I wake up from a bad dream that my daughter is in great difficulty in a dangerous environment. I know she is in Eritrea. I get an email from her that same morning.
I am locked out of my Yahoo account! I am in a bit of a fix. Can you Western Union me some money? We need about $1000 US. I am in the Intercontinental Asmara Palace Hotel.
My first thoughts a) it's a scam -someone has phished her account. b) she's written this message under duress c) the dream was prescient d) what do I do now? I try not to panic.
Instead I look at the Intercontinental website for the Asmara Palace Hotel phone number. They don't have a hotel in Eritrea. I begin to panic. No, no, no, my voice of calm admonishes me. Breathe, stop, think, dreams are only dreams they are not reality.
Ok – I look up Western Union to find out how to send money.
As I do this my phone rings "unknown number". It's my daughter. Phew. "Did you get my email? Can you send the money?" She is in a hotel (not the Asmara Palace which is where she was sending the email from, but the Top Five Hotel. Note: the Asmara Palace does exist but is not now owned by Intercontinental).
She has no money but has persuaded the Top Five people to let her phone me and put the charge on her bill – which she'll pay once I've sent her the money.
While she's talking I'm scanning the Western Union website. I find out I can send money via Western Union on-line. So thankfully there's no need to put today on hold and walk off to find the nearest Western Union office. But I haven't used the system before.
I enter: a user name for me (the first one I chose was taken which seemed odd), followed by my mother's maiden name, my favorite dog's name, my best friend's name. Finally all names entered. Now comes a quiz: which of the following five streets did you live on? Which of the following are the last four digits of your bank account (search for check book to answer that one), which mortgage society did you have your last mortgage with? Which of the following was your employer in 2005? Finally I manage to register as a first time user. Now have to wait for 'one time only' code to be sent to my email in order to confirm it is me. 30 mins from start I am ready to send money online. I complete all fields on the 'send money on-line form' and triumphantly press 'send'. Immediate response – "your bank has refused your request".
I log on through several layers of security to my bank account and see if I have inadvertently stepped over my credit card limit (no I am well below it). However to make sure I transfer money from my current account to my credit card. I log off that and re-log onto Western Union and for a second time go through the process of completing all fields to send money online.
I reduce the amount I want to send to $800 in case there was some unknown upper limit for sending money via Western Union from my credit card.
Again the transaction is refused by my bank. I start conscious breathing as I call my bank's customer service and finally via several menu options and canned music finally hear "My name is Daria. I am here to help you." But before she starts helping me she wants to know "what are the last four letters of your social security number, what is your date of birth, what is your mother's maiden name, and what town were you born in". I get through this.
Finally, Daria can see no reason why my transaction was refused and transfers me via canned music to 'authorization'. Authorization is 'Charles' who asks me, what is my mother's maiden name, what street was I born on, and what is my favorite color. Then he tells me I've had my credit card since 2003. "Thank you for your valued custom Miss Stanford." Contained anger threatens to bubble over with this useless piece of information. I find out that they have indeed halted the transaction because it was 'unusual activity' on my account. Good in one way, but I cannot see it at that point. He authorizes the transaction. Another 20 minutes gone. The phone rings again. My daughter wants to know how I'm doing.
Screaming swear words at computer
I log back onto Western Union, confident that I am a registered Western Union user, I have my transaction authorized, and am good to go. I complete all fields for the third time on the Western Union form and press 'send'. 'Your transaction is denied. Ring customer service for more information.'
I hurl abuse at the computer. I ring Western Union customer service. I press the right menu options, I listen to canned music. I get through to Jean. "What is your mother's maiden name, what is your favorite dog's name, what is your best friend's name? I find out that my phone number is at fault. She doesn't know why or why my transaction is refused because of my phone number. Can I give her another phone number? I give her my work one. No that won't work either she tells me. I ask to speak to her manager. Simultaneously I am completing the on-line transmittal form for the fourth time. She says 'of course but my manager will say the same thing. You'll have to go to the Western Union office on Corcoran Street.' I hurl abuse at her (but she doesn't know as it stays in my head).
Return to normal
As I'm speaking with Jean and without any hope I press 'send' for the fourth time. But suddenly the screen has a big green check mark on it and proclaims: 'Your transaction is confirmed. Make a note of this number and give it to the recipient.' I tell Jean. I remember to say 'thank you' and wish her a nice day and hang up. Blood pressure begins to drop but another 30 minutes gone.
I call the Top Five Hotel, number unavailable. Undaunted I try twice more and finally get through. I ask to speak to my daughter. Just in case, I have answers to every possible question that the receptionist might ask at the ready. What is your daughter's bicycle frame number? What is her favorite Lush product? What brand of hummus does she buy most often? But I don't get asked any real or imagined security questions.
Instead the next thing I hear is "Mum, how's it going?" I have the answer to that. I tell her I have sent the money and give her the collection number.
I make it to my 9:00 a.m. meeting with seconds to spare. Why did she need the money? That's another story. POSTSCRIPT: She was never able to collect the money because the Western Union office in Asmara had no internet connection. See the Economist article on internet access in some African countries, Eritrea among them.