Friday, December 21, 2007

Back to Traveler's Checks?

We haven't used traveler's checks for at least 15 years. We've been using our bank ATM cards to get cash while traveling. Yesterday I learned that the days of using ATM's abroad may be coming to an end.

Some time ago my bank instituted a new policy requesting that we notify them before going abroad if we intend to use our ATM cards. Yesterday I called them to tell them of an upcoming trip and learned that there are a number of countries where they have blocked ATM use entirely, most of them in Asia. But they've just added three more blocked countries, the UK, France, and Romania. We'll be in Italy, so we can still use the card ... this time.

They're instituting the blocks because of the amount of fraud originating in those countries. They told me that if I were to use the card in the UK, it would work once only. Then the account would be totally blocked.

As the LA Times reported, some people have learned this the hard way. ON his first day in London, Frank Conlon went to an ATM to withdraw some British pounds. Conlon, a frequent visitor to England, is accustomed to withdrawing cash from machines without incident. But on his trip in February, things didn't go as usual.

Instead of spitting out pounds, the machine flashed a message that his bank was refusing this request. Figuring something was wrong with that ATM, he went to another and encountered the same problem. He tried the toll-free customer service number, but it wouldn't accept international calls. When he finally reached a Wells Fargo representative, he said he was told that the bank had blocked ATMs in Britain because of suspected fraud.

The ATM usually solves the classic traveler's dilemma of getting access to cash in a foreign land. ATMs have become ubiquitous. Convenience coupled with lower fees have made them perhaps the most reliable and easiest way to get currency abroad.

Until now. Recent debit-card frauds have made the ATM a far less certain bet for travelers. Unlike credit cards, which routinely reject as "unusual activity" purchases made in places far from the cardholder's home, debit-card blocks tend to be directed at countries, not at individuals.