Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Full banking details

I had a printed slip from my bank last week, attempting to inform me about their new terms and conditions for international payments.

If someone sends me money from overseas, using electronic funds transfer (EFT), a surcharge will be imposed on me if the sender fails to provide "full banking details". But this kind of completeness rule is dependent on the bank's notion of completeness, not mine. Although I could probably make a reasonable guess, the bank might always say "Aha you forgot to include the XYZ code, so we will apply the surcharge, nyah, nyah".

As it happens, I was talking to the call centre on another matter and the woman asked if there was anything else, so I asked what "full banking details" meant. She wasn't sure, so she logged a request for someone else to call me and explain.

A few days later, someone did call. Full banking details means the IBAN number and the SWIFT code, plus Bank Name and Address. IBAN number is printed on my bank statement, together with a Branch Identifier Code, which is apparently equivalent to the SWIFT code (how was I supposed to know that?). Four items of data. Oh no, make that five, because she added the Account Name as an afterthought. Good thing I asked.

Of course, the person sending me money now has to find a way to insert these banking details into a local banking form, which doubtless has entirely different fields. (That must be why the ten million dollars from Nigeria hasn't arrived in my account yet.)

Think of the system implications of extending a completeness rule. Imagine a transaction that was complete last week, but is no longer complete, because we have changed some code from optional to mandatory. The transaction is still valid at the point of entry, but it is now incomplete relative to some downstream context. The transaction still works, but is no longer cost-efficient. (Perhaps we can make a lot of money from small surcharges before anyone notices.)

Think of the asymmetry involved when the bank fails to publish a specification of "full banking details". The bank can alter the way it handles some class of transaction without notifying its customers, perhaps even without working out the likely effect in advance, and we end up being surcharged. This may be a cynical ploy by the bank; but it may simply be that they do not suffer the consequences of their own incompetence, so they have no incentive to do things properly.

See also Finance Industry View of Security

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