Rant on: Paypal woes, shy subjects and travel today

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Royal lake at dawn, Yangon.

As of late last night, I just returned from four days in Yangon, Myanmar. Firstly, I apologize for any and all delays in replying email and messages; the internet was barely usable and it seemed that only iOS devices could access WordPress (but only the comments).

Slow internet I can live with. But what came next surprised and angered me. It seems that Myanmar – along with North Korea and Cuba – is on the list of countries sanctioned by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control and The Bank of England. If you try to access your Paypal account from one of these countries, it will be suspended and you will be forced to go through a lengthy and inconvenient process to reactivate it in order to access the funds in your account. Not only that, if you try to access it again, your account will be permanently closed and the funds seized. There are many, many problems here:

  • My account is with Paypal Malaysia, registered in Singapore. These controls do not apply as funds held here are not subject to either US or UK oversight. I am not a US citizen or green card holder and am not under the ageis of that  government.
  • To reactivate your account, you have to prove your ID (fine) and that “the funds are not being used for the benefit of persons or organizations in Myanmar”. How the hell do you prove that if you’re an ordinary tourist who needs to pay for their hotel via Agoda, or air tickets, or something? I have a reasonably easy to find profile online and – obviously – this site, along with citations elsewhere, and I’m still being required to provide additional proof.
  • Within Paypal, the left and right hands are obviously not talking to each other – I’ve gotten emails from four different departments asking for different documents and informing me that my account will continue to be suspended until I provide said documents – it’s not clear who is handling what, and nobody on the phone can seem to tell me, either.
  • Customer service is a joke – it just doesn’t exist. And I’m supposed to be “a valued business customer” – all I know is that between international client payments, royalties, workshop payments, DVD sales I’ve had at least six figures go through there in the last year – which surely must be above average – and they’re still taking 24-48 hours just to reply to enquiries, let alone reactivate the account. Apparently it’s 48 hours to review documents, 48 hours to reply to you when you want to confirm the type of document they need, and another 48 hours to review again. In the intervening period, they’re happy to hold on to your money, deny you access and collect the interest.
  • It’s month end. I’ve got a number of automated royalty payments incoming which are now lost in the ether; Paypal doesn’t let you accept funds, either. And of course being automated, the remitting agencies won’t try again if the money is rejected; they’ll just keep it.
  • Closing somebody’s account and seizing funds without just cause or jurisdiction is simply illegal and unethical.
  • Of course, none of this would have happened if they’d simply told you what the countries on the banned list were and what the consequences might be before you tried to access your account.

Needless to say, if anybody knows of an easy online alternative to Paypal for accepting and sending money internationally, I’m voting with my wallet and taking my business elsewhere. It’s not the first time, either; if you don’t complain regularly, it seems they take their own sweet time releasing funds to your bank account – up to two weeks in the past – no doubt accumulating healthy overnight interest in the process. The company is a disgrace and operates without care or service for its customers or any ethics whatsoever.

I’m going to stop here and skip over Air Asia – uncleaned airplanes, inedible food, horrible-smelling air in the cabin being pumped in through the ducts, inhumane seat pitches and very little to no discounts over full price carriers once you factor everything else in, but have to use them because there are no seats left elsewhere – before I give myself a headache.

Yangon itself was quite pleasant: non-stop sunshine, warm (30C+) temperatures during the day – but relatively low humidity – cool evenings, and pedestrian-friendly. Lots of dust, though, and little to do after the sun goes down. For the most part, the Burmese seem to absolutely hate having their picture taken. Even with years of practiced stealth, almost never could I get a shot off without them noticing; in most cases, turning away or hiding their faces with something, too. I don’t know if it’s religious/ cultural or a hangover of something more sinister, but it certainly was photographically frustrating.

The city seems to have its fair share of tourist touts, too – from little kids who force things into your pockets then insist you have to pay them because you took their goods, to other little kids who force you to buy their plastic bags to store your shoes before you enter a temple or pagoda at an exorbitant price, to ‘monks’ who follow you around until you donate – that cannot possibly be part of the buddhist way – to the usual gamut of taxi ripoffs and ‘tourist-only’ fees. Hell, it costs US$60 to rent a sim card at the airport – and you have no choice because your mobile won’t roam. There’s no way I look local, so I just had to endure the hassling. It’s a shame, really, because the majority of regular Burmese are actually very warm and friendly people.

I’m off to hassle Paypal again once I’ve caught up with several hundred emails. As for images…when I get around to it…MT


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  1. Hey I am an expatriate living in Myanmar. They did it to me too. My paypal account is from Australia. Paypal are a law to themselves. They have no proper procedures, documentation, or transparency of policy or a method to even warn you. They send you an email saying you should have told them before you go and refer you to paypal.com. When you ask for proof and a link to any documents stating anything about sanctions they never reply. I asked for this at least 5 times. I supplied the evidence they wanted and threatened a complaint to the ACCC in Australia and then they reinstated my account.

    But now visa and mastercard are in Myanmar. They have never stopped me like paypal from buying plane tickets or anything online whilst in Myanmar so it is only paypal and ebay who have these stupid processes. The banks in Australia dont block you like that. I have learnt to avoid paypal where ever possible and will never use them if I have a choice.

    I have been told that Paypal will stop the restrictions soon. I have no complaint about the restrictions but more that you cannot find what they are and you are never warned until it is too late.

    The way around all this is to use a program like “teamviewer” and log into a friends computer overseas and buy from a computer located overseas.

    • I wasn’t even transferring funds – just checking to see if a payment came in…not good to hear they seem to be doing it as a blanket policy. Most uncool.

  2. I totally sympathize with you. Precisely why am adverse to using Paypal even merely for payment. Have you look into applying for merchant account of major credit cards, the likes of Visa, MC through your local banks? If you have volume, you could negotiate lower fees. Or remittances through Western Unions?

    • I’m looking into it at the moment, but it seems there are some other legal hoops I’ll have to jump through first. WU isn’t really practical because of their fees…

      • Perhaps you can try going about “Professional” merchant (the likes of doctors, et. al use) route?

  3. Ming: really sorry to hear about the PP thing, but hardly surprised, either. I have a horror PP story, too, and many others do, too. I am commenting here only to see if someone can suggest a viable alternative. I intend to check out Google wallet, too.

    • I think if you’re in the US, then things are a bit easier. In Malaysia…we’re kinda out of luck.

      Just happened again today: they rejected a payment I requested as an invoice/ checkout link through their system. One of my workshop participants pays, the funds go through, and then an hour later they’re rejected because “the payment may not be authorized by the PayPal account holder”. Sigh. I don’t know if they’re doing it to spite me, or if they’re genuinely incompetent.

  4. Ming, your experience in shooting people in Myanmar is a complete opposite to mine. And I am very Asian! I simply love doing portraiture in Myanmar and I feel that their people just loved to be photographed. That was my experience anyway. I used to say Bali was the best place to do people photography. Not any more since my trips to Myanmar. I have quite a collection from Myanmar. Here is one from a photosafari there not too long ago http://banhup.com/wordpress2/gallery/my-myanmar-photosafari-collection/

    Sorry to hear about your issues with Paypal. Thank goodness I didn’t try to access Paypal the few times I was in Myanmar. Paypal should have given users a warning when one does so and not just freeze their account. I think it is daylight robbery, to put it mildly. Hope your issues will be solved soon.

    • It was mixed, to say the least. There were some who were fine, but most would hide away. Can’t figure out why. Wasn’t using a huge DSLR either.

      As for Paypal…yes, they should warn you. Or at least give you one ‘free exit’ pass without suspending your account. But no…sigh.

  5. I’m not sure if they work internationally, but it’s worth checking them out for comparison — Popmoney.com. Hope things work out quickly.

    • Will check it out, thanks for the suggestion. The usual problem is that these companies won’t remit money to a Malaysian bank account, which rather defeats the point.

  6. You can try WebCash, Malaysian based e-wallet and payment gateway. I will sms the contact details of the main guy to your mobile number.

  7. David Babsky says:

    It’s a US govt sanction on Burma/Myanmar, so US companies must comply with it.

    Regarding PayPal, just to ‘balance’ things a bit, I sent money to a seller on eBay the other year, but he never bothered to send the goods. So I raised a dispute, or complaint, or whatever it’s called, with both eBay and PayPal ..and BOTH reimbursed me! ..So I sent the money back to PayPal (neither seemed to know that the other had repaid me too).

    It’s convenient, payment arrives instantly, I don’t have to disclose a credit card number to a third party, but to continue, or thrive, eBay/PayPal must comply with US / international sanctions. It’s a lemon entry, my dear Watson.

    • That’s the problem. It appears a) service is hit and miss and b) usually miss. I had a DVD buyer use a credit card to pay for a DVD, then have the charge reversed by the CC company because the card was stolen – even though the buyer confirmed to both Paypal and CC company via signed affadavit that he made the transaction, and I provided them with supporting order and shipment documentation. Settlement time? THREE months. Unfortunately, it seems we have no choice.

  8. Thanks of the info. Will begin to boycot shitpal.

  9. Clay Ginsburg says:

    Like others, I would have to guess you ran into difficulties photographing others because you look Asian. I was in Burma in December and had absolutely zero problems with taking photos. Actually, had the opposite problem in one or two cases(couple of kids just loved being in the photos they kept trying to jump into _every_ photo and not to get money, they just liked seeing the photos.

    Also, as for cell phones, most of the stores in the major cities(Yangoon, Mandalay) will happily offered to sell me a US$25 sim that included credit. I didn’t opt to purchase one, but something to consider next time.

    Also, in regards to paypals customer non-service, you actually are fairly small to them. Keep in mind that they also run one of the more popular credit card processors out there, verisign. I worked for a company that processed about US$10 million through them every year and we still got shitty customer service.

    Please keep us updated when you find a decent online payment system other than paypal. Your story is simply one of many horror stories I have heard over the years.

    Also, thanks maintaining this awesome blog, I thoroughly enjoy it.

    • The cheaper sims work for voice but not data, so that’s kinda redundant. As for customer service…they seem to think I’m large enough to qualify for some business premier account or whatever, but surely the mark of good service is that you treat all customers well? I shouldn’t have to be spending hundreds of millions in order to get something that works. Hell, I do my best to reply every comment here, and that’s free! 🙂

      Glad you’re enjoy the blog, thanks for stopping by!

  10. Ming, the troubles in Myanmar are probably rooted in your Asian looks. I had little trouble getting people to agree to my photographing them. Still, when I look at my Myanmar gallery, I don’t see very many portraits: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.308810249165012.70822.140623905983648&type=3

  11. Ming, this kind of things happens a lot. Paypal belongs to ebay and ebay is a US registered company. They have to obey US laws. There are not many alternatives to paypal, unfortunately. However, you can use a VPN redirector such as tor (http://www.torproject.org) with one of their associated service providers to obfuscate your login origin, then they will have no way in finding out where you logged on from.

  12. TrustNoOne says:

    Ming, this kind of things happens all the time. Paypal belongs to ebay and they are registered US companies. They have to obey USA laws. US agencies can coerce US companies to do all kinds of things, even for non-US companies that do business in USA, they are covered.
    An alternative to paypal – not many I may say.
    However, when you do go overseas and do not want paypal to know you went to those places, try get a VPN redirector like tor (https://www.torproject.org) or use one of their associated service providers, then paypal will be none the wiser on where you logined from.

  13. Raj Gedhu says:

    Hi Ming, every morning, or at least when you are posting an article, I awake to find an email notification alerting me to the fact. Today I checked Facebook before my emails so saw the post and went straight over to your site to check it out. Later, as I checked my emails I didn’t see one alerting me to your new post. Why ? Well today’s email from your site was in the Spam folder in gmail ! Looks like Paypal really don’t like getting slagged off and have already taken steps to ensure that anyone who does so will be treated as a spammer and the email wont be seen by the recipient.

    • Well, I wonder if that’s Paypal or your spam filter thinking that it was some unsolicited junk…ah well. I’m objective: if you deserve praise, I’ll be right behind you. If you act like a jerk and abuse your position then sorry, you deserve it. Perhaps it means they will take a bit more care in future…you never know which one of your customers might have a large social media presence. Curiously though, things went back to normal within half an hour of me posting…

      • …a bit of both, I think. Normally i will receive a straight email in my inbox, it was only today’s post that found it’s way into the spam folder. I guess the spam filter monitors the content and not just the sender. I am aware that large corporations monitor email traffic and social media for negative comments about themselves. Your post going out on WordPress, Facebook and through large email providers like Gmail obviously alerted Paypal that, not only was it was receiving bad publicity, but that upwards of half a million people had seen it, got them to pull their fingers out! And it’s those numbers of recipients that probably caused gmail to put it into the spam folder. Anyway, it’s great to know that as an individual human being you DO have an influence over global corporations when you have a healthy social media presence. Keep up the brilliant work, Ming !

        • It’s very, very sad that I have to resort to this to get basic service restored though. What would other people do? What can they do?

          I know several people at Google read this, I’ll be spending a day at their HQ teaching a workshop when I go over to the US in a couple of months 🙂

      • Faruk Senoglu says:

        To tell the truth: same happened to me. Your post landed in my spam folder this morning the first time and I haven’t changed anything! Now the doors are open to the vast fields of conspiracy theories! :-))
        Besides, I also had some issues with ebay and paypal more then ten years ago and didn’t use my account since that time. It was only when I wanted to sell my Sony Nex few months ago that I gave them a try again and again had problems because of a cheater who had bought it at the auction. This was pretty obvious for me … but it took me about ten or twelve e-mails and phone contacts to convince Ebay and Paypal and another three weeks to get my Ebay fees back …. At last I received an excuse from them but only after having insisted that the case was forwarded to the security department who confirmed my suspicion. This is why I’d prefer not to deal with them anymore!

        • What a pain – sounds like I’m not alone. I don’t know if I should be happy about that or even angrier.

          On the plus side, the NEX you couldn’t sell should be on its way back to you soon 🙂

  14. Bitcoin could be a future alternative to paypal. But it’s not there yet and beeing a completely different solution it’ll have other problems.

    Regarding the camera shy people. If they obviously wants to avoid the camera. Wouldn’t it be polite to just not take their picture? Especially as long as the reason is unknown?

    • That’s what I did. A lot of the time the reaction was quite instinctive even with the camera over one shoulder and you not even taking a picture, which surprised me. They didn’t seem to be too bothered by the GR1v, though. Odd.

      • I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s related to the political history of the country.

        Anyway. the Royal Lake photo at the top is a typical example of why I like your work. I’m really impressed by the way you manage to distribute different subjects, it’s almost as you have control over the environment.

        • Thank you. As for Royal Lake…I can assure you I had one single vantage point out, it was out of my hotel room window. The only control I had was when to push the shutter, and indirectly what the quality of the light would be…

  15. Paypal and their stranglehold on eBay is a disgrace. It’s a shame that often there is no alternative.
    However, thanks for the heads-up re Burma – I”ll take cash or pre-pay! It is somewhere I want to go back to – the people are great.

  16. For a couple of years I’ve been using a cheaper alternative to PayPal (been there, got the virtual T-shirt with “Who are You? Screw You!” written on it) going by the name of Skrill (used to be MoneyBookers) at… https://www.skrill.com/app/

  17. Paypal is a real pain in the *ss. I use it only for small payments up to 10$ at ebay. Never ever for anything else.

    About Myanmar people not like being photographed, I’m very surprised. I have heaps of people photos, and never remember any resistance. It is a very friendly country, but things may change now with the opening.

    I like your photo above. That lake is a very pleasant place for an evening stroll. I have been many times to Myanmar, and it is not what Western media told you.

    • I think ZDP-189 has a good point: maybe they’re afraid of Asian-looking people because of potential security issues. No risk with Westerners.

  18. Linden Wilkie says:

    Thanks for the heads up re Paypal, and sorry you have to suffer the pain to tell the tale.

    Time for a fine cigar I think!

  19. Ben Hopkins says:

    It seems that PayPal only cares after massive bad publicity. I can’t tell you how many stories I have seen about charities having donations frozen because funds came in too quickly without being able to prove that any merchandise went out, even when they are setup as a charity specifically to accept donations. Once the word gets out on these stories they backpedal and admit how ridiculous their actions were. PayPal came out with a statement last week saying they were going to facilitate the verification process in cases like yours sometime in the future. It was an extremely vague statement with no real timetable. Best of luck to you, unfortunately you are going to need it.

  20. Have you tried 2checkout.com? Good company and they incorporate Paypal as a payment option in their gateway.

  21. I don’t think its just Paypal. The United States is out of money. The UK is out of money. The EU is out of money. Having said that, the US and I can’t remember what other country are the only countries that tax foreign income. Since they’re out of money the US has passed some horrendous finance regulations that has effected the whole financial world. Any and every financial institute has basically been told if you want to play you have to comply. That’s why even the Cayman Islands and already the Swiss banks have released financial information to the US on any US citizens.

    Even though your accounts are not based in the US you’re seeing the effects of what the US regulations are doing to world financial markets.

    • I don’t disagree with that, but that doesn’t give them the right to my personal funds on deposit in another country.

      • I completely agree but please tell me which US banker has gone to jail since the US fiasco happened 5 years ago? None.

      • Not saying it’s not terrible what happened to your PayPall account. But PayPall is an American company (Ebay). My ex girlfriend works for an American bank, and they have all sorts of rules on money transfers stemming from 9/11..

        Obviously your case is an edge case, that they obviously failed to consider. Also PayPall has a pretty bad reputation in general, but sadly we have to put up with it. You could get a merchant account trough your bank and pick a credit card processor of your choosing, but you will probably find restrictions and caveats with that solution as well. It might be worth exploring though..

        Love your blog, keep up the good work!

        • Already working on it – but yes, there may be sufficient restrictions that it wouldn’t be practical (inability to swipe without cardholder present, etc.)


    • Steve Jones says:

      Yes, all out of money because they stopped actually using money in favor of credit cards and virtual money schemes.
      I always find it frustrating that I can’t reserve hotels in the U.S.A. with real money. While some people might prefer using a credit card I want to have a choice thank you. Then there are those places that will only take the ‘other’ card that you don’t have.
      Banks are not so great either sometimes. I purposely set up a Citibank account in Japan for the times I would be traveling in America and put aside an amount in U.S. dollars. I was then told I could not transfer this amount to Citibank in the U,S, because my account was Citibank Japan not Citibank U.S.A. Similarly I transferred an amount to my UK bank account only to find they returned it to Japan because of EU banking regulations! Left me wondering how on Earth Japanese companies do business with the U.K. if there are rules against transferring funds. Makes no sense to me. It’s nuts! They didn’t mind keeping my expensive transfer fee though!
      We think we are living in a global society but.!!.. well…. thank goodness I haven’t signed up with PayPal.
      Hope someone comes up with a solution for you Ming. I really do. And I’m glad that you have raised awareness about them here.
      I’m still searching for a Bank that operates efficiently worldwide but haven’t found it yet.

      • Equally frustrated here even though I supposedly have some type of bank account that is meant to make it easy to open another one in multiple locations or transfer funds – completely useless, slow to clear, and still expensive. Sometimes I think the banks are really shooting themselves in the foot…

  22. Oh – and once you eventually get your cash from them perhaps they need to have this post linked to their Facebook account? I’m sure they would hate the bad publicity. Just a thought.

    • It’s tempting. But in the absence of an alternative, I have no choice but to continue dealing with them. I suppose it can’t hurt that the site is seen directly by over half a million people a month and shared/ syndicated/ twitted/ reblogged/ re-fb’d even more… 🙂

  23. It is illegal for any bank regulated by a country party to international AML treaties to process such a transaction. In fact, they probably already reported you to the governments of USA, Singapore and Malaysia. That’s why it’s more or less a cash economy over there. I wouldn’t be surprised if you were later called on to prove that your trip didn’t help support the junta. You can’t. How can you know if the hotel was owned by a general or his affiliate?

    Regarding communications, it’s not unusual for totalitarian (or formerly totalitarian) regimes to control telecommunications. And can you imagine how threatening it could be to have your photo taken in a place where such photos may be used to identify dissenters for discipline or disappearance?

    As for the airline, do you think they should put a new A380 or 777 on a backwater route to an emerging dictatorship?

    I can only hope that this blog post is a spoof, but April 1st is a long way off.

    • That’s ridiculous, yet probably true. I wonder why they let Coca-Cola do business there?

      The part about not wanting to be ID’d makes sense, and also explains why people are happy to pose for foreigners and not other Asians…

      As for the airline, Air Asia is a discount carrier. They don’t care about anything but profitability and load factor. We have literally hundreds of thousands of Burmese workers here – so it actually does make sense for them to put on a larger plane, except they’re using those on long haul routes. Lack of service/ cleanliness is nothing new for Air Asia, because it costs money it’s an acceptable shortcut. Of course, almost none of these savings are passed on to the passenger. I’d have flown another airline, but there weren’t any tickets available – yet there were empty seats on this flight. Says something about travel preferences and ticket prices, I think.

      Sadly, this post isn’t a spoof. I wish it was. All I can say is that the last few days have not left a good taste in the mouth.

  24. Sadly the long arm of America reaches way beyond it’s shores. Thankfully all Empires crumble – cracks are already appearing, so just back and watch it all unfold on CNN.

  25. gary morris says:

    One must realize that Pay Pal is NOT a traditional bank in the US and as such is not regulated like a bank. They tend (based on other similar stories I’ve read recently) to make up rules on the fly. Whether “they” do this to protect themselves from real or imagined problems I don’t know. The net result is that “customers” are screwed. Our non-profit organization went through something similar with another internet money transfer organization. They held our money for many months before we found a mystical formula that convinced them that we were not something other than what we’ve been for the past 10 years. Bottom line is if you put your money in the hands of organizations that operate outside of regular channels — in this case gov’t oversight — then expect this sort of thing to be a high risk outcome.

    • It appears that they pretend to be regulated by several bodies that have no international jurisdiction and yes, make up things on the fly. You would have thought that somebody would regulate them, but this appears not to be the case. Curiously, after posting this complaint, my account is now fully functioning again…

  26. Oh man, I loathe Paypal. I don’t use it for anything like the sort of stuff you do, but they arbitrarily decided that my account was frozen a few months ago, no idea why, and I had to go through all these things to reactivate it. One of the steps was just impossible, I sent them a snotty message about how crap it was, then lo and behold they unlocked my account a few days later.

    I seriously hope someone springs up to replace them soon. :\ Their level of customer service (or total lack thereof) is just unbelievable.

    • The problem comes from the lack of competition, which in turn basically means they can do as they please and nobody has a choice. All we can do is be vocal about it – and I’m not even complaining about their fees, which are criminal – 2.5% to receive, then more to withdraw, then a very thick FX spread, plus whatever they’re making off you in interest while your money sits there or is being transferred out…it’s a disgrace.

  27. Exactly the same thing happened to me, when I responded (while in Burma earlier this month) to a PayPal email saying that my monthly account status was open for viewing. Fortunately, I have almost no PayPal activity and my balance was $0; but the annoyance and inconvenience were palpable nonetheless.

    On a different topic, I’ve started reading your blog only recently, and am finding it enjoyable and instructive. Thanks for doing it. You can see my Burma photos at http://blog.lib.umn.edu/victor/hereandthere.

    • Problem is, I’m using Paypal for DVD sales, client payments, royalty payments and general business…there’s a cash float that’s basically frozen in there. To say I’m pissed is an understatement. Waiting eagerly for an alternative.

  28. Feel your pain. Have had issues with Paypal myself over the years. Bleh. Unfortunately since they are so prevalent and universal, they almost have a stranglehold on international online payments. That’s their blessing and their curse.

    As for the photographic side of your visit… would you suggest that long focals be the solution to camera-shy subjects?


  1. […] bit more if the quality of service is good, but it isn’t – some of you will remember my woes trying to use the service during a trip to Myanmar – frozen accounts for not just outgoing but also incoming payments; that landed up costing me […]

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