UK Banking, Attempt 3: Tesco Bank (and the Irish credit card)

It feels like most of what I end up writing nowadays is my misadventures across a wide range of financial service companies. But here we go (I promise I’ll go back writing about reverse engineering Really Soon Now™).

The last post on this topic was my rant, about how Fineco lacks some basic tools to be used as sole, or primary bank account in the UK. Hopefully they will address this soon, and a sane bank will be available in this country, but for now I had to find alternatives.

Since the various Fintech companies also don’t provide the features I needed, I found myself having to find a “high street bank”. And since my experience up to this point both with Barclays and NatWest was not particularly positive, I decided to look for a different option. Since I have been a mostly-happy customer of Tesco Bank for nearly four years, I decided to give their UK service a try.

At first it appeared to have an online sign-up flow that looked sweet for this kind of problem… except at the end of it, they told me to wait for them to ask me for paperwork to send them through. Turns out the request was for proof of identity (which needs to be certified) and proof of address (which needs to be in original) — the letter and form I could swear is the same that they sent me when I applied for the Irish credit card, except the information is now correct (in Ireland, the Garda will not certify a passport copy, though it appears the UK police forces would).

Let’s ignore the fact that by mailing me at that address, Tesco Bank provided their own proof of address, and let’s focus instead on the fact that they do not accept online print outs, despite almost every service (and, as I found out now, themselves) defaulting to paperless bills and statements. I actually have had a number of bills being mailed to me, including from Hounslow Council, so I have a wide range of choices of what to provide them, but as it turns out, I like a challenge and having some fun with corner cases (particularly as I already solved the immediate need for a bank account by the time I looked into this, but that’s a story for another day).

Here is a part of the story I have not told yet. When I moved to the UK I expected to have to close every account I had still in Ireland, both because Ulster Bank Private is a bloody expensive service, and because at least in Italy I was told I was not entitled to keep credit cards open after I left the country. So as soon as I was in working order over here, I switched over all the billings to Revolut. Unfortunately I couldn’t do that for at least three services (Online.net, Vodafone Italy and Wind/3 Italy) — in two cases because they insist they do not accept anything but Italian cards, while somehow still accepting Tesco Ireland cards.

While trying to figure out an ad-interim solution I got to find out that Tesco Bank has no problem with me still having the “Irish” credit card, and they even allowed me to change the address (and phone number) on file to my new London one. We had some snag regarding the SEPA direct debit, but once I pointed out that they were suggesting breaching the SEPA directives, all was good and indeed the card is debited to the EUR Fineco account.

This also means i get that card’s statements to my London address. So of course I ended up sending, to Tesco Bank, as proof of address… a Tesco Bank Ireland credit card statement. As a way of saying “Do you feel silly enough, now?” to whoever had to manually verify my address and send the paperwork back to me. Turns out it worked just fine, and I got not even a passive aggressive note about it.

Now let’s put aside the registration and let’s take a look at the services provided. Because if I have to rant, I would like at least to rant with some information to others to make up their own mind.

First off, as I said, the first part of the registration is online, after which they get in touch with you to send them the proofs they need. It’s very nice that during the whole time, they “keep in touch” by SMS: they remind you to send the paperwork back, they tell you that the account was open before you receive the snail mail, and so on.

I got a lot of correspondence from Tesco Bank: in addition to the request of proofs, and the proofs being mailed back, I received a notification about the account being opened, the debit card PIN, and a “temporary access number” to sign up online. The debit card arrived separately and through a signature-required delivery. This is a first for me in the UK, as most other cards just got sent through normal mail — except for Fineco, as they used Fedex, and they let me receive it directly at the office, despite it not being the proof of address I sent them.

Once signing up for the online banking, they ask you for an 8-digits security code, a long(er) password, and a selection of verbal question/answers, that are the usual terrible security (so as usual I’ve answered them at random and noted down what I told them the answers were). They allow you to choose your username, but they suggest it to stay the email address on file.

The login for the first time from a different computer is extremely awkward: it starts with two digits of the security code, followed by a SMS second factor authentication, followed by the password (not a subset thereof, so you can use a password manager easily for this one), all through different forms. The same happens for the Mobile Banking application (which is at least linked directly from their website, and very easy to install). The mobile banking login appears to work fairly reliably (and you’ll see on the next post why I call this out explicitly).

I set up the rent standing order on this account, and it was a straightforward and painless process, which is the same as a one-time transaction, except for saying “I want to repeat this every month” checkbox. All in all, it looks to me like it’s a saner UI than Barclays, and proper enough for the needs I have. I will report back if there is anything particularly different from this that I find over time, of course.

Book Review: Getting More

It has been a while since I wrote my last book review and it was not exactly a great one, so I’ll try to improve on this by writing a few reviews over the next month or so. After all what better gift for geeks than books?

I have had the pleasure to read Getting More last October, as part of a work training. It’s a book about negotiation, and makes a point multiple times to detach that from the idea of it being manipulation, even though it’s probably up to you to see whether the distinction is clear enough for you. The author, Prof. Stuart Diamond, runs a negotiation course at Wharton, in Pennsylvania, and got famous with this.

I was expecting the book to be hogwash, as many other business books, and especially so as many materials I’ve been given before at courses (before my current job though). Turned out that the book is not bad at all and I actually found it enjoyable, even though a bit repetitive — but repetita iuvant as they say; the repetition is there to make you see the point, not just for the sake of being there.

The main objective of the book is to provide you with process and tools to use during negotiation, big-time business deals and everyday transactions alike. It also includes example on how to use this with your significant other and children, but I’ll admit I just skipped over them altogether as they are not useful to me (I’m single and I don’t even see my nephew enough to care about dealing with children.)

It was a very interesting read to me because, while I knew I’m not exactly a cold-minded person especially when frustrated, I found that some of the tools described I’ve been using, for a long time, without even knowing about their existence. For example, when I interviewed for my current job, my first on-site interviewer arrived with a NERV sticker on his laptop — we spent a few minutes talking about anime, and not only that reassured me a lot about the day, – you have no idea how stressed I was, as I even caught a fever the day before the interview! – it also built an “instantaneous” connection with someone who did indeed become a colleague. I would think it might have added to his patience for my thicker than usual accent that day, too.

Between anecdotes and explanations, the book has another underlying theme: be real. This is the main point of difference between negotiation and manipulation as seen from the book. In the more mundane case of dealing with stores, hotels and airlines, you have two main examples of using the techniques, to get compensated for something negative that happened, whether or not it was in control of the other party, and otherwise to ask penalties waived when you did something incorrect, unintentionally. It would be tempted to cause something negative and ask for compensation even if everything was perfect — that would be manipulation, and it’s unlikely to work very well unless you’re a good -actor- liar, and rather makes it worse for the rest of the world.

The book invites you to keep exercising the tools daily — I have been trying but it’s definitely not easy especially if you’re not an extrovert by nature. It takes practice and, especially at the beginning, more time than it would be worth: arguing half an hour for a fifteen euro discount somewhere is not really worth it to me, but on the other hand practice makes perfect and the processes to apply for small and big transactions the same. I have indeed been able to get some ~$100 back at the Holiday Inn I’ve stayed at in San Francisco.

I have got my set of reserves on using the methods described on the book – it sometimes feels manipulative and relying on implicit privilege – but on the other hand, Prof. Diamond points out multiple time that the methods works best when both parties know about them, so spreading the word about the book is a good idea, and telling people explicitly what you’re doing is the best strategy.

Indeed, I felt that I would have gotten better from Tesco just last week, if they had read the book and applied the same methods. A delivery was missed, and that was fine, but then the store went incommunicado for over ten hours instead of calling me right away to reschedule, and the guy who called me lied on the order going to be new the day after. They gave me some €25 back straight on the card — which is okay for me, but it was not really in their best interest, as I could have walked away with the money and gone to a different store. I asked them if they could offer me some months of their DeliverySaver (think Amazon Prime for groceries) for free.

Yes, the DeliverySaver subscription would have had a much higher value (€7.5/month), but it would be actually cheaper to them (as I live in an apartment complex, that they delivery to daily anyway, the delivery costs are much lower than that), and it would have “forced” me to come back to them, rather than going to a competitor such as SuperValu. As it turns out, I’ve decided to stick with Tesco, mostly because I have their credit card and it is thus still convenient to stay a customer. But I do think they could have made a better deal for themselves.

At any rate, the book is worth a read and the techniques are not completely worthless, even though difficult to pull off without being a jerk. It requires knowing a lot about a system to do so, but again this is something that is up to the people reading the book.

I finally have my first Irish credit card, here’s why

Living on Credit Cards
Photo credit: Images_of_Money

Almost exactly 18 months after moving to Ireland I’m finally bound to receive my first Irish credit card. This took longer than I was expecting but at least it should cover a few of the needs I have, although it’s not exactly my perfect plan either. But I guess it’s better start from the top.

First of all, I have already credit cards, Italian ones that as I wrote before, they are not chip’n’pin which causes a major headache in countries such as Ireland (but UK too), where non-chip’n’pin capable cards are not really well supported or understood. This means that they are not viable, even though I have been using them for years and I have enough credit history with them that they have a higher limit than the norm, which is especially handy when dealing with things like expensive hotels if I’m on vacation.

But the question becomes why do I need a credit card? The answer lies in the mess that the Irish banking system is: since there is no “good” bank over here, I’ve been using the same bank I was signed up with when I arrived, AIB. Unfortunately their default account, which is advertised as “free”, is only really free if for the whole quarter your bank account never goes below €2.5k. This is not the “usual” style I’ve seen from American banks where they expect that your average does not go below a certain amount, it does not matter if one day you have no money and the next you have €10k on it: if for one day in the quarter you dip below the threshold, you have to pay for the account, and dearly. At that point every single operation becomes a €.20 charge. Including PayPal’s debit/credit verification, AdSense EFT account verification, Amazon KDP monthly credits. And including every single use of your debit card — for a while, NFC payments were excluded, so I tried to use it more, but very few merchants allowed that, and the €15 limit on its use made it quite impractical to pay most things. In the past year and a half, I paid an average of €50/quarter for a so-called free account.

Operations on most credit cards are on the other hand free; there are sometimes charges for “oversea usage” (foreign transactions), and you are charged interests if you don’t pay the full amount of the debt at the end of the month, but you don’t pay a fixed charge per operation. What you do pay here in Ireland is stamp duty, which is €30/year. A whole lot more than Italy where it was €1.81 until they dropped it on the floor. So my requirements on a credit card are to essentially hide as much as possible these costs. Which essentially mean that just getting a standard AIB card is not going to be very useful: yes I would be saving money after the first 150 operations, but I would be saving more to save enough to keep those €2.5k in the bank.

My planned end games were two: a Tesco credit card and an American Express Platinum, for very different reasons. I was finally able to get the former, but the latter is definitely out of my reach, as I’ll explain later.

The Tesco credit card is a very simple option: you get 0.5% “pointback”, as you get 1 Clubcard point every €2 spent. Since for each point you get a €.01 discount at end of quarter, it’s almost like a cashback, as long as you buy your groceries from Tesco (that I do, because it’s handy to have the delivery rather than having to go out for that, especially for things that are frozen or that weight a bit). Given that it starts with (I’m told) a puny limit of €750, maxing it out every month is enough to get back the stamp duty price with just the cashback, but it becomes even easier by using it for all the small operations such as dinner, Tesco orders, online charges, mobile phone, …

Getting the Tesco credit card has not been straightforward either. I tried applying a few months after arriving in Ireland, and I was rejected, as I did not have any credit history at all. I tried again earlier this year, adding a raise at work, and the results have been positive. Unfortunately that’s only step one: the following steps require you to provide them with three pieces of documentation: something that ensures you’re in control of the bank account, a proof of address, and a proof of identity.

The first is kinda obvious: a recent enough bank statement is good, and so is the second, a phone or utility bill — the problem starts when you notice that they ask you for an original and not a copy “from the Internet”. This does not work easily given that I explicitly made sure all my services are paperless, so neither the bank nor the phone company sends me paper any more — the bank was the hardest to convince, for over an year they kept sending me a paper letter for every single wire I received with the exception of my pay, which included money coming from colleagues when I acted as a payment hub, PayPal transfer for verification purposes and Amazon KDP revenue, one per country! Luckily, they accepted a color printed copy of both.

Getting a proper ID certified was, though, much more complex. The only document I could use was my passport, as I don’t have a driving license or any other Irish ID. I made a proper copy of it, in color, and brought it to my doctor for certification, he stamped and dated and declared, but it was not okay. I brought it to An Post – the Irish postal service – and told them that Tesco wanted a specific declaration on it, and to see the letter they sent me; they refused and just stamped it. I then went to the Garda – the Irish police – and I repeated Tesco’s request; not only they refused to comply, but they told me that they are not allowed to do what Tesco was asking me to make them do, and instead they authenticated a declaration of mine that the passport copy was original and made by me.

What worked, at the end, was to go to a bank branch – didn’t have to be the branch I’m enrolled with – and have them stamp the passport for me. Tesco didn’t care it was a different branch and they didn’t know me, it was still my bank and they accepted it. Of course since it took a few months for me to go through all these tries, by the time they accepted my passport, I needed to send them another proof of address, but that was easy. After that I finally got the full contract to sign and I’m now only awaiting the actual plastic card.

But as I said my aim was also for an American Express Platinum card. This is a more interesting case study: the card is far from free, as it starts with a yearly fee of €550, which is what makes it a bit of a status symbol. On the other hand, it comes with two features: their rewards program, and the perks of Platinum. The perks are not all useful to me, having Hertz Gold is not useful if you don’t drive, and I already have comprehensive travel insurance. I also have (almost) platinum status with IHG so I don’t need a card to get the usual free upgrades if available. The good part about them, though, is that you can bless a second Platinum card that gets the same advantages, to “friends or family” — in my case, the target would have been my brother in law, as he and my sister love to travel and do rent cars.

It also gives you the option of sending four more cards also to friends and family, and in particular I wanted to have one sent to my mother, so that she can have a way to pay for things and debit them to me so I can help her out. Of course as I said it has a cost, and a hefty one. Ont he other hand, it allows you one more trick: you can pay for the membership fee through the same rewards program they sign you up for. I don’t remember how much you have to spend in an year to pay for it, but I’m sure I could have managed to get most of the fee waived.

Unfortunately what happens is that American Express requires, in Ireland, a “bank guarantee” — which according to colleagues means your bank should be taking on the onus of paying for the first €15k debt I would incur and wouldn’t be able to repay. Something like this is not going to fly in Ireland, not only because of the problem with loans after the crisis but also because none of the banks will give you that guarantee today. Essentially American Express is making it impossible for any Irish resident to get a card from them, and this, again according to colleagues, extends to cardholders in other countries moving into Ireland.

The end result is that I’m now stuck with having only one (Visa) credit card in Ireland, which had feeble, laughable rewards program, but at least I have it, and it should be able to repay itself. I’m up to find a MasterCard card I can have to hedge my bets on the acceptance of the card – turns out that Visa is not well received in the Netherlands and in Germany – and that can repay itself for the stamp duty.

The revenge of the loyalty card

I’m interrupting my series about diabetes to take a moment to look into the way Tesco beat EuroSpar’s craziness for what concerns UTF-8 handling in my surname.

So to cut down the time I spend getting my groceries, a couple of months ago I started ordering online from Tesco and get it delivered to my apartment. It’s nice because they have quite a wider selection for some things than the EuroSpars and for some things at least, better quality.

In particular, Italian-style plain tomato sauce costs a third if not less at Tesco compared to EuroSpar — let alone more boutique style places like Fresh or Il Valentino!

When I registered, they asked if I had a Clubcard already (their loyalty card) which I didn’t have, and so they said that one was on its way to me. After a month ordering from them without receiving the card, and with the delivery receipts not listing any points at all. I called them and they apologized and said they would re-send me the card, fine. I received it the past week: I’m surprised An Post was able to actually deliver it, as it was addressed to R P Ego Elio Etten Di — I think the UTF-8 messed hard with their text processing. The card itself, got sent at name Mr D Petten.

I tried registering on the website with all possible combinations of name and address (yes the address was misspelled on the letter as well, Partment rather than Apartment), but no dice. Today I called them. And I think both me and the operator sweated heavily: first he asked me for my Clubcard number, I start giving it to him, and he tells me it’s wrong “It has to start with 634” “But mine starts with 400!”. Then he started asking me what’s the surname on the letter, and as you can guess above, I had no clue of what they recorded as surname. Then after some more repeating that what my name is does not match what’s on the card, I got them to actually set up me up with the correct name and address.

But I wanted to actually get to the website, so they said they would send me a link reset password. Instead, what I receive is my old password, in clear-text. I tell the operator “That’s not what should happens” “That’s what I got here”. I find “We take security very seriously” in the body of the email that contained the password laughingly. It’s interesting that this was reported over two years ago and is still not fixed. Lovely. I thank my colleague Brice for having shown me SuperGenPass so I can at least make sure not to compromise my usual safe passwords anymore.

Okay so I log in on the home delivery website for which I was obviously already registered, I connect, and I try to get the clubcard details, once again it asks me to enroll the card in my account. So the guy asks me if he should give me the number now… and I stay silent for a couple of beats. The number impressed on my card does not match the number the card should have! something messed it up and it was shifted a few digits left, with some extra digits added at the end. That’s why it did not start with the right digits. A new card is on its way to me, hopefully.

So the mere use of my real surname in their system was able to mess up their Cardclub handling so bad, that they ended up imprinting the wrong number on a card (not printed the way Decathlon does in Italy, this is actually creditcard-style embossing!), and sending it out.

On a different note to close the post, I published my glucometer tool and if you’ve got a different model or brand and want to write a driver for it, it’ll be very welcome.

My time abroad: Dublin tips

I’m actually writing this while “on vacation” in Italy (vacation being defined as in, I took days off work, but I’ve actually been writing thousands of words, between the blog, updates to Autotools Mythbuster and starting up a new project that will materialize in the future months), but I’ve been in Ireland for a few months already, and there are a few tips that I think might be useful for the next person moving to Dublin.

First of all, get a local SIM card. It’s easy and quick to get a prepay (top up) card. I actually ended up getting one from Three Ireland, for a very simple reason: their “Three like home” promotion allows me to use the card in Italy, the UK and a few more countries like if it was a local one. In particular, I’ve been using HSDPA connection with my Irish account while in Italy, without risking bankruptcy — the Three offer I got in Ireland is actually quite nice by itself: as long as I top up 20 euro per month, whether I spend it or keep it, they give me unlimited data (it shows up in my account as 2TB of data!). The same offer persists in Italy.

I’ve also found useful to get a pre-paid mobile hotspot device, for when guests happen to stop by: since it does not make sense for them to get an Irish SIM, I just hand them the small device and they connect their phone to that. When my sister came to visit, we were able to keep in touch via WhatsApp.. neither of us spent money with expensive international SMS, and she could use the maps even if I was not around. I decided to hedge my bets and I got a Vodafone hotspot; the device costed me €60, and came with a full month prepaid, I can then buy weekly packages when I get guests.

Technology-wise, I found that Dublin is surprisingly behind even compared to Italy: I could find no chainstores like Mediaworld or Mediamarkt, and I would suggest you avoid Maplin like a plague — I needed quickly two mickey-mouse cables with UK plugs, so I bought them there for a whopping €35 per cable… they are sold at €6 usually. I’ve been lucky at Peats (in Parnell Street) but it seems to be a very hit and miss on which employee is following you. Most of everything I ended up getting through Amazon — interestingly enough I got a mop (Mocio Vileda) through Amazon as well, because the local supermarkets in my area did no carry it, and the one I found it at (Dunnes in St Stephen Green) made it cumbersome to bring it back home; Amazon shipped it and I paid less for it.

Speaking of supermarkets, I got extremely lucky in my house hunting, and I live right in the middle of two EuroSpar — some of their prices are more similar to a convenience store than a supermarket, but they are not altogether too bad. I was able to find buckwheat flakes in their “healthy and gluten free” aisle, which I actually like (since I’m not a coeliac, I don’t usually try to eat gluten free — I just happen to dislike corn and rice flakes).

I also found out that ordering online at Tesco can actually save me money: it allows me to buy bigger boxes for things like detergents, as I don’t have to carry the heavy bags, and at the same time they tend to have enough offers to make up for the delivery charge of €4. Since they have a very neat mobile app (as well as website — they even ask you the level of JavaScript complexity you want to use, to switch to a more accessible website), I found that it’s convenient for me to prepare a basket over there, then drop by the EuroSpar to check for things that are cheaper over there (when I go there for coffee), and finally order it. For those who wonder why I still drop by the EuroSpar, as I said in a previous post they have an Insomnia coffee shop inside, which means I go there to have breakfast, or for a post-lunch coffee, whenever I’m not at work. Plus sometimes you need something right away and you don’t want to wait delivery, in which case I also go to there.

Anyway, more tips might follow at a later time, for the moment you have a few ideas of what I’m spending my time doing in Dublin…