You paid Who? For What?

BACS logoThere are chat rooms and forums for British expatriates working in the United States (and elsewhere).  They all include the question: “What’s the [local] equivalent of BACS?”

BACS is a brilliant idea, but it has yet to reach America.  “Bankers’ Automated Clearing Services” allows direct transfer between UK bank accounts using the recipient’s account number and the branch identifier (sort code).  It’s monodirectional – you push money from your account to someone else’s, but, even though you know the account number, you can’t pull money in the opposite direction.  In its latest incarnation, it is generally very fast.  For the banks, it’s cheaper to operate than cheques (the customer and the computer do all the work).  For the customer’s it is (generally) more convenient and secure – I for one have never had an electron lost in the mail.

Are you waiting for something?  Have you taken a breath in anticipation?  Okay, here it comes.  However…

The two identifier fields (account number and branch code) have a fixed format.  They are a prescribed part of the protocol.  There are also two text fields, one used for the benefit of the sender, to identify the recipient, the other for the benefit of the recipient to identify the (reason for) the payment.  Both fields are free-form text and both give hassle.  This is at the nuisance level – the benefits far outweigh the niggles – but as a frequent user, I feel the frustration and the need to grizzle!

We would like our customers to use the second field to enter our order reference number.  That number includes an underscore character, which is fine for some banks, but others block it.  There are excellent reasons for “sanitising” customer input, and blocking some characters; however, I have never come across a good reason for blocking an underscore.  (The “recipient” field also gets sanitised.  My bank doesn’t like dots.  It will cope with “Mr A Smith” but not “Mr A. Smith”.)

Furthermore, some banks make it hard to change the “reason” field once it has been set-up.  Thus we get returning customers who appear to be paying for the same order multiple times.

The field that gives me the greatest problem is the “recipient” field.  My bank encourages me to use that field to enter the recipient’s name – and logically that would be the name that appears on their bank account.  However, the bank offers me a fixed length field that is insufficient for the purpose.  I have a long list of authors who receive their royalties by BACS, but how can I be sure I’m paying the right person?  If the field cuts off at 15 characters, how am I supposed to distinguish between Christopher McPherson and Christopher McPhee?

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