This is a story about a dumb American traveling in Mexico (me), a con man’s attempt to hustle pesos from tourists and the limitations of traditional banking.
It begins with a broken ATM.
Recently I traveled to Mexico City. I know less Spanish than the average toddler. On my very first day in Mexico, at the ATM, I inserted my card … and the machine swallowed it. I pressed the red cancel button. Nothing. I pressed more buttons at random. Nothing. I spoke to a lady inside the bank, who couldn’t understand a word I was saying (not her fault), and after we found a translator, she explained that this ATM was out of order, and that if I understood Spanish, I would have read the warning message on the screen. (Again, this is also on me. We’re in Mexico, and it’s my fault I don’t speak the language.)
I’d have to contact my bank, Fidelity, to get a new debit card mailed to me.
I would be in Mexico for the next two weeks, and clearly I’d need more cash. So I called Fidelity to cancel my card and send me a new one.
Problem 1: Fidelity says they would happily send me a new card, but I would need to call a different company, Visa Emergency Card Services, to have a new one sent. Fidelity handles my checking, but apparently they outsource things like debit cards.
So, I call Visa.
Problem 2: Visa tells me they need to authorize that I’m actually a Fidelity customer, and this could take some time. So I wait. In the meantime I can’t get cash.
I hear nothing from Visa for two days. I still have no cash aside from the pesos that a friend lent me.
Problem 3: Finally Visa tells me that I would actually need to call “PNC Bank,” because PNC Bank – another partner of Fidelity’s – is actually the group that handles the back-end of the checking. Or something.
I had never heard of PNC Bank. I’ve been a Fidelity customer for over a decade, and I have never seen the words PNC Bank on my debit card, or on my banking statements, or on my log-in screen.
Problem 4: “Hi, thank you for calling PNC bank,” the rep said. “Can I have your account number?”
“I have no idea,” I said. “I’m a Fidelity customer, and they told me to call you.”
The PNC rep checks her computer, and then tells me that no, in fact, I’m not a customer, and that I should call Fidelity.
I call back Fidelity. The Fidelity rep tells me that, nope, I never should have called PNC Bank. They say that I had been misinformed, and that I need to call Visa.
Problem 5: Again I call Visa. They tell me they’ve been trying to reach Fidelity.
“Do you know the phone number for Fidelity?” The Visa agent asked me.
“I’m the customer! Don’t you know the number?”
“One second, sir,” said Visa, who puts me on hold to find the number. Soon he comes back. “I have Fidelity on the line,” he said, so now the three of us our conferenced in.
“Can I have your account number?” The Fidelity rep asked.
I give it to her.
“Sir … can you repeat that? I’m not seeing that in my records.”
That’s bizarre. I repeat the number.
“Are you sure you’re a member of Fidelity Kansas City?” The rep asked.
“This is the local branch of Fidelity in Kansas City. Are you a member here?”
Apparently the Visa rep had not called the primary Fidelity number – which they should know – but instead a random branch.
Problems 6, 7, 8, 9 … 37: I’ll skip ahead and summarize the flurry of calls. This kind of clumsy miscommunication – between banking partners that work together, all under the Fidelity umbrella – happened for days. I spend hours on the phone with Visa, Fidelity and PNC Bank.
By now I’ve left Mexico City, and I’m in a small beach town, Sayulita, that for the most part does not accept credit cards. Cash is king. My American friends have all returned home, I’m traveling solo, and I have no way to get cash. I’m counting on that debit card from Fidelity. Or Visa. Or PNC bank.
In the grand scheme of things, of course, this is quite literally a first-world problem. I am a privileged American who ultimately has access to resources, and I knew my pinch was temporary. Millions of people have real and wrenching problems; I only have minor headaches.
But the headache seems lifted when I finally get Visa and Fidelity on the phone together. The Fidelity rep, James, assures the Visa rep that I am in fact a customer, and that Fidelity does in fact authorize Visa to send me a debit card. James provides his employee ID number. James is making this happen. James is the best. (Most reps I spoke to were great. The failure was not one of human competence; the failure was a creaky system held together by duct tape.)
“So do you have everything I need?” I asked the Visa rep.
They assure me I do.
Problem 38: Another day passes. I get a message that I need to call back Visa, because there’s been another snag. Visa says they need more information from Fidelity to mail me the card, because they’re not sure if it should be printed as “Jeff Wilser” or “Jeffrey Wilser” or “Jeff J. Wilser” or “Jeffrey J. Wilser.” This brought everything to a halt.
Still I can’t get cash.
More calls, more waiting on hold, more connecting Fidelity and Visa. Finally they authorize the card to be sent.
It’s guaranteed to arrive to me in Sayulita, via DHL priority mail, on Friday. For perspective, I arrived in Mexico the prior Thursday. For a week I’ve been unable to get cash.
Friday comes … no card arrives. It was held up in customs.
But hopefully DHL would deliver it on Saturday? Nope, DHL doesn’t work weekends in Mexico.
Now I’m desperate for cash. I call Visa and ask if they can do an emergency wire transfer. They said they’d be happy to, but they need to get approval from Fidelity. Now I’m feeling PTSD.
Eventually Visa gets Fidelity on the line. I’m conferenced in.
“I approve the wire transfer,’ the Fidelity rep said.
“We’re going to need your authorization code,” said Visa.
“What code?” The Fidelity rep is confused.
“We need a code to process this,” said Visa.
“One second,” said Fidelity.
Fidelity puts me on hold and tries to hunt down this “access code” that Visa needs. I feel bad for the Fidelity rep. I feel bad for the Visa rep. It’s a Saturday afternoon, and all of us would rather be doing something else. I go back to waiting on hold, and by now the hold music is the soundtrack to my life.
The Fidelity rep is back. He can’t find the needed code. He has never heard of this code. He asks around to his Fidelity colleagues and none of them knew of any such code.
Then the Visa rep realizes that it might be a moot point – to authorize a wire transfer, they’d actually need approval from another entity … PNC Bank.
I literally laugh out loud.
“PNC Bank?” I asked. “Okay. Great. Can we get PNC Bank to approve this?”
Problem 39: PNC Bank, or at least the relevant department from PNC Bank, is closed for the weekend.
The Fidelity rep says he feels bad for me, and I believe him. We’ve now been on the phone for an hour, he has heard my sad little story, and he’s as surprised as I am that we’re routed back to this enigmatic PNC Bank.
But wait! Maybe there’s a clever solution after all. I also have a credit card from Fidelity, but once again, this credit card is operated by a third party (Elan Financial Services.) My credit card is not set up to be used at ATMs; I don’t have a pin. What if Fidelity could change this, and let me use the credit card in the ATM?
“That might work,” the Fidelity rep said. “Let me look into it.”
I wait on hold. (In two weeks in Mexico, I spent more time on hold than I did on the beach.)
The good news is that, yes, my Visa credit card can be turned into a card that works at an ATM. All they need to do is give me a pin. The bad news is that they can only do this by sending the pin through the mail.
This is not a joke. They need to mail the pin. In this era of cryptography, the pin can only be delivered via parcel, meaning their tech has not innovated since the days of Benjamin Franklin.
“So there’s nothing we can do?” I asked him. “There’s no way I can get cash?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“The system broke down,” I told him.
Again he apologizes, and he essentially agrees with me. I want to underline that every individual I spoke to was competent and courteous – this isn’t their fault. (I should add that I’ve generally been a happy Fidelity customer; their customer service is normally top-notch. And I contacted Fidelity a few weeks later to ask if they would like to comment for this story; outside of an email apology that looked a bit like a form letter, they declined.)
Now here’s where bitcoin enters the story.
Kidding. I don’t know that cryptocurrency – at least with today’s infrastructure – would have cracked my problem. Taco stands in Sayulita do not accept bitcoin or shiba. And this is not El Salvador. Perhaps I could have used something like LocalBitcoins to swap bitcoin (I own some) for pesos. Maybe that could have worked.
But I do know that when people in the U.S. say, “crypto makes no sense, because my credit card works just fine,” that’s only part of the story. Yes, it works “just fine” when everything runs smoothly. It works “just fine” if you don’t mind paying the fees, whether directly or indirectly. It works “just fine” when no other countries are involved. But when that bubble is pierced? The banks can’t even talk to themselves.
Now this is where the con man enters the story.
I’m down to my final 50 pesos. That’s the equivalent of about $2.50.
I have one last move to make.
I head to a gringo tourist bar, and I order a beer with my last 50 pesos. (Luckily, beers are cheap.)
It’s a Saturday afternoon. College football is playing. I spot a tipsy American woman who’s cheering for Oklahoma. So now I’m cheering for Oklahoma. I went to college at The University of Texas; Oklahoma is our sworn enemy.
“Go Oklahoma!” I yelled.
Soon the lady and I are chatting. We’re flirting. And now I feel like a con man. “So, I have a crazy question,” I said, smiling, “but I’m wondering if you can help me…”
I tell her my plight, or at least a highly condensed version, and I ask her if I can Venmo her U.S. dollars in exchange for pesos. She agrees. Soon I have a stack of 1,000 pesos, I feel flush with cash, and later I repeat the same trick with another tipsy American tourist. Thanks to this mini-breakdown of the banking system, I’ve turned into a pathetic peso-hustler.
More flirting, more hustling, more pesos. Soon I can buy all the tacos and beers I want. And two weeks after I landed in Mexico, literally the day before I fly back to the United States, once it is no longer needed … DHL delivers my new debit card.
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