Living with credit, Protecting yourself

Writer stumbles into Egypt’s tomb of the lost ATM cards

Susan Ladika

This guest blog is by Susan Ladika, a freelance writer who has lived in both the United States and Europe, and now calls Tampa, Fla., home. Her articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal-Europe, and scores of other publications.

Writer stumbles into Egypt's tomb of the lost ATM cards

I’ve traveled from Bosnia to Bali to Boston, and many points in between, and this month’s trip to Egypt was the first time I’ve ever had my bank card eaten by an automated teller machine.

It was a stifling hot night in Luxor, and all I wanted to do was grab some cash at the ATM across the street, run back to the coolness of the hotel, and pick up some souvenirs in the gift shop.

I inserted my ATM card and watched it disappear into the bowels of the machine — very different from the quick swipe and remove that I do with my SunTrust card at home. Excruciatingly slowly, the machine dispensed my 500 Egyptian pounds (about $90), and I counted it carefully. The ATM beeped that my receipt was ready, and that was that. No more sounds, no more thought that my card was still inside the machine.

It wasn’t till the next day when I was back in Cairo and needed more cash that I opened my purse, pulled out my wallet and found the slot where my ATM card always resides painfully empty.

While I still had a wallet full of credit cards, those aren’t a whole lot of good in a country where most purchases involve forking over cash, and people ask for “baksheesh” to aid with the simplest of tasks.

Fortunately the friend I was visiting lived right next door to the bank, so I rushed upstairs, used her computer to track down SunTrust’s phone number for collect calls from outside of the country and called to cancel the card.

Because my friend lives in Cairo and still had access to her bank account, she could pay for everything that required cash, while I could buy our drinks and meals at five-star hotels — one of the few places where credit cards are widely accepted.

It just didn’t seem worth it to convert my U.S. dollars and British pounds into Egyptian currency, or go to American Express and cash a personal check, when I was flying out the next day.

From talking to others, it seems like I’m not alone. My friend’s boyfriend, who has lived and worked worldwide, has already lost five ATM cards in the two years since he’s lived in Egypt. That helped make me feel not quite so bad.

I wonder if that means centuries from now some archaeologist will crack open an ancient Egyptian tomb and find it laden with ATM cards designed to help usher the deceased into the next world.

See related: Old-fashioned U.S. “swipe” cards becoming obsolete in foreign chip-and-PIN world, Credit card foreign transaction, ATM fees going up

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