalid card” error messages to alarm me to my idiocy. It just ate my card without warning! I could almost hear it belching with satisfaction.

Fortunately, this particular store has an in-house branch of HSBC, so I immediately went in, showed a teller the receipt and asked if he might retrieve it. Unfortunately, his reply was “Oh no, ma’am, we don’t have a key to the machine. You’ll have to wait a couple of days and then go to the main branch to pick it up on any week day between the hours of 10 and 2.” I told the man in no uncertain terms how ridiculous I thought the situation was, but rather than defend his employer, he smiled and said apologetically “welcome to HSBC.”

I guess he was trying to appease me, but it actually made me angrier to know there wasn’t a good reason for this inconvenience. HSBC is already on my list for its website constantly crashing and for making it nearly impossible to pay for things while we were in Istanbul [note to international travelers: always carry several methods of payment, from more than one banking source], so I was low on patience.

The man then conferred in Arabic with his colleague, turned back to me and said, “I tell you what, I’ll give you the number of a man to call at the main branch so you can call ahead and make sure he has it. His name is John. That way you won’t waste your time.” Right, I thought, wouldn’t want to waste my time. To top it off, the pharmacy was out of my prescription so I left the store even more empty-handed.

It has now been two days since the incident, so a few minutes ago I called the number for "John." An automated female voice with a refined British accent told me that no one was available at that number (no mention of John was made, or even of HSBC come to think of it) and that I could leave a message except for the fact that the voicemail box was full.

“I shall now transfer you to an attendant,” she chirped, “but, oops, no alternate extension was entered by the owner of this mailbox, so there is absolutely nothing I can do but end this call. Too bad, so sad.” Click. (There may have been a bit of paraphrasing there, but not much.)

There is nothing to do but laugh. Oh, and call back. Because I still need my credit card.


  1. I would have expected better from a Hong Kong based bank, and one that is apparently expanding.

  2. Hello Shannon and Sam! I have enjoyed reading about you adventures and misadventures in UAE. I am an American currently living in Latakia, Syria for the past six months. My Husband (a Syrian National) lived in Abu Dhabi for 10 years prior to us getting married 10 years ago, and he is eager to return there. Now the search for employment begins... any suggestions for this fellow American is appreciated. I just left Dubai for a 5 day shopping trip with female friends from Syria - it felt more like home (Riverside, CA) than here in Latakia. My email is Enjoy the weather there while it lasts!

  3. Oh, yes, even in America, we have such opportunities to "laugh!" I hope you have the card back by now as I post this.

  4. Watch it. They're more than capable of closing all your accounts, sending the balance to a nominee account in the Cayman Islands you can only access in person and re-issuing your credit card to the address you lived at fifteen years ago whilst charging you the annual card fees of the Chilean people less the cost of a Christmas tree.

  5. After this post, my credit card saga moved to a whole new level of crazy that is yet to be resolved, making me think your Cayman Islands scenario is within the realm of possibility.