Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Reality check

The other day a client paid me by check. Now, normally I would take the check to the bank on which it's drawn, sign it on the back and get the cash. But this check came with two, small parallel lines drawn in pen across the upper left corner of the check.

This means you cannot just go waltzing up to the teller and cashing it. No, no, no. You have to deposit it in a bank account.

But I don't have a bank account in this country.

Last time I got a check like this, I decided maybe it was time to open a bank account. So I tried. I really did.

But it did not go well.

Setting aside for a second all the ridiculous red tape of opening an account -- in a country where they should be begging you to put your money in the banking system -- there is a law that says that you cannot deposit checks for the first SIX months of the account.

Well, sure. I mean, you don't want people putting money into banks willy nilly! Anyway, even assuming I was content to wait six months, the check was only valid for 90 days. It would have expired before I could deposit it.

I eventually took care of that first check with the help of friends. But I didn't want to go back to my friends with this new check, so I decided to try to tackle the problem myself.

I came across a business called . . . OK, not actually "Solutions for Business Development," but something very, very similar and purposefully vague. They promised to resolve your "liquidity problems" through the service of their "analysts."

So I called. They said they would be happy to help. First I had to fax them a copy of the check and an analyst would return my call.

I faxed it over. Half an hour later, a man called back. He gave me his first name and said he was calling from "the place where you sent your check."

Uh huh.

He asked me questions about what I did for a living. And then he told me to gather my phone bill, the official government-approved invoice I submitted in order to receive the check and my Argentine identity document. He said someone would call back in another half hour to let me know how things would proceed.

Half an hour later, the phone rings. I am told that they will be happy to give me an appointment with an analyst that day.

So I show up a few hours later in the dingiest office I have ever seen in my life. There is another man in the waiting room. Like the old leather sofa and the blue carpet, he's ragged and sad looking. I try to avoid eye contact.

Off the waiting room are two doors, both closed. Finally a woman comes out and calls my name. I go through one door, into a very short corridor filled with more closed doors and one open door. I step through the open door and into the office, windowless and bare except for a closed-circuit television screen, a pencil cup and some papers.

I stare at the pencil cup for a few minutes waiting for my analyst. When she comes in, she asks me all the same questions I was asked over the phone, takes some paperwork from me and leaves the room.

More staring at the pencil cup. My analyst comes back a few minutes later.

Good news! My transaction has been approved. Just sign here.

Of the check's original value, 7% of it was charged as a fee for my consultation with the analyst.

A percentage point or two went to the government's check tax. Yes, this is a real thing -- don't get me started.

And then another 15% was charged as interest on the loan.

What loan? Well, they don't actually cash checks. They just give you a 30-day loan. . . which you then pay back 5 minutes later by signing the check over to them.

It's possible that the only thing worse than having a bank account here is not having one.

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