Thursday 6 September 2007

Identity theft is a bastard and will ruin your day

I trust my Angolan bank more than I do my UK one. It took years for me to switch allegiance. All the time I was in Angola, I maintained my account back home. I had first opened it 30 years ago. Fellow expatriates, advertisements in the international editions, even my own branch, told me that I should move to an offshore account. I could never see the point. I didn’t earn enough interest on the amounts deposited and subsequently withdrawn each month and besides, I really liked the way I could pick up the phone and speak to a human being, probably someone I went to school with, and get them to shift money for me, cancel a standing order or bail me out according to my need.

Then one day, I wasn’t speaking to Sarah, it was a voice whose name I didn’t catch but assuring me that for security reasons, my call was being taped. It was speaking from Liverpool, about a 100 miles from my bank and no, she couldn’t put me through to my branch or deal with my problem. Instead, she put me through to someone in the province of Sheffield, India, who suggested if I wanted a personal consultation, I should pop into my branch. Well I couldn’t. I was in Nigeria at the time.

All I wanted to do was warn my bank that I was in a high-risk area, as the security advice my employers had given me on arrival suggested. Now she understood. A note would be placed on my file. Not the buff coloured A4 folder bulging with all the written correspondence between the bank and I that the manager always referred to on the rare occasions I visited. No, this was an electronic file. I had to accept that this was progress. I was then asked if I would like to nominate extra passwords. Over a mobile phone? I may be a bit dense, but even I felt uncomfortable with that one.

Two months later, I was back from up country and tried to log on to my account. I received a message telling me to contact my branch. This time I got a girl in Glasgow. She told me that she was putting me through to an ‘Account Counsellor’ and no, that person was not in my branch.

It was an interesting first five minutes, neither of us had a clue what the other was talking about. Eventually I accepted that I had to give him a password, any word that would then allow me to see my account on line. Why the hell he didn’t just plug in ‘chips’ or ‘I am an irritating moron’ I have no idea. I gave him my dog’s name.

Having been abroad for many years, several month’s movement on my account usually fits on half a page. Standing orders, salary and maybe the Amex if I had been anywhere civilised reccently Not the pages and pages I saw swimming before me now. At first I could not understand why I was a thousand odd pounds overdrawn. Then I realised I had the decimal point in the wrong place and suddenly appreciated how embarrassing it is to be incontinent.

It got worse. I needed some time to scan through this lot so I was given a number to call when I was ready. This time in Leicester, the closest to my branch so far. Not only had I been shopping in Sainsbury’s for the last two months, I had also moved from the midlands to London. I also seemed to have exchanged a lot of currency and had taken out an unsecured loan for £15,000. The balance on my account had evaporated, I had consumed my ten grand overdraft and I had a 15 grand loan against which I had made no payments. No wonder the bank was keen to talk to me. I called the number in Leicester.

It took a while, but finally they explained what had happened. Apparently, I had sent them a letter requesting a change of address. It seemed perfectly in order as I had enclosed a copy of my passport. A few weeks later, I was careless enough to lose my bank cards which, applying the highest standards of customer service, the bank were only too eager to send replacements to my new address, complete with PIN numbers. I understand that before granting a loan, an examination of the account profile is made. Considering that the evidence of the preceding months suggested I had suddenly popped up on a completely different continent and gone berserk, I can understand why the man in Leicester was never able to convince me how I had been granted such a large loan. He said it was because I had been a good customer.

Good customer or not, I wanted my money back. They were, I have to admit, very good about it. They allowed me to go through my statements and cancel everything I disagreed with. Then I asked them about the instant credit that was available to anyone with a valid bank card, the kind that they had issued to the other me in London. Ah. They could supply me the contact details for reputable credit reference agencies, perhaps I would like to avail myself of their services?

It will probably take me years to sort out. Fortunately, I live in Angola which makes it difficult for bailiffs to repossess the plasma TV I have never watched.

My salary is now paid into my Angolan account. I have my branch, a new one in the smart southern suburbs and all the staff know my name. They know what I do, they know when I am away in Uganda or Gabon on contract. They know my girlfriend. I can send my driver down with a letter to make a withdrawal and I am not surprised when they ring me to confirm. No wonder, then, that I trust my Angolan bankers more than my UK ones.

Wednesday 5 September 2007

All expats are failures...

I live in a twenty-foot container in Angola. It may be air-conditioned, have hot and cold running water and electricity, but it is still a steel box for shifting cargo.

I was reasonably content but then I read Jeremy Clarkson’s article in which he suggested that all expatriates were failures. Nothing more than people who, unable to be any kind of fish at all in their own ponds, migrated like eels to distant pools setting themselves up with the proceeds of house sales and redundancy payments, grimly determined to demonstrate they had made the right decision. A gin and tonic fuelled self-delusional existence leading to bitterness, liver failure and skin cancer. I downed my whisky and started thinking.

Seventeen years ago I was in the Army. I enjoyed the social benefits of an honourable profession, not least the tolerance of a bank manager who appreciated the disastrous consequences of not being able to pay a mess bill on time.

Whatever madness it was that brought me to Angola, it wasn’t a desire to emigrate. I came here to start a humanitarian mine clearance project. In UK, I had a three-bed semi in a provincial mining town. I regretted leaving the Army and was drinking myself to death. The final blow to self-esteem was when my wife ran off with a married gas bottle filler from Aga Gas. I lacked the courage to put a bullet through my head so pushing off to a war zone to clear explosives seemed the next best thing for a man hell bent on going out as quickly and spectacularly as possible. So far, Clarkson is spot on. I had fallen into the gutter and was running away.

The job satisfaction was intense. In six months, I lost 23 kilos. I worked for cigarettes and whisky and if the odd bun or two were thrown in, I was in paradise. I ate one meal a day, charcoal chicken bought from street vendors and lived in an establishment that normally rented rooms by the hour. If the girls had problems with a client, I bounced for them. In return, they looked after my washing and other occasional needs and never, not once, was anything stolen from my room.

Now I run a power station. I have an eight year old son who goes to a private, Angolan college. He is bi-lingual, rides a motorcycle and, because we hunt together, is responsible with a firearm. He recently fought some older boys who were bullying a girl and suffered stitches in his face as a result, but refused to rat on the culprits. He is not racist; for him all men are divided into nice types or ‘Ladroes’, bandits. He is fit, healthy and, as I am sure the older boys would testify if pressed, hard as nails. He has even caught a 90 Kg Tarpon.

Angola has everything going for it. Name a crop and there will be somewhere with suitable climatic conditions in which to grow it. The fishing, both commercial and sporting, the kind that interests me, is excellent. It has oil. Angola’s significance as the second largest African producer is witnessed by the size of the American Embassy, a huge, bomb proof monolithic structure that dominates the smart Miramar skyline overlooking the rest of down-town Luanda and its increasingly busy port. It is a major diamond producer. Angolan diamonds are some of the finest in the world and along with oil, fuelled the long running civil war that only ended with the death of the rebel leader, Jonas Savimbi in 2002.

There are plenty of organisations that lament the lack of transparency, worry about the ‘missing millions’ and claim Angola is a dictatorship, not a democracy. I can only go by the evidence of my own eyes. The country has embarked on house building on an impressive scale, specialists have been brought in to assist with energy production and water distribution, Chinese contractors are rebuilding the railways. Roads are being improved. Hospitals are being modernised and new ones built. There is even a modern shopping centre. Luanda is a lot safer than Johannesburg and the idea of a kid on a BMX shooting another is unheard of. It is the fastest growing economy in Africa and opportunities abound, just try getting a confirmed hotel reservation. So who cares if a few people abuse their trust and make a lot of money out of it? If this is a dictatorship, then at least it’s a benign one. Let the elite have their cake and eat it, there are more crumbs dropping off President Dos Santos’ table than Mugabe’s.

Granted, I live in a 20-foot container in the poorer end of town. But only during the week. Fridays, I am driven home in my company car and, since my long time Angolan girlfriend is a good Catholic, enjoy a fish supper in my nice house in an agreeable country without having to worry if my son is a drug addict or a gang member. When I die which, according to my doctor is long overdue (he insists I settle my account after every consultation), I will leave my son more than the gold cufflinks my father left me. Here, the assets of the deceased pass to heirs, not the state. I will leave him houses and a farm he can rent out to pay for his further education and the benefit of a broad experience and tolerance I would imagine difficult to replicate in UK.

Life in Angola isn’t perfect. But sitting here with my family around me; safe, content and happy, no mortgage, the sun shining, the pool almost ‘de-greened’ and the house full of friendly, cosmopolitan Angolans and only 6% income tax, it’s bloody close. Petrol is 27p a litre and diesel half that. It isn’t a crime to drive a 4x4, there is a race track only five miles away on which I can lay a bit of rubber whenever the urge takes me, and a golf course even closer. There are nice beaches where the smaller the Bikini the more fashionable, and I get to spend a lot of quality time with my son.

Mr Clarkson’s article did get me thinking, but having done so, let him have the Cotswolds and leave me the dictatorship. I vote for Angola.