Ending the redundancy in the economy: a tale of addresses

What is the relevance of a ‘proof’ of address in the current world? With the advent of mobility, especially in communication, where you supposedly ‘live’ is of less importance than it once was. More generally, your ‘home’ may be one of several places where you may be found, regularly. Many people spend more hours daily in their offices and may feel that there is more likelihood of that location remaining fixed than their current residence. For that reason, many people put their office location as their address. To the extent that is done consistently, then the office address will be the one that is used whenever ‘proof of address’ is sought, but few, if any live at the office–despite claims to the contrary when hours at work become an issue in personal relationships. At best, ‘proof of address’ proves somewhere to which certain documents may be sent, maybe on a regular basis. Yet, for sure, I have a proof of address for somewhere where a document has never been sent.

Jamaica is one of those places (and they are plentiful in the Caribbean) that puts much store in ‘proving’ where you live. It goes to many lengths to get this ‘fact’ established. But, it’s of little true meaning. Yet, I had a testing time with it, recently, as I tried to transact something quite simple that seemed to get unnecessarily complicated.

I was excited at the prospect of moving my mobile service number from Flow to Digicel: enough had become enough. As with grades, a move from an F to a D was progress. (We’ve had number portability in Jamaica since June 1 2015, but many people are still unaware. Simply, you can port mobile or fixed-line numbers, but only within a service category, not between services, so no mobile to fixed, for instance.)

Digicel, like many companies in Jamaica, request proof of address, so they asked me to go through this loop. I’m a special case, but I easily highlight much of the meaninglessness of such requests. The normal ‘proof’ requested is a combination of utility bills, or government IDs, or letter from certain categories of people (JPs, Ministers of religion, or police officers–we can argue about that listing).

Now, it’s obvious that one can consume the utility services but not be the person whose name appears on the bill. That is a matter of personal financial arrangements in many households. It’s also the case that one can consume other services at an address, but this is (arbitrarily) not regarded in the same light (no pun intended) as a utility bill. If you have regular service of a pool, or use a gardening service, it would be clear how that goes.

I pointed out, somewhat facetiously, that being an atheist, with no contact with either policemen or JPs who could vouch for my residence, having moved my power source to solar, taking water from my well, and using small amounts of bottled gas or coal to cook, I had none of certain utility bill proofs. But, I had my local driver’s licence and my voter ID card, so why were they not sufficient, given that they vouched for me as a person (with my TRN) and location (as the voters registration involves a visit to my stated place of abode)? The reply was not at all convincing. I wont bore you with the iterations. I went off in irritation.

More frustrating was the fact that I had been a Digicel mobile customer for several years, my address for them was the same as on my government IDs, and my payment record was known and exemplary–I clear my bills on time each month. So, for what logical reason would I need to provide additional proof of address? The replies remained unconvincing.

The real concern, it seems, with their opening a post-paid account–which is really allowing customers to live on credit–is ability to pay. But, the so-called ‘proof’ offers no such guarantees. If we assumed that they had interest in coming to visit, to check out what living conditions were like, then I’m still not sure that the ‘proof’ really helped, as one could easily arrange to be there just for the visit. (That same concern applies for registering one’s voter ID, but I will not walk that path, today.)

Many people, feeling that ‘pay-as-you-go’ phone services are better and cheaper for them, go the pre-paid mobile phone route. Many people who cannot, or do not want to, provide a set of (accepted) proofs of address, also go the pre-paid route. The risk is that in an emergency or other unforeseen situation, one could be without credit or access to data. But, that’s a personal choice, with the attendant risks. (Increasingly, in a world where free wi-fi access is the norm, this latter concern matters less.) I prefer to know that I have continuous mobile service at all times. But, that’s a side issue in the story of ‘proving’ where I live.

I could not go through the loops to the satisfaction of the agent I was dealing with. I pointed out the impossibility of my meeting the conditions, and the absurdity of asking for this proof from someone who was already a customer. His stumbling block was that my bill from the competitor mobile provider had a different address. But, budge he would not. I left. This non-movement struck me as stubborn stupidity. Why would it matter what address I had on the other service, when I am coming to you for service, and you already have my address?

I went to another point of contact, and engaged Digicel in a ‘conversation’ on Twitter. They sent me a list of possible solutionsscreen-shot-2017-02-11-at-12-35-34-am and assured me that what I had offered was sufficient. Emboldened, I went back to the Digicel branch to start the process again. I had offered bank/credit card statements, but Jamaican institutions seem to not understand that foreign financial institutions can have valid Jamaican addresses.screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-12-51-45-am So, my statements from my US bank and American Express, both of which carry my Jamaican address, were rejected. My head would have been hurting had it not been for the fact that I have it full of common sense (rather than red cents?).

When I got back to the branch, the supervisor got involved. She told her junior that all that I had offered was indeed accepted, especially as the government IDs had addresses that matched the Digicel bill. Yeah!

But, I also mentioned my exceptional situation, which I had pointed out to the junior in my first visit: I have a diplomatic ID card (without an address), but that puts me into a different category, where the ‘proofs’ of address are not necessarily required. (I was asked for a letter from my ’embassy’, but I pointed out that the ‘ambassador’ was my wife, and that this seemed to be weak proof of anything except love. The point did not seem to register. Anyway, I said, no such thing would be requested, as it was utterly senseless.)

But, why should one have to be so stubborn in not accepting seeming foolishness to get to a point of sense?

So, the port request was submitted and…it did not go through! Well, that seemed to be down to some technical issues that Flow had. I’m not going into the conversation I had with a Flow contact centre agent, who told me that I ‘needed’ to visit a store to have the technical problem dealt with. I was stern and said that as I was not the cause of the technical problem, I did not see how my going anywhere could be the solution. The agent repeated the need, and said that she had given me an ‘explanation’. Sorry! I pointed out that nothing had been explained. The line went dead for several minutes. She came back and repeated her statement. My position didn’t change, and I suggested that maybe some departments within Flow needed to talk to each other, and someone call me when the problem was resolved. She said that would not happen. I said ‘goodbye’. (Interestingly, when I had a technical problem with my UK bank earlier in the week, they had done as I now suggested, and gotten some departments to resolve the problem and call me back.) I raised the issue with Flow on Twitter.  I did not bore them with the details, merely that porting was not happening. They promised to check: screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-12-53-20-am

That was at about 2pm. By about 6pm matters had been resolved. screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-12-56-55-amI was ready to be ported. I asked Scotty to beam me up on to the Starship Digicel and move at warp speed away from my ‘abusive’ relation. They did.

It’s early days in my new relation with an old partner, and it seems to be going smoothly.

But, there are serious economic implications in this simple little story. This kind of ‘saga’ happens often, in Jamaica. During the day, I had been with a friend (also a male spouse on a diplomatic assignment), who had gone through the same loops. He related how in a south-east Asian country the process had not been needed, and the whole transaction took a few minutes, and not the hour that seemed to be the norm–in part because the Asian country keyed information into a computer, when the Jamaican style was to hand write details.

Here’s the kicker in my story. I have just moved. The ‘proofs’ of address definitely do not prove where I live. However, I am now in another Catch-22 loop, where I need to provide proofs of my new address to be able to have my old addresses changed. I hope I don’t have to spell out how that cannot happen 🙂

This search for proof of address redundant! This search for proof of address is largely meaningless. It’s a bureaucratic loop that satisfies some checks but offers little of real significance. Yet, it consumes time and energy and in that way is a drag on the economy. I do not expect the Economic Growth Council to solve this sort of problem, but it may be useful for them to think about things like this as yet another strand of red tape that binds us.

The institutions need to think about what it is they really need, such as proof of ability to pay, which may be more difficult, but it is certainly pertinent.

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