Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Saga continues...

So readers, I ended my last post with a few possible storylines. In this post, I will open with the international wire investigation and its outcomes. Depending upon my energy afterwards, I shall continue with a story about the "Baghdad call center," where I was able to quickly and easily purchase a cellphone with no identification (much like a terrorist or mafiaso would probably do).

Sorry it has taken several days for me to continue this blog. Our internet connection at Pilgram Apartments (our temporary residence) has been spotty at best. In the States, we’re used to receiving internet via Wifi (WLAN) or through a modem from a high-speed internet provider. Here, we have a little blue box with electrical plugs, which has dLan Ethernet (High Speed 85) written on it. We plug this into an electrical outlet just like any radio or hairdryer, and voila, we are online. However, this piece of machinery seemed suspect. Our on-site manager, Manuel, who is also the son of the owners, came twice and could not resolve our technical difficulties. Rachel, after finally calming down from her internet withdrawal seizures and examining it for 5 minutes, realized that the blue box was plugged into a power strip which was itself plugged into another powerstrip before reaching the wall outlet. Now we’ve plugged it into just one strip and directly into the wall. Surprise! This seems to have improved our connection. So, fingers crossed, surfing we shall go!

Ok, arrived last Sunday after all the problems with American Airlines and missing my connection at JFK, NY.

I didn’t have any difficulties getting into our temporary apartment here. However, upon arrival, I was told by Manuel- Mr. Onsite Manager- with the bloodshot red eyes, that our payment was never received.

I found this info most disturbing as we had most definitely sent an international wire from Bank of America (BOA) to University of Wien, and they received it with no problem. At this point, I was jetlagged and figured I’d wait to deal with it until at least Rachel arrived. However, she also had difficulties with a flight being cancelled (another blog, perhaps?) but was greeted herself with Manuel telling us again “the money is still not in the account.”

At this point, I start to wonder who exactly this Manuel character is. He’s young-looking with long, crazy Beethoven hair, multiple piercings, and always wearing heavy metal t-shirts and shorts. He's spending his days, as anyone can see, hangin’ out with friends stoned. As the account owner is nowhere to be found and has a last name different from Manuel, I wondered if Manuel wasn’t try to milk a little extra moolah from often perceived-to-be “rich” Americans.

So, after a second harassment by Manuel, I called BOA toll-free and inquired about the international wire. Their response was they they would start a trace, in effect, an investigation. BOA assured me that in two business days they would know into which account the money was wired. This was on Tuesday, and I hung up with BOA having been told to call back Friday if I hadn’t heard from them.

Flashforward to Thursday: Beethoven/Manuel returns. By this time, we had had a few more "conversations." According to Beethoven, his mom is the account holder, but she is in Bulgaria at the beach on vacation. His dad is in Vienna, however, we haven't been contacted by him either. Being prudent, I tell Beethoven there’s no way I’ll talk about this account with him (someone who has a different name from the account holder). For all we know, Beethoven has absolutely no relation to the building owners/account holders, and would love to get easy access to the account via some naive expats. As Beethoven cannot even produce a single piece of identification, and his only explanation of his authority is that he "has all the keys to the building," we really start to feel uncomfortable. Up until this point, we had received email correspondence solely from someone signing the emails as "Manuel." Finally we get a nearly illegible email from another sender, ostensibly his mother. According to Beethoven, "She is really angry!"

From our perspective, this is the third day we’ve been dealing with this scammer. In the meantime, I’ve doublechecked my paperwork. (Thank you, Baltimore City, for teaching me to always have a paper trail!) I am confident we are in the right, and they are in the wrong. Can you blame us for being suspicious of the motives and fearing extortion?

I have the paperwork from the original wire, and after doublechecking, all the numbers seem correct - the money went into the correct account. Nonetheless, we’re getting angry emails from the mother demanding immediate cash payment, and Beethoven is coming to visit multiple times a day.

Rachel hates to ask for favors. But I talk her into communicating with one of her future colleagues, who can speak German and has lived here for years. She calls the account holder (the "mother") to assuage her fears that we’re not some meth-addicted gypsies who are planning to leave without paying. Meanwhile, I call BOA to follow up on the investigation.

Yes, finally, the investigation has been finished! Here’s the resolution: 1124 Euros (a lot of dollars, according to CNBC) was in fact transferred to the mother’s account way back on July 20th. Importantly, the total amount we had agreed upon was 1132 Euros, 8 Euros more than what went into her account… the difference had been due to *her* bank taking an 8 Euro fee.

For those who don’t have much experience with international wires (and I didn’t up until now), everyone puts their hands in the cookie jar. First, BOA takes its cut via a wire fee and also by giving us a lousy exchange rate. Then, when the money arrives in the foreign account, that bank takes its cut, too.

The BOA rep informs me that often clients don’t realize their bank is taking a cut; thus, they are looking for a slightly different amount and do not recognize a deposit. Perhaps this is what happened in this case?

So, after this discussion, Beethoven again appears and asks me to speak with his father on the phone. According to him, the father had stopped by earlier but we were not in (due to the fact that the internet wasn’t working in our apartment...again (!)...and we had gone out to use an Internet café).

I tell the father, please re-check your accounts: 1124 Euros were deposited on July 20th, as per my bank’s investigation. Oh and by the way, "when you find the money, email me in writing, since I want to know you have the funds." A paper trail is important, people!

Finally we got resolution by way of an email from the father. As it all turned out, it was a “bookkeeping error” on their end and we should give the 8 Euros we owe them to Manuel. No apology, no admittance of their mistake. However, no more harassment, either. Yay....

So now you all know the competency level we’re dealing with, if over 1100 Euros can be deposited into an account shortly after it was requested without being noticed. Ahhh…. If only I had such amounts anonymously being deposited into my account. If anyone would like to deposit some money, I’ll gladly pass along our info!

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