It all started when I got a new phone and was not able to transfer the HSBC mobile app over to it. Apparently, it is only possible, for security reasons, to host the app on one device at a time. This resulted in multiple calls to the international line of HSBC France’s help centre with hour-long caller queues. When finally I got the app uninstalled and uploaded onto my new phone, the 5 digit ‘code secret’ needed to access it was forgotten and lost. You would assume it would be no problem to call up, answer a couple of security questions and have the paper with the little peel-off window that reveals the code delivered, but no. What seems like the easiest thing to do has triggered a stream of banking woes and a never-ending circle of unhelpfulness with HSBC France. Here’s what happened and what we learned from it.
Lesson 1: Whatever You Do, Don’t Lose Your Secret Code
Without the secret code to access your internet bank, you cannot do anything. We could view our account, and check that we had money there, but we couldn’t do anything with it: we were unable to transfer money or pay the bills online or over the phone. This means that if you’re not physically in France to go to your local branch with your passport for ID, things become very difficult.
HSBC France has an English speaking helpline to which we eventually managed to get through after a lengthy wait on hold. We ordered the new code but it never arrived. Two weeks went by, then three, and still no sign of the code. We called up again (the reason I say we is we take it in turns. Too much time spent sitting in that caller queue will drive a person insane). The code was re-ordered and apparently dispatched, only it didn’t show up this time either. A third call was placed, address details confirmed, and nothing.
Lesson 2: Get a Cheque Book
In the meantime, while our account was out of bounds, we had received a number of bills to pay. Among them was one from the French Tax Office. The thought of calling up the tax office was a bit too much and so we just put the bill aside, we would pay it once we got everything sorted with the bank. Then we forgot about it. After we failed to settle the amount after a couple of reminder letters, the tax authorities put a freeze on our HSBC account altogether and it would remain frozen until we settled the tax bill. This was of course impossible, because we still couldn’t access our account because we didn’t have the secret code.
We had scoffed when we were offered a cheque book by the bank. Who pays by cheque these days? But it would have given us a way to pay our bills when we couldn’t access our account online. Whenever I tried to explain to someone that we had no way to pay an unsettled bill, they would just shrug and say, just send a cheque. Apparently, they’re still used quite a lot in France.
Lesson 3: Don’t Fear the Tax Office
Finally, we got to Paris to take care of things in person. A woman on the international HSBC helpline had told me that I could either go to the tax office and pay the bill in person, or sign a letter in my local bank branch, authorizing them to pay the amount. All too familiar with the reputation of French bureaucratic offices I (mistakenly) assumed that the easiest route would be via my local bank branch. I showed up on a Monday morning. “Mais non, non, non, you have to go to the tax office to pay this, we can’t do it for you.”
The cashier with the glassy smile told me I had to go to the tax office, pay the bill, and come back with the receipt and they would trigger the process of unlocking my account. There was no way that they could pay the bill on our behalf, even if that is what I had been told on the phone. With trepidation, I set off to the tax office where, very much to my surprise, my case was handled promptly and efficiently. Receipt in hand I headed back to the bank only to be told that I needed not only a receipt, but a ‘main levee’, whatever that is. Back to the tax office I went where I was informed that the paper requested by the bank had already been dispatched by post. The woman rolled her eyes when I explained that the bank would not accept the receipt, as if this were typical bank behaviour, and wrote a hand written letter, signed and stamped, to say that everything was in order and could they please release my account. Back at the bank (luckily it’s just a 10 minute walk between these two offices) they smiled apologetically and said that no, this would not do, they would unlock the account when they received the original letter. I asked if I would receive a message to let me know it had been unlocked and was told that I would receive a notification in my secure online mailbox: the one I can’t access because I don’t have the secret code. I asked if they could please email me to let me know. After a few days, I received an email from the branch to tell me that there was a message waiting for me in my online mail box. Thanks.
The good part of this experience was dealing with the tax office. They were helpful and efficient, explained everything to us clearly, there was no queue and no difficulty. The complete opposite of dealing with HSBC.
Lesson 4: Get Known in Your Local Branch
At this point, we still hadn’t been successful in getting hold of our secret code to access our account online. I had spoken to one woman on the phone who said that, although it was not standard procedure, she would have it sent to our local branch in Paris and we could pick it up there. But when we got there we were told, in no uncertain terms, that this was impossible and they refused to even check if it had been sent to them. This is what we experience a lot. The person on the helpline tells us one thing and then the person in the bank office refutes it. We also needed to order a new bank card – ours expired and they didn’t send us a new one, which meant that we couldn’t take money out of the hole in the wall either. We were worried that it wouldn’t show up in our post box in Oslo and end up in the same place as the AWOL secret code, but it wasn’t possible to have it sent to the branch and it wasn’t possible to have it sent to our address in Paris because it’s not our primary residence. Eventually it did arrive in Oslo, dispatched by DHL by the bank manager himself after I got a bit riled up about the impossibility of our situation and he must have decided I needed some special attention.
What I have noticed is the more time we spend in our local HSBC branch in Paris, the more help we get. It seems that in France, the bank has ‘regulars’ just like the cafes and bars do. We have been there a lot lately and see the same faces. There are people who are greeted by name and with handshakes. The staff seemed very suspicious of us when we first went in, but I think that each time we go there we are met with a fraction more warmth, even if their rigid processes mean they’re still not very helpful.
Lesson 5: Don’t Give Up
We tried to order the code once again, this time in the branch and it still didn’t come. I think that they probably have an automated process for sending them out and the stamp used is not enough for international post. I waited another 30 minutes on hold to get through to an operator who this time told me that he would send me the code by SMS – fantastic, finally! I got a text with 8 numbers and had to delete certain digits to turn it into a 5 digit code. I then had to log on to the website and reset all of my security questions and password. I was told that when I had done so I should phone back and they would re-open my internet banking account. Bizarrely, and to my utter delight, the phone was answered on the first ring! A lovely-sounding lady told me, no problem, they would open my account straight away, she would just put me through to the security team. Then I was put on hold. 40 minutes later, I hung up the phone because I was starving and I couldn’t handle the HSBC hold music for one minute more. I was so close… The line is closed at the weekend and so I’m going to have to phone back on Monday. The never ending circle of unhelpfulness continues. We’re considering changing banks but the thought of having to deal with another one fills me with dread. I have the feeling that it might be a case of better the devil you know. Hopefully things will be alright after I make that one last phone call. I’ve certainly learned a lot from this incredibly irritating experience: the main thing is whatever you do, don’t lose that secret code. I’m having mine tattooed onto my wrist as we speak.