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April 04, 2005

Rage Against the Machine

Cape Town, South Africa

Monday, April 4, 2005:

I came back from shark diving to find that my replacement Citibank ATM card had finally arrived at my hotel, courtesy of prompt and expensive express mailing by my parents. As I had been starting to feel the pinch on my available cash, I had been using a credit card whenever possible and avoiding long cab rides to the Waterfront and anything else for which I would have to shell out some proper bills. The arrival of the card meant that I could more or less do as I pleased again and, of course, I could now leave Cape Town and move on whenever I wanted to (within another five or six days, as I had it planned).

I read the instructions that came with the card. To activate it you could either call a toll-free number in the US or simply enter your old PIN number at "any ATM machine." Making phone calls to the US in South Africa is frustratingly difficult. Credit card calls are not permitted, most likely as a precaution against rampant credit card (and ATM card) fraud. Prepaid phone cards are the only real alternative, though I still have a US $25 card I purchased in Johannesburg that isn't worth the cardboard it was printed on --- every number I dial, no matter which one, returns a message indicating that "calls to that number are not permitted." For all of these reasons, I saw no point in calling the toll-free number. I didn't need to. I could, as the instructions said, activate the card at any ATM.

I went down to the local KWIKSPAR supermarket, swiped my card in the swipe mechanism, and entered my PIN. I then entered a request for 500 rand (about $85). The machine whirred and buzzed and seemed on the verge of giving me my cash. But instead it returned only a receipt that read: "System Unavailable --- Try Again Later." I didn't know what this meant, but didn't like it. I tried to use the machine again, but received exactly the same sort of receipt. Maybe I should try the toll-free number, I thought. Or maybe just try again later like the machine says.

I went down the street, grabbed a cup of coffee at the Mugg & Bean, and read my current book, Mother Tongue, a discourse on the origins and oddities of the English language, by Bill Bryson. Then, on my way out of the mall housing the Mugg & Bean, I noticed an ATM machine. So I decided to try it.

Before using the ATM, I looked around carefully. Nobody was waiting nearby and nobody was watching. I had seen a hunched over old woman use it successfully a moment earlier and very much doubted that she was a member of an organized crime ring who had just tampered with it in order to steal other customer's cards. Everything appearing satisfactory, I inserted my card. I then hit "cancel." My card came out. This meant the machine was fine and hadn't been rigged.

I entered my card again. I entered my PIN. I entered a request for 500 rand and hit the "enter" key. The machine clicked. The machine whirred. The machine made a grinding noise as it violently sucked down my card and displayed a message on the screen reading "Excessive Incorrect PIN Attempts --- Card Seized."

It was like watching a gruesome killing in a chainsaw horror movie in slow motion. I stood stunned with my jaw gaping for several seconds. Then I pounded on the machine with my fists. "Aaaahhh!" I said. "Aaaahhh!" I looked around for signs of some conman waiting to move in to swipe my card when I walked away, but nobody was paying any attention in the slightest. Until I hit a button on the side of the ATM that connected me to Standard Bank over a very loud intercom.

"Standard Bank" said the man on the other end.

"Your machine just ate my card!" I yelled. "It says I entered the wrong PIN too many times but I didn't enter the wrong PIN, I entered the right PIN once!"

"Hmmm," said the man. "I strongly advise you to have that card cancelled..."

"I need it back," I told him.

"We can try to send somebody tomorrow," he said. "In the meantime, you should have the card cancelled.

"I think you're missing my point," I growled, but he either didn't hear me or pretended not to hear me.

"What kind of card is it?"


"Do you have the hotline number?"

"No." I had lost it.

The bank rep gave me the number. I hung up. Now I had a steady group of people looking on at me. Nevertheless, out of paranoia I kept standing around the ATM for a while until two different people had used their cards successfully. In fact, one of the security gaurds in the mall was suspiciously eyeing me. When I was firmly convinced that there was no scam in progress and that nobody could possibly remove my card from the ATM and use it, I left and went back to my hotel.

From my hotel I dialed the Mastercard hotline number the Standard Bank rep had given me. "Welcome to VISA," said the voice. I cursed the Standard Bank rep but stayed on the line. I simply lied to the VISA rep, telling her that my VISA had been lost and asking if I could be transferred to Citibank to report it. "Absolutely Sir," said the woman. "I'm connecting you right now." It worked. I was put through to a waiting line for "Customer Service." I waited for five minutes before I was finally connected to a representative.

"Can I have your card number?" asked the man on the other end of the phone.

"I don't have it," I said, "It was new and it was just eaten by an ATM machine."

"Can I have your name and social security number then?" I gave it to him. I heard lots of clicking and typing on the other end. Then a sigh. Then more clicking and typing.

"What state is your account in?" asked the rep.

"New York." Clicking. Typing.

After another five minutes, the man spoke up in a weary voice: "Sir, I'm sorry, I just don't see any information at all here for your account. The only thing I can suggest is that you call your paying agent on your account statements."

I couldn't believe it. I was about to hang up in complete disgust. Then, suddenly, a thought crossed my mind. "This is Citibank, isn't it?" I demanded.

There followed a shocked silence on the other end of the line. "Sir. This is JP Chase Morgan!"

I lost it. I tore into a slew of curses at the Standard Bank and VISA reps and their incredible inability to do anything correctly. I then apologized for the outburst to the JP Chase Morgan rep, explaining that I had been incorrectly transferred to him due to incompetence. I expected some sort of casual, understanding remark, but he sounded appalled by my colourful (and may I say, for the record, creative?) use of the English language. "Well," he said coldly, "if there is nothing more, thank you for calling JP Chase Morgan." I envisioned a Quaker from Salt Lake City on the other end of the phone --- a Quaker with a brick jammed up his ass. He sounded shaken up by the things I had said and I could see him entering into numerous sessions of therapy to nurse himself back to recovery.

I called VISA back and asked to be connected to Citibank. "C-i-t-i-b-a-n-k." The Citibank that isn't JP Chase Morgan --- which is a bank that is not Citibank, confusingly enough.

The Citibank rep cancelled the card and took down information to send yet another replacement. When I told her how the card had been swallowed she told me that replacement cards could only be activated at Citibank ATM machines.

"Your instructions say 'any ATM' machine," I told her.

"Only Citibank ATM machines can be used," she confirmed.

After the call I went back to my room (still in a general state of anger and shock) and checked the instructions that had come with the card. Sure enough, the instructions say that you can "activate your card now at any ATM" and, in another spot, that you should "(1) sign the back of your new card and (2) use at any ATM." Unless the people at Citibank somehow believe that all ATMs in the world are Citibank ATMs (and perhaps they are simply thinking wishfully into the future), a "Citibank ATM" and "any ATM" are two very distinct things. The Standard Bank ATM did not register my card because it had not been activated. It ate the card as a precaution against fraud. And as I see it, Citibank is fully to blame. As I am now stuck in Cape Town on limited funds for perhaps as long as another week (longer than I planned to stay), I have plenty of time to write them a letter expressing my warm and fuzzy feelings for them and their department of instruction-writing retarded baboons.

After sulking for a while in my room and writing my parents some e-mails explaining that I had received the new card and now needed a new new card, I went down to the Adventure World travel agency I had used to book some of my previous tours and activities.

"How are you?" asked Stephen, the owner.

"I'd like to hurl myself out of an airplane," I told him.

Arrangements were promptly made.

Posted by Joshua on April 4, 2005 08:18 AM
Category: South Africa
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