Bank of America, Hopes and Dreams

On December 24, 2009 a charge for $4.97 was posted to my Bank of America checking account from “Hopes and Dreams”.

I did not make this charge. The transaction noted a telephone number, 478-394-4395, and a Google search revealed many other people were also struck with an unauthorized charge for $4.97 from “Hopes and Dreams”.

hmm, charge a small amount of money from many cards under the guise of a charity… genius!

I guess my Bank of America check card has been compromised. And apparently I am not alone.

This was troublesome as I am traveling. I do have a backup card from a different bank. The backup card occasionally wouldn’t work where the BofA card would. I found that the combination of a Visa and a Mastercard from separate banks is very useful while traveling in the world. I decided to live with the risk and keep the BofA card active until the issue is resolved. I thought it would be resolved quickly.

I emailed BofA, the response was that I need to call the customer service number to dispute the charge. Making an international phone call during California business hours while traveling (I was in Japan at the time) is not an easy thing to do. This fact didn’t seem to register in the emails. Also, opening an investigation is impossible, the only recourse is to dispute the charge and cancel the card. Canceling the card while I’m traveling and having them mail a new card is less easy than making the international phone call during California business hours.

In the past couple of months I’ve made numerous attempts to call Bank of America and get this resolved. Usually I was put on hold and then disconnected. Separately, they did freeze my card as soon as I arrived in the Philippines. Using your card in the Philippines counts as “suspicious” to Bank of America (Japan, Korea, and Taiwan are ok, sorry Philippines). Apparently the multiple emails I have sent explaining that I am traveling were never read (or at least, never read by the right department). I was able to get through to the Bank of America Checkcard Security department from the phone number on the alert they sent me (about suspending my card). I reported the unauthorized account activity from “Hopes and Dreams” and they told me they couldn’t do anything about that, and that I need to call the customer service number during regular business hours (i.e., California business hours).

Interesting, Bank of America Checkcard Security department does not handle the security of your checkcard. They do monitor your account and freeze your card if you travel to the Philippines. They do not have an email. If your card is compromised they cannot do anything; you must call customer service during regular banking hours.

It has been two months and three countries after “Hopes and Dreams” posted an unauthorized debit on my card. Today, I was able to call Bank of America customer service and file a claim. The trick was to keep calling back after being disconnected by the first round of customer service agents. You’ll need to survive four separate transfers, none of which know your account number and will continually ask for your social security number, drivers license number, and other highly sensitive (and personally identifiable) information that they were never supposed to ask me over the telephone (I signed up for some security measure where a password and ID number would be used instead of personally identifiable information).

One time I had made the mistake of not telling them my social security number (because I was in a public cafe). The response was to freeze my entire account and require me to show up in-person at a Bank of America branch with two forms of ID. This is not very nice when you are traveling.

I realized this is an institutional problem. Occasionally a representative on the phone would try to help me, and never were they empowered to resolve the issue. One department does not share information with any other department. And yet all departments can touch your account, and put restrictions on it that they may not be able to lift. Each department has a specialized role and anything outside of that specialized role will not be resolved. I was unable to find a department for “someone is stealing money from your customers!”

Eventually a customer service representative transfered me to some fraud resolution department, the solution was to credit my account $4.97. The fact that this is not an isolated incident did not seem to register to anyone. Also, they have not credited my account, after I spoke to the agent who created the claim I was transfered to an automated message. The automated message explained to me that I must mail (yes, mail) the claim information to receive the credit, and if I do not mail this information then my claim will be dropped. They’re using the mail-in rebate scam… I guess I still haven’t alerted Bank of America that someone is actively stealing from their customers. The $4.97 is less the issue, someone stealing money via a fake charity is the issue.

They did tell me that they were putting a hold on my card (which was already suspended because I used it in the Philippines) and were going to mail me a new card. I requested they not send me a new card, as I will not be needing one.

Fortunately, in less time than I have been dealing with Bank of America over $4.97, I have opened an international checking account (with a different bank) that waives all international fees. I now have two separate checking accounts that I rely on and neither one is from Bank of America.

For anyone who plans on doing serious travel, here are some recommendations:

  1. Keep the bulk of your travel money in a secure online savings account. HSBC and ING both offer such accounts. The only way to touch this money should be to transfer it to a checking account.
  2. Maintain at least two separate checking accounts from separate banks. It varies by country, but one Visa and one Mastercard is recommended. This combination covers most ATMs in the world.
  3. Keep only enough money to survive in each of your checking accounts. If a card is stolen or compromised you don’t want to end your trip early.
  4. Don’t bank with Bank of America. Hell, even if you’re not traveling, don’t bank with Bank of America. There are plenty of competent banking institutions and credit unions to cover your financial needs.

I’m now in Singapore, I’m up late (California banking hours), and I’m looking at my Bank of America check card. It says “customer since 1994”. I feel a little sentimental since this account has been with me since I was a kid. Oh well, thanks for the good times BofA!

Thoughts on the World

It’s hard to describe the sense of freedom achieved by traveling the world with no plans of return. Your perspective shifts dramatically. Cultural differences dissipate and your senses are overwhelmed with a beautiful, open, and accepting world.

Life is Perfect

I believe the world we perceive is an illusion we construct to aid our survival. We see the world as we want to see it, and the reality that we live is only the perceptual illusion that we create.

The truth, if there is a such a thing, is that everything is and must be perfect. Everything is perfect exactly as it is at every moment that it exists. This means the world around you is perfect, every bit of it necessary for this existence. Life is continuously dying and continuously reborn, all perfect exactly as it is…

If there is a heaven, it is right in front of you; and if there is a hell, it is your blindness to this perfect existence. Your laughs, cries, sorrows, joys, all of it perfect. The perceptions are yours to control, you can see the world in any way you choose. And this life, your life, is perfect in every way.

Life is Fundamentally Simple

I believe that being happy is a choice. Anything you want can be achieved merely by focusing your awareness.

A wonderful trait of being human, we shape our world through our every want, it is as natural as breathing. We are the shapers of our world. I believe our brains are more limited than we imagine and yet more powerful than we often realize.

I also believe that everything negative has a positive opposite. Your perception of what is negative is a wonderful gift to guide your life. Focus on the positive opposite of every negative thought, life is as simple as that…

You are what you want
Who are you? Who am I? Who are we?

Your wants are the answer, your life and your existence are affirmed through the acceptance of you wants. If you want to know yourself, follow your heart, follow your bliss, and understand that doing the things you enjoy are the very definition of who you are… All the answers are already known to you, be quiet and listen!

Be Nice, Manila

I’m staying in central Manila. Near Abad Santos LRT. I’ve walked around the neighborhood at various times during the day and night. The tricycle drivers all know me, and they know where to take me when I don’t feel like walking from the LRT station to the guesthouse. They’ve also been great with directions when I want to walk around by myself.

I’ve walked to the local mall which is a couple kilometers away. Next to the train tracks is a sort of shanty-market where you can buy food and furniture. Kids are playing. People are noticeably happy. I’m asked to play a quick game of basketball (I assume because of my height). There are live roosters tethered near shacks.

I smile. People smile back. People are curious, they ask my name, where I am from, and if I’m enjoying my stay (I am, very much). Most of the children near the guesthouse know me and usually wave and ask where I am walking to, occasionally they walk with me for a block or so (before getting bored and running off to something more interesting).

Many people have echoed concerns that the neighborhood I am staying is not safe, and I definitely shouldn’t walk around alone. At least two of my friends have messaged me to get out immediately, as if I am in a war-zone. All of these are people I trust, and most of them live in Manila.

Nothing I have seen would lead me to think this area is unsafe.

Makati and Malate have been the names most recommended of where I should stay.

I went to Malate, and I also went to Makati. The mall in Malate, compared to the surrounding neighborhood, is extravagant. Same could be said of the Makati greenbelt. There is no middle income area; grinding poverty, hawkers, and prostitution outside, and upper-middle class yuppie luxury on the inside.

I smile. Few smile back. Many offer dirty glances and judgmental stares.

In these “tourist friendly” neighborhoods many cabs have refused to take me to where I am staying. Normally, I ride the MRT and LRT, but the trains close early during the week so even a late dinner means you’re taking a taxi home.

“It’s a dangerous neighborhood, I don’t drive there at night.” said one driver.

“that’s not true, it’s quite safe” I replied with a reassuring smile

“I know this area, I only drive in this area” he said. “let’s find you a girl, I know a place nearby”

I had one driver who claimed he didn’t know where my place was, and then claimed not to know where the LRT is when I mentioned that I am near a station. I’d say maybe one-in-five taxis are brave enough to make the journey late at night.

Normally, I am not one to criticize cultures I am foreign to, but I feel this is less a cultural issue and instead a shared-humanity issue.

In the high-class neighborhood, if I talk to a girl, many will assume she must be a prostitute and that I am sex tourist. Hawkers offer me girls, and some hostels (in an offensive way of preventing sex tourism) refuse entry if I am not with my wife (I don’t have a wife).

Manila, the best of who you are is found in the streets you most scorn. Manila is a place to love. And it is because of those “unsafe” neighborhoods that I love it — where I am treated as a human being by other human beings, and our shared curiosity brings out the best in both of us.

Manila, rather than warn travelers to stay away from those neighborhoods, perhaps you should visit them yourself, and be reminded of the hospitality and kindness of the human spirit (and not the kindness enforced through armed guards).