4: Four More and Tug-of-War

This is how I feel when I visit our Swiss bank: As though we are being pushed over a cliff.

From the Government of Canada: 

In some countries, you may have to give your passport to a foreign official or a hotel/hostel employee.

If you don’t get it back in a reasonable time, inform the nearest Government of Canada office abroad.

The question is: What constitutes a reasonable time? At the bank yesterday, my instincts were that a reasonable span would be zero. The bank had called to inform me some material was ready for pick-up. I packed up my and David’s passports and trundled down. I have to show our passports every time I talk to a staffer there since they goofed and rescinded our debit cards – their mistake that resulted in my punishment.

The last time I had made a similar visit to the bank, I was subjected to an interrogation of surprising proportions and it seemed quite possible the bank would shut down my account. This would not be the end of the world, but it would be awkward.

It is an ordinary account that takes payroll, and has a modest withdrawal history, so it is a mystery to me why the bank has taken such a sudden and hostile interest in us.

One Swiss executive suggested the bank might suspect we are Americans, which in this age of multiple-nationalities is a possibility. Switzerland and the U.S. are currently in tension over U.S. tax evaders using Swiss banks to hide their loot. The U.S. wants broad-scale access to private banking information on all U.S. citizens, not just those they suspect of having committed crimes or tax-dodging, and Swiss bankers are reluctantly ceding the battle because if something is more important to them than protecting privacy, it is protecting profits. They are not about to lose the lucrative U.S. market.

Into this morass, we arrived and opened an account. At the time, the bank made it clear it would not do business with Americans. How awkward for U.S. expats, but we are not such, so we shrugged, showed them our Canadian passports and opened an account. The oddity in this is that an internet search shows that the bank has U.S. clients because they have a circular notifying them on the new reporting practices required under the U.S. Foreign Account Compliance Tax Act.

I don’t have a problem with the U.S. making their case to a judge and issuing an international warrant or subpoena or whatever it might be called on a suspect’s account, but if I were an American, right now I’d be really ticked at such a sweeping global privacy invasion, but then I am not an American and this is not a political blog.

So to get back to the bank:  On past visits, I had been classically Canadian, uniformly timid and polite to a point not normally part of my practice when getting messed over by bureaucrats. Still stinging from the bruising of the last interrogation, I decided beforehand to adopt a New York take-no-garbage state-of-mind before entering the bank. If I am being taken for a U.S. citizen, then I might as well act like one.

When I presented our passports to the staff at the front counter and asked for the documents, they unloaded a machine-gun round of questions.

How do you know there are documents here? 

Because you called me, I told them. 

Who called you?

Someone from this bank.

Who ordered the documents?

Well, I did.

Why do you need these documents?

To fix your mistake, that’s why. I was hoping they would ask me to elaborate, but they seemed disinterested in following this track.

What is the name of the bank employee who called you?

The woman caller only identified herself as “This is the bank…”

Was I in a Laurel and Hardy skit? I was holding the passports open on the counter.

One of the counter staffers pinched the passports and tugged. I held on. The second staffer joined in, grasping at one of the passports. I tugged back. A brief and terse conversation followed. They were flummoxed, but I was not about to endure a repeat of the last interrogation, this time with my interrogator holding our passports. The power differential would be too great and I had enough of being treated like a lesser client.

I am a lesser client, though, what with my non-citizen status and lack of significant bags of loot. The ruffled staffers disappeared into the bowels of the bank for what seemed a long time. When they appeared with the envelopes, they instructed me to take them to another desk.

On the last gulag-ish visit, it was when I went to the second desk that a bank manager appeared and gave me the going-over.

“Thanks, no,” I said, and got out of there as fast as I could.

2 thoughts on “4: Four More and Tug-of-War

    • It is a mystery that the service has nose-dived. I had coffee with a banking lawyer yesterday and she is as mystified as I. C’est la vie. It’s all part of the fun of overseas life. 🙂

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