Romanian banks have it too easy

Those of you familiar with US banks may be displeased to learn that in Romania, banks will charge you to deposit money and to withdraw money. It’s also customary for them to charge you monthly fees just to keep your account open, and will charge you additional fees for a bank statement, and for internet banking. Pretty much everything that can carry a fee will carry a fee.

Somehow, in a country renowned for its IT workforce, the banking systems in use are terrible. Bank clerks will often complain their systems are slow, or are out of order. If you use any Romanian internet banking system, and you’ve been used to the ones in the US, you’ll be pulling out your hair. It’s like stepping back in time to the early 1990s — there’s no thought whatsoever put into a proper user interface, into making names and options user-friendly, and the total lack of various options for managing your account is mind-boggling. One wonders if the people who coded those systems ever bothered to look over the fence to see what other, more enlightened countries were doing.

But at least the banks are good at handling things in person, right? Wrong. You’ll find long lines at pretty much any bank you visit. And if you find a bank whose personnel is friendly and happy to assist you, by golly, stick with it, because they’re few and far between.

What about ATMs? They often break down. If they don’t break down, you’ll likely find you can’t withdraw money because there’s some technical issue on the backend, blah, blah, blah. And if they’re working, you’d better make sure some thief hasn’t installed a skimmer. The banks might as well equip each ATM with a 1990-style “Under construction” animated GIF, because that’s what it feels like to use them.

On top of all that, you’ll be hard-pressed to find them offering fixed-rate mortgages. They all offer ARMs (adjustable-rate mortgages) at sinister rates, which fluctuate up and down (mostly up) as they see fit, so they can gouge and gorge from their customers’ wallets. During the recent financial crisis, it wasn’t uncommon for some people’s monthly mortgage rates to double. When you realize how low the average monthly income is in Romania, I find it unconscionable that banks will subject their customers to 100-200% increases in their mortgage payments. And yet, you’ll find some of the highest salaries in Romania paid in the banking sector. I guess it pays to be a banker…

The Romanian government recently stepped in to “encourage” banks to offer lower interest rates on refinanced mortgages, but to my understanding, they’re still ARMs, so it’s likely that down the road, customers will get gouged again.

I’d love to see some real competition in the Romanian banking sector. I’d love to see some decent banks step in and treat their customers the right way. I’d love to see less fees, and I’d love to see a bank offer a proper internet banking system, like the one my favorite US bank (USAA) offers.


The story of one cellphone theft

My mother’s mobile phone got stolen on Friday (12/11/09). She visited her bank, made a transaction at the counter, left her cellphone there by mistake, went out to the car, realized it was missing, came back to get it, but it was gone. In spite of asking everyone around for help, and even though the phone was bright red, nobody saw it or wanted to say they saw it.

It wasn’t the loss of the phone itself that troubled her. It was the text messages she had stored on the SIM card — a historical archive that went back to 2006 and contained information of sentimental value about her parents (my grandparents), who have since passed on. These were texts back from when they were still alive.

She didn’t know what to do, so she called her own number, in the hope she’d be able to reach someone. Finally, she did. A woman picked up at the other end. My mother pleaded with her to return the phone, but she hung up and never answered again. Then, my mom logged on the T-Mobile website and saw that illegal international calls had been made to Haiti from her cellphone. I took a couple of screenshots from her call log and posted them below. As you can see, the thief, a woman, wasted no time in taking advantage of the fact that my mother’s cellphone was enabled for international calls, and started calling her relatives right away, as soon as she stole the phone.



Then, my mother got another clue. The woman who had stolen her cellphone took a picture of her child, possibly in their yard. I took a screenshot of that photo from my mother’s T-Mobile account and posted it below.


I can’t get at a larger size of the phone because my mother asked T-Mobile to freeze her account. The T-Mobile website logs either of us out when we try to get to that photo in the web album, but thankfully it is there for the police to review, which brings me to the next step my mother took. She contacted the police and filed a report for her stolen cellphone. I hope the thief who took it gets all that’s coming to them.

What’s sad is the thief is a woman, and what’s more, she’s a mother. We know she’s likely from Haiti, or she wouldn’t be making calls to that country. I have to ask, what kind of life is she preparing her son for? He’ll likely grow up a thief, just like his mother. He’ll grow up thinking it’s okay to take things from other people, that it’s okay to abuse other people’s kindness and money, that it’s okay to ignore their pleas to his better nature, that it’s just fine to step over someone’s feelings. That’s the kind of a person he’s going to be, and it’s all thanks to his mother, who didn’t blink at the thought of stealing someone’s cellphone from a bank counter instead of letting them know they forgot it.

It’s very probable that the thief, the Haitian woman, was still inside the bank when my mother went back to ask if anyone had seen her phone, and can probably be identified from the security tapes. As I said before, I hope she gets all that’s coming to her.