Recently I saw a video clip of Ellen DeGeneris receiving a multimillion-dollar contribution from Ashton Kutcher for her school in Africa. It was subsidized by a company that specializes in quick and easy global money transfers, and so to give the money Kutcher just gave his smartphone to Ellen and told her to push the button she saw onscreen. She did, and presumably the millions flowed instantly and painlessly into the right bank account.
It’s not so easy for us ordinary folks either to drum up millions or, heaven forbid, send it to Africa.
Take a simple Western Union wire transfer. You used to have to do these the old-fashioned way: Take cash to one of the instant check-cashing joints, because they don’t take checks or credit cards for wiring money. Fill out a form. The clerk enters the information on the computer. You correct the mistakes, making sure the name is written exactly as it appears on the recipient’s ID. For a Congolese recipient this usually means writing two Congolese names in the slot for “first name” and the Christian name in the slot for “last name” e.g. first name, Kikoso Mvele, last name, Madeleine. I have learned this by trial and error.
You are given a tracking code. You communicate the code to the recipient. Later, if all goes well, she emails that she has picked up the money.
Yesterday I went to the local check-casher to go through this rigamarole, remembering to stop first at the ATM to withdraw a big wad of cash. It was for fees paid to the ecumenical Protestant organization in Congo, which does an important service for church-related travelers to Congo: issuing very official letters of invitation that get quick results in obtaining visas. I have another trip coming up and several people are going with me.
At the money shop I saw none of the usual forms. Instead there was a notice that you can now do all of this online. I asked the clerk about this and she said yes, you can, and yes, you can use credit cards for it and doing it online is much cheaper than doing it in person, only a flat $5 fee, and besides she couldn’t do anything for me at the moment because the shop’s computers were down.
So I went home and did it online. The fee was more than $5; that was only for doing it in the store (huh? From your smartphone, I guess.) But otherwise it went smoothly except, of course, my credit card bank held up the transfer because it was to a nasty African country but I was able to get it authorized with a phone call and the proper password.
Almost as smoothly as Ellen pushing that button.
Then, early this morning, before I had my coffee, I had to change the transaction. It hadn’t been picked up yet and I had to add a fee for an additional person. This was also simple to do online. A notice said it would take 30 minutes to review so I stepped into the bedroom to get dressed. My phone rang and I couldn’t get to it in time before it went to message.
The message was garbled but there was a number for returning the call. An email came a few minutes later saying that additional information was needed and to call that number. I called. A recording gave me an endless menu of choices, one of which seemed appropriate: “returning a call from Western Union.”
That asked me to enter the transaction number, and then told me that the transfer was being reviewed and there was nothing more I needed to do at the time but “we will notify you if we need additional information.”
Wait. Wasn’t that the message I’d just gotten? “Need additional information.”
I tried a few more times, listening carefully to the options. I was led in the same circle. Meanwhile, I got an email saying if they don’t hear from me within four hours they will cancel the transaction. And giving me the same number to call.
I decided to call the credit card bank to see if they were holding up this transfer. No, they hadn’t gotten anything from Western Union this morning. Did I want the Western Union number? The bank agent gave me the Catch-22 number I’d been calling. I told her what had happened with that. She then looked for another Western Union number and found a different one for customer service. That was some helpful agent!
I called the Western Union customer service number, which was all about fraud reporting, and finally found an option that would take me to an operator–reporting an “altered money order.” I reached an actual person, who listened to my tale and soon interrupted me to say he would transfer me to another department.
This second person pulled up the information on my attempt to send money to deepest, darkest Africa and then grilled me repetitively about the transaction. Who was this person I was transferring money to? What was her name? What was my name? What was her position? How did I know her? What was the money for? When was I born? Who was the main holder of my credit card? Did I know the recipient personally?
Finally, according to my interrogator, Western Union authorized the transfer. Seconds later, my husband got a fraud alert email from the credit card. He authorized the charge. Seconds after that, I got an email from Western Union saying the credit card had rejected the charge. I called the bank and confirmed that the charge had been authorized. Minutes later, Western Union gave me the details of my approved transfer. I forwarded it to my Congo friend. She got it. An hour later I got an email from Western Union confirming that the money had been picked up.
I think, however, I may brew a whole ’nother pot of coffee.