More British cashback: Airtime Rewards

You could say that one of this blog’s “side hustles” is talking about cashback offers. I think it all started with the idea of describing how privacy compromises work, but more recently focused on just one fintech’s free money distribution. This time I have something to talk about that again touches on both points.

Airtime Rewards is a cashback program that was advertised to me by my mobile phone provider, and it is indeed a bit different from other programs I’ve seen, because the cashback can only be redeemed as credit to your (or someone else’s) mobile phone bill — thus the Airtime part of the name I guess.

The way it works is pretty much reminiscent of the US-only “Rewards Club Dining”: you sign up for an account, and you give them your payment cards’ details — PAN (the 16-digit number), CVV and expiration date. They don’t charge you, instead they set up a “trap” on those cards, so that they are notified when you spend on them.

And this is honestly borderline even for me, as a privacy invasion. I haven’t worked deep enough in payment systems to actually know how those traps are implemented, but it sounds like the companies like Airtime Rewards are getting pretty much a huge feed of your spend, not just related to the vendors they offer cashback for. But don’t quote me on that because I don’t actually know how they implemented it, it might be totally benign.

Now let’s preface this with one important bit of information: only Visa and MasterCard cards are usable for either of these two options. American Express is, once again, a walled garden — they are effectively the iPhone of payment cards, for good and bad (including costs). Just like they don’t allow vendors to scam people via DCC, they don’t seem to allow traps of cards for payment.

So how does this program fare, and why do I even bother talking about it? Well first of all, if you’re the type of person who don’t like leaving money on the table at any chance, it’s actually pretty good, as long as you visit the stores involved. I signed up for this just before Christmas shopping, because I knew we were going to spend a bit of money at Debenhams, and they had a nice 5% cashback, but even just the couple of orders from Waitrose, and the usual stock-up at Boots were enough to get back ~£30 in a couple of months. It’s not going to pay for the phone bill constantly, but it does pay for a few vanity domain names, at the end of the year.

The cashback offers from various retailers are there to make customers chose them over alternatives. This has worked a tiny little bit with Airtime Rewards, in the sense that I factored in the cashback offer when choosing between ordering from Morrisons, Waitrose or Ocado — because sometimes the cheaper is actually winning due to cashback offers, either Airtime Rewards, or Santander. For the most part, a number of our usual destinations are part of the program, so Boots, Pizza Express, Ryman, or (more recently) Uniqlo are nice to see. For a while, Morrisons was also part of the program, but that has not been the case for very long — it appears there’s some variability on which retailers sign up, that suggests there may be a middleman company handling the retailers connections.

Speaking of Santander cashback, because Airtime Rewards attaches to the card number itself, it is possible to combine the two offers, making it closer to (sometimes) 10% cashback than 5%. The same is true with Curve, although note that you can’t stack Curve and banks’ offers, as the latter only see the charge coming directly from Curve.

One very annoying thing with the way Airtime Rewards work, compared to offers by banks, Curve, and American Express, is that they only hand you the cashback credit after a “confirmation period” by the retailer — namely it seems to be matching the various retailers’ return policies. Which means it’s taking 90 days to confirm a Morrisons transaction, despite Morrisons not being in the program anymore. It feels very strange for restaurants (like Pizza Express) needing 35 days to confirm a transaction though — I don’t think I would be able to return my lunch there.

One important thing to note is that the offers are also not quite uniform: while most of the offers are valid for both MasterCard and Visa, some are only available on one or the other circuit. It’s not a big deal for me, as I always preferred having one card on each, but it’s something to keep in mind. Not all the offers are available online, either – again the Morrisons offer I referred to above was only available in store, which excluded home delivery – and then there’s the catch with Google Pay and Apple Pay.

You see, when you pay with Google Pay or Apple Pay, you’re using a “virtual card” — the PAN of the card reported to the merchant does not match the one printed (or embedded) in the card that you connected. This has been described as a privacy-preserving feature by many, although I can’t find any obvious official documentation of this. The idea being, if you pay alternatively with your phone (or different phones) and your physical card, the merchants shouldn’t be able to tell you’re the same customer (but the bank, obviously, can). Turns out this is also not true, because indeed you can attach the PAN of a physical card to Airtime Rewards, and you get your cashback when you pay with Google Pay (connected to that particular card) at some of the retailers.

I say some, not just because Airtime Rewards explicitly only marks some offers as compatible with Google Pay, but also because experimentally I can tell you that even some of the offers that are marked as Google Pay compatible don’t actually work when paying with Google Pay. That was the case, for instance, of Carluccio’s: the only time the cashback got registered was the one time I paid explicitly with my physical card.

What this does mean, though, is that there’s a way for third parties (beside you, your bank, and Google/Apple) to connect payments by virtual cards with the corresponding physical card. And honestly, that’s the scariest part of this whole program.

So, at the end of the day, what if you’re interested in signing up for this? You can sign up here, and use code P7YR6TPE to get £1.5 bonus for you (and a matching one for me). Or maybe you can check with your mobile provider, that might have an even better sign-up offer, honestly.

A story of ordinary discrimination

I don’t like writing about politics, despite me having strong opinions on some matters. The last time I spent time writing about this, it was about xenophobia in software, and this time it’s a very related story.

Before I start with the tale, I need to prefix that at a first read, it might sound like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. This is probably true for me, as I’m playing on the lowest difficulty setting, being white, wealthy and from a country that is, in most parts of the world, well considered (what I have read more than a few racist commenter define “a good immigrant”). I want you to think twice, though, if this would be just as “silly” for someone with a higher difficulty setting.

So this tale starts with me signing up for a energy supplier programme. This is a Very British Thing to do, so let me explain a bit about this. Like at least a few countries in Europe, and all those I lived in, the UK has a “liberalised” energy market, which means the consumers (including the tenants) can choose which company to give their money to, for their electricity (or gas).

Because of human nature, capitalism, marketing, and whatever else happens, the normal behaviour of these suppliers is to offer you what is usually a very good deal with a lock-in contract of 12 months. After the contract expires, you’re on a monthly-basis on a terrible tariff — you can then either choose to lock in with them for another 12 months for a less-terrible tariff, or switch supplier to one that offers you a better deal yet. From a purely monetary point of view, switching is always a winning strategy. From the human point of view of not wanting to bother, it’s not uncommon to renew with the same supplier, or even not noticing the contract expired and being overcharged.

Since looking at different suppliers, figuring out the best option, and actually switching are time-consuming tasks, it can get to the point where the money saved is not worth the time spent. And that created an opportunity for middlemen to insert themselves into the picture, in the form of energy supplier switching programmes. These programmes take your information, find you a better deal, and even sign you up to switch, with various degrees of automation.

iChoosr in particular tries to find deals for groups, with the idea that you can get a better deal from a supplier by giving them a ballpark of how many people would sign up for it. This is the middleman that Unite the union chose to run their twice-yearly switching programme. I signed up for it last year, because I was able to — I was provided with a no-lock-in contract with EDF when I moved into the apartment, but was getting annoyed at them calling me every two weeks or so to ask me if I wanted to install a smart meter (my landlord didn’t want, I didn’t want to bother.)

Last year, the chosen supplier was So Energy, which turned out to have a very friendly website, too. I switched. Then this year when the time to renewal came I signed up for the programme again. The answer was different this year (unsurprisingly), and E-On Energy was chosen, which was even more interesting to me, as Santander also had a “retailer offer” to sign up for E-On.

And here is where things went badly. I got the offer and went to their website to fill in the form, but when I stated that I lived at this address for only one year and eight months, I was asked for my previous address, which had to be in the UK. No overseas address option was available in the form. And I couldn’t even mess up with the fields, because it wanted to look up the address by (UK) post code.

I already wrote about this in the previous post of course. So that’s not entirely surprising either, but it is a non-small annoyance. It turns out that you need three years of addresses in the UK to be able to pass the credit check that E-On requires. It’s a “tax on the immigrants” in the sense that you will have to choose a more expensive supplier if you can’t provide that data. I decided to renew with So Energy, if nothing else because they are not unfriendly to recent immigrants — and the difference being less than £100 a year made it not worth the hassle to chase E-On around.

I did, though, send a complaint to iChoosr about the fact that their service is not friendly to immigrants. And today that complaint got an answer:

Dear Mr Diego Elio Petteno,

Thank you for contacting us.

We are sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused. Please note that the system asks for your previous address for the credit check by the supplier. However, if your previous address is not in the UK we would advise you to please fill out that you have lived in the UK more than 3years. That way you may be able to complete your switchover process.

For your convenience Please find below the link to your personal offer (if the link does not work then copy the entire link and paste it into your browser’s address bar). This page provides you with your personal details, current energy figures and your offer:

[Continues with usual drivel with link and request for information — F]

“Dianah” from iChoosr support

As I complained on Twitter after reading this email, their answer is worse than the problem! (El tacon pexo del buxo in my dialect.) They suggested, in writing, for me to lie on a credit check form. Let’s not even comment at how they keep calling it a “personal offer”, given that it is not available to me.

Now it is very possible that, all other things being the same, the credit check would pass just fine. If nothing else, Santander giving me a credit card seems to have taken care of most of those problems. And to be honest, I could probably just have asked my girlfriend to sign up in my place, since she’s been living in the UK much longer than me. But beside me not wanting to give money to a discriminating supplier, there is the other “small” problem of lying in credit check forms.

Again, remember I’m playing at the lowest difficulty level. Lying on the credit check form will probably not do me any harm. But what about a worker with a lower salary who just arrived from a different country? What if the credit company noticed the inconsistency and marked their credit rating further down?

Anyway, after complaining on Twitter, because that’s something I do, iChoosr stated that this is not their standard operating procedure, and even offered to “manually switch” me, without the requirement of three years in the UK. Note that once again, this is for me, a white male working for a big company, coming from a country that is not associated with immigration as much as it should be.

This is unfortunately the norm. If you lived all your life in the UK, all of this is hidden away: of course you have more than three years worth of addresses! If you have enough money that you don’t really care about switching provider, then of course you don’t notice credit checks or anything of the sorts. But it does create a much less friendly environment for those of us who move into the country.

Luckily, there are other cases. The dentistry clinic that just opened across the street from us is staffed mostly by immigrants. They know how hard it is, they remember how annoying it was when they arrived. And they made sure that the financing company the signed up with is able to take overseas addresses. Given that there is no interest applied on the financing, I fear they might have just taken the hit of paying higher fees to guarantee that.

Of course the consideration there is not just for their own experience; assuming that would be naïve to say the least. The other side of that calculation is that their location in West London is as such that a lot of their customers are likely immigrants, that might or might not have lived for three years in the UK already, and might thus need a bit more relaxed credit check environment than, say, Richmond High Street.

This is why I’m upset with Unite, too. The fact that their provider does not care to select offers that accept immigrants out of the box throws a shade to them just as much as iChoosr: many of the people counting on these deals are likely on lower salaries than mine, and for them the price difference can be an actual difference. Even more so if they have recently moved to the country. I should send my complaint to them just as much at this point.

Take my experience of this molehill, think it through with the lenses of someone who might not be as privileged as you are, and then start pressuring the companies you work for, or that you pay money to, to actually care about the real people. Rather than just about their bottom line.

Is Revolut Still a Good Thing?

You may remember that a few years ago I wrote a positive review of Revolut, the fintech startup that provides payment cards with stored value and no foreign transaction fees. I have been using it for a long time by now, and had mostly stood by that review, until the second half of last year, where things started to appear more complicated. Given the current flurry of stories on the company, from silly advertising shenanigans to uncovering of poisonous working conditions, I thought it would be a good time to write some more up to date words, as I don’t think I can recommend Revolut as much as I did before anymore.

First of all, I started feeling uneasy recommending Revolut since they started down the path of selling cryptocurrencies as an added-value feature. I hold a personal belief that participating in the trading of Bitcoin and other similar “currencies” is unethical (see Thomas’s rant on the topic), and I don’t like being associated with companies focusing on them. I have looked the other way for a while, though, because I knew that using the words “cryptocurrency” and “blockchain” make money appear out of nowhere for most startups, even when there’s no rhyme or reason for it. I just had a bad taste in my mouth for this.

The problem is that Revolut, even when I had the Premium version, built something very cool, but a bit rough around the edges. And as a customer, it is annoying to see them jumping the shark onto cryptocurrencies, instead of making location-based security actually reliable, implementing 3DSecure/VBV integrations, or finding a way to get a proper banking license and FSCS insurance (all of which would be requirements for me and most people to use Revolut as a replacement for high-street banking).

Instead, what we see is that Revolut is adding “features” trying to upsell you into their premium services. This is not entirely bad, because you need paying customers to run a business. Unfortunately my impression is that they offered and offer so much on their free tier, that they are tackling on random stuff that has nothing to do with banking itself, just to get people to sign up for their Premium and Metal tiers.

As an aside, I still don’t understand this trend of providing heavy (“18g” as they boast some companies) metal cards. The last thing I want from a credit card is to be heavy, as I barely even want to have to take it out. I’m all in favour of the trend of not embossing the name and number, preferring to print it on the back, but it does not need to be metal for it. Indeed, Curve (that I’ll get again in a moment) did exactly that.

We’ve just come back from a trip to the Continent, and what we did notice that Revolut tried to upsell us medical and travel insurance at every change of country (even when we just connected flights through third countries). This is not just annoying as we’re not interested in it (we’re European citizens, visiting European countries, and work provides both of us with a basic travel insurance), but it’s also annoying because it makes use of the location information, which I provide for the security feature, for marketing. Similarly, I recently had more notifications about them trying to upsell me Metal than actual transactions.

For a while, I actually did pay for the Premium service. Mostly under the idea of “putting my money where my mouth is”, that is to make sure that the company could keep operating a service I loved. Unfortunately it turned out a bad idea: not just because Revolut cannot replace a high street bank in the UK (no FSCS to protect your account, no BACS direct debits, etc), but also because the Premium “perks” were not something I cared about, and the dedicated service team was still useless when it came to even telling me the top-up limits when I changed the card I used for top-up.

If you already have two physical cards (and paid for it), you need to pay to replace one of them with a Premium card, if you so wish (but it gains nothing but a different colour, so I never did that). The unlimited exchange is not particularly useful when you already don’t reach the free tier’s spend, and the ATM limits is only useful if you plan to actually use cash, which I really try not to. The one interesting feature that is advertised for Premium customers, but as far as I can tell is also present as a one-off charge for non-Premium one, is the disposable virtual card, that changes PAN every time you use it. But even that is not as secure as it looks, as I’m told that vendors are still able to charge again a disposable card that already changed number.

Okay admittedly there’s the travel and medical insurance, but as I said earlier, I get a better travel medical insurance from work (and probably there’ s better out there) and a credit card such as American Express would provide a better baggage/flight insurance. This is very subjective of course, it’s well possible that for other people, with other employers, and in other countries, these insurances are actually worth it.

Speaking of circumstances, I think I might not have felt so strongly against Revolut if I was still in Ireland. Not just because they seem to have implemented SEPA DD Core support, so you can actually use it to pay your bills there, but also because the alternatives of high street banking there are significantly worse than here.

In London, I now settled on Santander as my primary bank, both for the current account and for a 0% foreign transaction fee credit card, their All-in-One Credit Card. These come to £5 per month for the account, and another £3 per month for the credit card (compare against Revolut’s premium at £6.99 and Metal tier at £12.99), and while the free foreign ATMs withdrawal are limited to Santander’s own network (limiting the countries you can use them on), this is a full-featured, FSCS-insured account, with cashback, retailer offers, and active interest on the current account’s deposit. If you don’t want (or can’t afford) a credit card, Metro Bank offers 0% foreign transaction fee for European transactions on their free accounts’ debit cards. And I’m sure that other banks have similar arrangements all over the place. Basically, the UK has a significantly wider range of offers, that make Revolut less necessary than in Ireland.

But even for Ireland, and for other countries that do not have such a selection of high-street banks, Curve – that I complained about before – decided to change their target marketing a bit, now offering a “front” for any Visa and MasterCard card to provide 0% foreign transaction fee, with their premium option existing to raise the limit of monthly transactions. That would have been something awesome to have when I lived in Dublin, to keep getting Tesco points, while not paying the 1.75% of foreign transaction fee on their credit card. (If you are interested to try that, my referral code is BG2G3).

Both Curve and Revolut have a Metal card with which they provide cashback. In the case of the former, these are retailers-limited, and I can only assume they are based on some third party’s selection of perks, as the retailers are pretty much the same that Santander and Lloyd’s provide retailers offers for. Revolut instead provides cashback on all spend, 0.1% on European spend, and 1% for non-European spend (although there does not seem to be an obvious definition of Europe on their marketing material, I assume it’s deep into the terms of service).

While cashback is always a nice bonus, it only makes sense if you can break even on the cost of one’s service by spending. With Revolut Metal, that would be an astounding £13k (thirteen thousands pound) per month in European spend, or £1299 of non-European spend. I do know some extremely frequent travellers to the States or Asia that would be able to spend the latter, but that’s more of an exception than a rule. And if you can spend the former, you probably can get more than that in interest by keeping the money in an active-interest current account, and paying with a normal credit card.

For comparison, Santander’s card I linked above costs £3/month (you don’t even need their bank account). It has 0% foreign transaction fee on all spend. And a cashback of 0.5% (five times Revolut’s European cashback) on all spend. It takes only £600 a month to break even, and that’s without counting additional retailer offers, or additional perks from their current accounts.

And even if you look at American Express (which is never considered a cheap option) and their cashback options, the numbers are significantly different. Their Platinum cashsback card is £25 per year, and includes a better travel insurance, 1% cashback on all spend to £10k and 1.25% over that. Plus retailers offers and supplementary cards for the family. Although be warned if you want to go down that road, that American Express charges you 2.99% foreign transaction fees, for every single one of their cards in the UK.

I was going to take a detour talking about foreign transaction fees, but I will leave it for another post, because it’s a lot of content, and a lot of explanation to be done there.

So the final words of this post are: I’m not sure I trust Revolut anymore. They seem to be taking “marketing risks” to get people to pay for services, but at the same time there’s very little value in their paid services. I don’t think that the company will be able to sustain the current trajectory without venture capital money, and I find scary the idea of relying on a VC-funded pseudo-bank for my own money.

Update (2019-03-27): just a few days after I wrote this blog post, I received two email from Revolut, with widely different content, that I think merit a bit of description, thus why this update.

The latest email is an announcement of new details (new sort code and account number) for their GBP accounts. This is effectively a change in intermediary bank that maintains the GBP account proxies for Revolut. Nothing particularly eventful in by itself, but there are a few notable things. The announcement is declared “great news” for their customers, but it also highlight yet another feature that high street banking would have, and Revolut lacks: redirections.

When you switch bank account with a high street bank, the bank will take care of moving standing orders, direct debits, automatic salary payments, and redirect any transfer to the old bank account to the new one. Revolut is instead telling all the customers that they have to deal with all the required changes of both payment and transfer. Not just that, but they don’t appear to guarantee any specific grace period in which both accounts would exist: they say that the new details will appear in the app before May 22nd, which is when the old account will stop working:

⚠️ Your old account details will stop working from the 22nd May 2019. 

Salaries and standing orders 

If you receive your salary into your Revolut account, you’ll need to send your new account details to your employer before the 22nd May. Again, we’ll let you know as soon as they arrive. 

For standing orders from your external bank to your Revolut account, you’ll need to update your bank with your new details before 22nd May. For recurring payments set up from your Revolut account to another bank, you don’t need to do anything. 

Revolut email arrived on 2019-03-27

To give you an idea of time frame involved, the company I work for freezes the salary payment details around the 5th of the month for payments on the 25th. This means that if the new details arrive after 5th of May, and you’re paid monthly, you may be unable to receive the salary. Hopefully, the old accounts would just reject the transfer, but even in that case, retrieving the missing salary can easily take two weeks, which for a number of people would be a significant risk.

For comparison, the previous email I received just twenty hours before, also from Revolut, had as subject «👕Should we release Revolut merch?». This is a company that just before announcing a significant disruption of service, that a high street bank would never subject their customers to, asks whether you would like to wear their brand around, making yourself not just a product, but a walking billboard.

Update 2019-01-04: see also the October update.

I fell in love with London

As I said earlier I wanted to write a bit about my vacation in London, so here it comes, if I can write this and make sense before I also fell asleep.

I really really enjoyed my vacation; maybe it was because it was my first vacation ever, maybe because it was my first time out of Italy, or maybe because I overcame my fear of planes once and hopefully for all. I also fell in love with London and with the say stuff there seems to work, in a way that, here in Italy, is hard even to imagine. Unfortunately, one week wasn’t really enough to see half the stuff I wanted to see, starting with Broadcasting House, which is why I hope to come back to London before end of the year.

Now that I can finally fly, I guess I’ll finally be dropping by on conferences; I just need to start looking at the calendars so I can set up my schedule for that. If somebody has a quick way to do that, or has some links for conferences to check the schedules from now on, I’d be happy of the help.

To be honest, I also fell in love with the weather up there, and when I came back I was hit tremendously by the heat here. Given I don’t have A/C at home, and I have been always against the idea of wasting power in stuff like that (it’s waste), I start to have a yet undecided, uncertain idea, about spending next summer in London (or around). Really for now it’s just a random thought, some vague idea. But at least it would be a cool place, and I wouldn’t have problems with language (mostly).

Indeed, the week I spent there didn’t feel extremely out of place for me, since I was a bit in the loop either way thanks to following general news and BBC as well. And I really would love to spend some more time there, with enough time and space to go around visiting Broadcasting House, and maybe some other England areas.

After all, thankfully, my job does not force me to any particular location: I rarely have to go to my customer’s workplace, and especially during the summer this is pretty limited. Just having a laptop, like the one I’m writing on right now, and access to my main box at home (Yamato) allows me to do most of my work without any limitation. This would mean that I wouldn’t be taking three months of vacation, but rather half out-of-office time.

Also, before I forget, after ensuring this was supposed to be the case with the local customer service of 3 Italy, I went out daring to use the 3G connection with my phone while I was in London, under 3 UK coverage. It was, indeed, included in my monthly 10GB limit, and I didn’t spend any money to use it. At the end, the only euro I “wasted” were 2.5 in SMS (because the hotel I was staying at wasn’t covered by 3 UK and I used SMS to sync with my friends on what time to wake up) and 2 for a connection on the Orange network when I didn’t note the out-of-network and thus didn’t kill it soon enough. Not bad considering a lot of people end up paying lots for using their phones outside of Italy (and I did use it quite a bit, both to call Italy and UK itself — some friends had an UK cellphone already).

Flameeyes goes to London (almost surely)

Okay for tonight I’ll post something quite personal, rather than a technical post (don’t worry guys tomorrow you’ll get to learn what happened after pam_mktemp I have the post written already).

I’m posting it here, after telling about it to a few people so I can actually find the courage to go on with the plan (you have no idea how much I have to force myself to overcome the fear of planes): next week I’m going, with a few friends, to London. And that means boarding a plane.

Preparations are already ongoing, luckily my cellphone is already set (thanks 3 for the free roaming among branches!), although I have some problems with my debit and credit cards (I haven’t learned the PIN code of the credit card since we don’t use it in Italy, and I’m afraid it won’t work in UK without it; the debit card has some limits for foreign operations, I’ve requested for them to be unlocked now).

What does this mean for you who are reading my blog? Well not really much; I’ll probably post one thing either before going, or while I’m there (thanks to the E75 phone), which is going to be up on August 12th, deadlined. For the rest of the week the blog is going to be silent, since I’m not bringing my laptop with me. It wouldn’t be able to connect either because I cannot seem to get the bluetooth tethering working on Fedora 11 (although wifi still would work). Gentoo work will all be postponed till I come back, given that yamato is going to stay off for a few days (off and detached so my mother can also clean my office, likely). Since I have some removal scheduled for the time, I’ve shoved the tasks back to Luca, who’s also going to take care of anything I might have to do in that timeframe for what concerns my packages.

Why the rushed decision? Well… it’s the only way I can make such a decision: if I were to postpone, or if I have more than a day or two to decide, I would probably look back and find a way to drop out. This way, I really cannot. Thus also why I’m repeating it here. I’m going to be there, one way or another, next week, whatever it takes me to do! And if I can get rid of my fear, you’re probably going to find me at conferences here and there from time to time, finally.

And just to convince my subconscious further, I’m seeing the fact that I ordered an USB hub from Amazon, that has a British power supply (I guess I’ll have to get some converters, both ways), as a sign. I don’t believe in signs usually (I do believe in Murphy’s law though!), but I know the power they have. Not in the usual “new agey” sense of power, but rather in the way they can help trick the mind. And since my fear is mind-created (if I ever boarded a plane before, it would have been different), I’ll just have to trick it long enough till it stops tricking me.

So anyway, trying to tie down the loose ends this week so I can be relaxed for the vacation week, and come back rested, and ready to do more work without risking burning out.