Seventy six trombones led the big parade in the Music Man. One hundred and ten cornets were following right behind. All of them were delivered by the Wells Fargo man. It’s a shame that Wells Fargo doesn’t have their act together as well as they did back in River City. Maybe if they did, my parents would still have access to their bank account. Of course “parents” starts with P and that rhymes with T and that stands for “trouble” so it’s possible that something would have still gone wrong.

I religiously keep track of my expenditures as a matter of course. I find that when I write down how much money has gone out, every time it goes out (even for sums as small as half a yuan), that less money goes out overall. So, since I happen to have a fairly large chunk of money in my corporate account for the translation agency, there was no reason for us to ever touch my mom and dad’s money during their visit to China. They’d be able to put the dollars in my US account when they got back to the States.

In the Beijing Airport, the 50 or 60 renminbi in leftover money my friend Mike had from his last trip to China wasn’t nearly enough to cover two coffees let alone their overweight luggage fee and dad went to an ATM. Although this would have raised a flag which should have indicated that the cardholder was in China, this is not what caused the problem.

I’ve had my US card stopped at least twice since I’ve been in China. Once, it was my fault. I lost the card. The other time, it was the bank’s fault but it was a temporary stop, and although it inconvenienced me, I had used the card in four countries in a 36 hour time period and it’s somewhat reasonable for that to be flagged as “suspicious”.

The problem was that my parents, like most people over the age of 20, even when on holiday, still have bills to pay. Even in this modern world, not all bills are the same amount every month, and not all bills can be set up for automatic payment. Furthermore, my dad is the kind of person who likes to look at a bill before the money is taken out of his bank account. I am the same, so this is probably an inherent personality trait rather than something learned from the time one of his banks tried to take 2.5 million dollars out of an account that had $250.00 in it.

After they’d been in China for a few days, my dad logged on to his Wells Fargo online bank access, using a name and password different from what is written on the card, and paid one of his bills. Predictably, since my parents had both called Wells Fargo and gone to their local Wells Fargo branch prior to their flight so as to inform the bank that they would be out of the country and that their US phone number would not be answered for the next three months, the Online Payment Department notified the Fraud Department that there was suspicious activity originating from a Chinese IP address.

The Wells Fargo Fraud Department should have looked at the file which said “cardholder in China”. They should have looked at the file which had the cardholder’s Chinese phone number. They didn’t.

Instead, they called my parents home phone number and no one answered. Even though the Wells Fargo Fraud Department conscientiously called three times, no one answered the phone.

So when my dad next went online to use his bank card, he was locked out.

It’s a joint account with my mom so they tried using her online access to at least talk to the bank. But Wells Fargo refused to talk to her (about an account that she is listed owner as) because it wasn’t her card that had been canceled. Obviously, since they’ve shown an unwillingness to look at the basic “WE ARE OUT OF THE COUNTRY” information along with my parents’ international contact number, my parents are none too willing to attempt enabling e-pay through her account as it will almost certainly be canceled for suspicious activity when the Fraud Department also can’t reach her at her home number.

Today my dad used his MagicJack (a USB powered phone jack for making calls from a US phone number) to call the bank and tried to explain to them that every late fee on every bill that goes unpaid will eventually need to be picked up by the bank’s Loss Department and that it is very likely that they will also have to pay him damages, but they were more interested in telling him that he should be picking up messages on his US phone when he is out of the country, doesn’t expect to be back in country for two more months, and told them a week before he left where he would be and what number they were supposed to reach him at.

The Wells Fargo Online Banking Department also told my dad off for having assumed that both calling the bank and going into the bank in person to let them know he would be out of the country would have any effect at all. He ought to know that they don’t have any place in the Online Banking Department to take note of such information as “will be out of the country,” or “please use my international contact number”. He also ought to know that whether or not the Wells Fargo Credit Card Department had shared information with the Wells Fargo Online Banking Department, it is not the Online Banking Department’s responsibility to save that information.

Though how calling the Fraud Department will manage to resolve the fact that Wells Fargo has already sent a new bank card to my parents’ US address is a mystery, my dad has been instructed to call the Fraud Department between 5am and 8pm Pacific Standard Time.


  1. I feel for your parents. I recently locked myself out of my online banking for getting my security question wrong (a security question they had not asked me in 2+ years), and was told I would need to go into the branch in Canada to unlock the account.

    What I find terrible about banking security is that they load you up with security doorways (the value of which I understand), but tell you to pick something easy to remember but impossible for others to guess. I’m sorry, but my “mother’s maiden name” (in a Facebook world) is a really crap security question.

    What’s more, I have routinely locked up my PayPal account for the simple offence of logging in to the account with a VPN on. Ironically, PayPal’s cool if I login from China, but if I suddenly login from the US, they’re suspicious.

    Obviously these security measures are for our benefit, but as one who daily uses high-technology to create things that are used and abused by humans, these protections need to be balanced with user experience and usability.

    I think North American banks grossly under-estimate how difficult it is to contact someone during banking hours on the other side of the planet.

  2. My parents and parents-in-law both bank with Wells Fargo, both informed them they would be in China this summer, and neither was able to use ATM’s at Bank of China, which theoretically has an agreement with Wells Fargo. I haven’t been able to get in our pay pal account for two years no matter how much info I threw at them–in the end, without calling from our home phone (I think was the problem), we can’t get rid of the fraud alert. Bad idea to keep giving info, because now every financial account we own is linked to that account and they are all locked out from pay pal. Finally opened a new credit card account, found a phone number and email address I had never given them, and opened a new account.

    Still, glad we live in the age of online banking–we still need to make numerous financial transactions in the US. Would have been impossible 10v years ago.

  3. Bank of America, for all of their faults, has a program called SafePass. In the US you can use it with a cell phone. Anywhere in the world, you can use it with a SafePass card but you have to order your SafePass card from a computer in the United States and you have to have it mailed to a US address.

    You don’t have to remember security questions because the lithium battery powered card will give you a security code good for thirty seconds after you press the almost flat button. It doesn’t have your name, address, or banking information so it’s no good to someone who only has the card. All it does is make your security code which is only useful once you are already well into your account login.

    Luckily I did this before I left for China and I can still get to my Bank of America account.

    If we were on a business trip, rather than visiting our daughter (and her plentiful supply of local currency) we wouldn’t be totally screwed thanks to Bank of America having a somewhat sensible security policy. We’d still be pretty pissed off and frustrated at Wells Fargo.

    SafePass isn’t even new, Bank of America has had it for years, and my niece who was a programmer on a secure websites in the United States has used one of those cards to access her work for at least the past 20 years.

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