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A Melbourne teenager, who used a cash passport card from Travelex during a trip to Japan, has been left, a year later, with confusing accounts of sums that he owes the company, despite having been told by the company that he has a zero balance on the card.

A year after he returned, Joshua Varghese was left with three differing accounts of how much he owed the company from different official sources and confused as to how he could avoid wasting his time trying to settle the issue, when to the best of his knowledge he had nothing to pay. The card is distributed by Access Prepaid Worldwide, a MasterCard company.

Both Travelex and MasterCard were contacted for their responses, which are given in full later on in this story.

Full disclosure: Joshua is the writer's son.

Joshua obtained the cash passport card from the Travelex branch in Doncaster, a suburb of Melbourne, in February last year; the currency was yen. The card can be used at select ATMs to withdraw cash and also as a credit card.

He returned at the end of the month and, since there was some currency remaining on the card, went to Travelex and was given back the balance in Australian dollars. The outlet asked him to keep the card, which is valid until 2017, in the event that he undertook further trips.

In October, he received a two-page letter, purportedly from Access Prepaid Worldwide, claiming that there was a negative balance equivalent to $A93.59 on the card (the last four digits of the card were mentioned in the letter) and that he was required to repay this amount within 30 days.

He went to the Travelex outlet in Doncaster and asked the staff there about this; they checked the card and said the balance was zero and that there was no negative balance.

There are a few things about this letter which are curious:

it has no signature, the name Pauline Cheung is printed;

it directs one to a web address and asks one to log on to a link there which does not exist ("...please log on My Account at http://www.cashpassport.com/multi/");

it mentions "payment options" (plural) and then offers a single one (the details of a bank account on the second page of the letter);

in the bank details given on the second page, the word "prepaid" in the name of the firm is spelt with a lowercase p (which legally means this is a separate entity - I have had similar experiences when I carelessly mispelt my own surname on official documents); and

it tells the remitter of any cash "we would appreciate you notifying us if this method of payment is chosen". That last aspect is particularly suspicious as I have often seen it in emails from scammers who wish to pull up stumps the moment some money is remitted and cleared; it is my experience that a professional company keeps track of its own bank accounts and the monies it receives.

Given that the local Travelex outfit told Joshua that his balance was zero, he did not bother about the letter.

In January 2014, he received a second letter, referring to an earlier letter of October 25 (the date is wrong, the earlier letter was dated October 28) and couched in similar terms to the first. There was one addendum: it mentioned that "in accordance with the Terms and Conditions a negative balance of AUD 20 may now be applied to the account".

There was a number given in this letter (as in the earlier one) and Joshua called the same on February 6; it advised him on an automated line that his balance was zero. He tried to log in to the website and check his transactions but it would not let him and gave this error: "An error has occurred. If your card number begins with 538634, please check your details and re-try or call help desk on: 1800 098 231 Otherwise, please click here for access to your account."

He then tried to register, on the off-chance that his registration had expired. He could not do so either, with this message being displayed: "If your card number begins with 538634, please check your details and re-try or call help desk on: 1800 098 231. Otherwise, please go to https://www.cashpassport.com/mcp-chweb/McpApplication.html?locale=au_CP to access to your account."

The listed URL did not allow him to log in, saying the details were wrong.

On the off-chance that this website was customised for Internet Explorer - corporate websites are often customised for Microsoft products - he tried to log in with that browser with a similar result, after he had negotiated past a number of pop-ups which looked like spam.

On February 7, he went to Travelex again, where he was told the same thing: his balance was zero. This time, the woman at the counter asked him to speak to someone at Travelex, saying that it was possible that she could not see the actual balance. When he did so, the person, one Steven, a Customer Service Representative, offered to send him a list of transactions for the card in question, and a dispute resolution form.

Both these documents arrived within minutes. The transactions list showed a balance of $A25.69. The last transaction listed had taken 17 days to clear - it was submitted on February 21, 2013, and cleared on March 8, 2013, which is indeed curious.

But more surprising was the fact that there was now a third balance in the picture: one of $A93.59 claimed in the two letters, the balance of zero (from the Travelex outlet and the automated phone response at 1-800-098-231) and the balance of $A25.69 in the transactions list sent to Joshua by Steven.

As there was an obvious discrepancy, Joshua called the number listed above again and asked to speak to a human. The person who spoke to him said he would receive a callback within an hour - this was at 1.15pm on Friday, February 7.

Nothing happened for three hours, so Joshua called back. He got on to one Rob Pethers, another customer service representative, who insisted that the list of transactions sent by Steven was incorrect. Pethers mentioned a balance of some 8000 yen. He later changed this to 8600, justifying his error by complaining that the text on the computer screen in front of him was very small.

He also told Joshua that he and the other staff were very busy and that they did not have time to chat on the phone; he asked Joshua to email him back the list of transactions sent by Steven.

When Joshua did so, at 5.39pm the same day, he received a response from Pethers saying he had passed it on "to be looked into and I have also raised this with service quality and you shall hear response from them within 4 hours saying they have received your complaint and then they have 20 days to action it and resolve it for you...."

On Tuesday, February 11, I wrote to both Travelex and MasterCard, listing the events that had occurred and asking for their comments to be included in this story.

Not even 24 hours had elapsed, when Joshua received a phone call from someone at Travelex early on February 12 morning. As he had not tried to contact the company, he referred them to me. They then called me and tried to provide an explanation on the phone. I told them very firmly that they could send their explanation in writing.

So they did - but they sent it to Joshua! The word unprofessional springs to mind - this is the first time I have directed a media inquiry to a company and had them reply to someone else.

Given the privacy notice at the bottom of the email, not a word of it can be reproduced.

Daniela Filer, the global head of communications for Travelex, sent me the following response:

"I was most concerned to hear of your son's experience and am very grateful that you have raised this with us. We take any issues concerning Cash Passport very seriously and will always seek to ensure that all issues raised by customers are researched and resolved.

"Having reviewed your son's experience with the negative balance, we contacted Access Prepaid - who are our outsourced partners for card services. I understand that they have emailed your son today regarding the negative balance. I hope that has been resolved to your satisfaction.

"In relation to the service that your son Joshua received at the Travelex store and being given the incorrect balance - thank you for bringing this to our attention. We will ensure that appropriate feedback is given to our sales agents and that our training program is updated to ensure this does not happen again.

"The service you received is not at the level we aim to give to our customers so please accept my sincere apologies on behalf of Travelex."

In response to the author's request for comment MasterCard chose to invoke the privacy regulations, with the following statement sent via its PR agency:

"For privacy reasons we are unable to provide any specific details about this, unless you are the authorised cardholder.

"We understand that Rui Pedro Rodrigues Faustino is the Access Prepaid Worldwide customer representative that has most recently been in touch with the cardholder in order to resolve his query. Should the cardholder wish to discuss the most recent email communication from Rui Pedro Rodrigues Faustino, or for anything else, the cardholder should contact Card Services on the number 1800 098 231."

These responses do not explain how two of the bigger institutions in the travel and finance sector have computer systems that do not apparently sync, and how unco-ordinated their operations are.

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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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