12 April 2010

A Russian Pay Machine Adventure

Just write me a check!

Many Russia students and visitors do not realize that  there is no check writing here.  This lack affects  daily life, and is one of the key differences between how Russians and Westerners use some of their day
It’s also surprising that Russians take paying bills seriously, as contrasted with an often cavalier attitude about this task in America.
               The Culprit!

We looked at this checkless society a year ago in Just Write Me a Check!  http://www.amrusob.blogspot.com/2009/02/just-write-me-check.html

There’s got to be a better way!

Bill paying can take time.  People wait in long queues in poorly ventilated banks, post offices, and the Petersburg Electric Office.

Since around three years ago, banks have been  issuing customers  debit cards.  But few places accept plastic for payment.  People are fed up with standing in line to pay bills, they have no checking, so… what to do?

A nifty answer to the problem…

The Russian solution is the payment machine, a tinny brightly painted touch terminal that takes payment for a 3% to 5% fee.  These have become popular just in the last couple of years.  Other countries where checking is rare, such as South Africa and India, use the same machines.

Russians, particularly men, don’t worry about  incidental fees.  These are the guys that leave kopeks of change in the checker tray, and would never deign to check a restaurant bill… they are above all that, and not (worst of all!) cheap.

Our April Fools Day…

On April 1 my computer stopped working.  I was worried until Larissa kindly explained that probably I needed to pay the monthly Eltel cable bill.  She offered to stop at a pay machine and set things to rights

Poor Larissa!  She entered my pay number, got the screen with all the internet cable companies, and pushed InterZet instead of Eltel.  The machine’s alligator jaws grabbed her 500 ruble note and no receipt was issued!

No receipt can mean money lost…

Larissa was ready to cry. This unusual model requires you push a button to get a receipt.  She walked around looking for someone to help her.

She was thinking, “Bye, bye, my money!”

On returning to the machine, a receipt was hanging from it with the correct payment number and amount.  Larissa was happy to have the receipt, and that she could decide all my problems.

Right church, wrong pew…

But on her returning home, I told her the computer wasn’t working.  She was shocked.  We looked at the receipt and found that Larissa had paid the wrong company!

It turned out that InterZet has a similar numbering system to Eltel, and applied our 500 rubles to the account of of a lucky Russian stranger
Larissa blamed herself, not my negligence in paying Eltel, for causing this problem.  She quickly went to another payment machine and got the internet active for me. 

I’ve got your money, now try and get it back!

Larissa spent the rest of the day on the telephone trying to get the misplaced 500 rubles back, talking first with the payment machine company, Novo-Plat.ru.
It’s clear these companies have no  procedure to handle a common misapplied payment.  The clerks  usually refuse to  give their names, or that of their manager, and will not connect you with him or her.

In Russia customer service usually means a certain level of official rudeness that sends you in circles, expecting you to give up and go away.  From her seven years in the United States and her own strong personality, Larissa doesn’t buckle.

The InterZet Runaround…

Larissa moved on to the InterZet office phones.  Between the 1st and the 6th, Larissa had contact with perhaps six to eight operators at InterZet who didn’t know how to help, but told her to apply to the machine company Novo-Plat again

Go to a higher level to get fast results!

After many hours she was connected by an intelligent man with someone apparently in their financial department.  She asked Larissa what she wanted her to do.  We had decided to get the 500 rubles applied to our son-in-law’s InterZet account
The Interzet manager quickly switched the debit from the lucky stranger to our lucky son-in-law.  Case closed!

Life is easier with these brightly colored machines in stores, supermarkets, and shopping malls.  But if you don’t double check everything, and follow sequence, you can land in Misapplied Hell!

Russia catches up!

Russia is leap frogging the bank check system by using payment machines, Visa debit, online payment, along with mainly cash.  It appears, except for a brief time for a few commercial accounts in the late 1800’s until 1917, Russia hasn’t had and never will have a paper bank check system.

 Zaloza 077 -
Is it leapfrogging or leaptoading?

Let us know what your think!
Will bank checking disappear in your town with Online Payment?   Can you get by without paper checks?

To Comment, click the title or 12.4.10.  Then scroll down and click Post a Comment .  We love to hear from you!


  1. Aha! My Ukrainian wife practically goes nuts with my nonchalant attitude regarding bill payment. I now know why. No checks! Probably no on-line credit card payments!Quick cut-off of services and the usual ex-soviet bureaucracy don't give a rip attitude.

  2. Here is Spain the cheque is virtually dead and is very infrequently used. We pay by direct debit (in some cases mandatory) or by card and occasionally by cash!

  3. You asked if online banking will take away check usage. I would say yes! I never use bank checks anymore (I'm American but now living in the UK).

    Somehow, I like the cash system, probably keeps people out of debt!

  4. In the UK we are phasing out cheques (checks) altogether. The system is slow and prone to fraud. Internet and telephone banking now mean that cheques are only used by the old, to pay strangers for services, or as a birthday gift. Can you not pay your bills in Russia in this way? It seems even easier (and cheaper) than a machine.

  5. Hi Anonymous with Ukranian wife,

    Yes,people here take bill paying way to seriously. As you say... no checks and probably hard to pay with your debit card on line. Once payees understand I want to pay from Russia they get very difficult.

    Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  6. Hi Rob,

    Using a debit system or plastic provides better purchase proof, and the ability to return more things. Here, if you don't have the original cash register receipt, you can never get your money back.

    Thank you for your insightful comment!

  7. Hi Brandy,

    Your blog gives the reader an interesting trip to London! Could you email me, as there is no way to contact you.

    Yes, debit cards and cash are good ways to not get trapped in credit.

    Thank you for your visit!

  8. Greetings Alan,

    I use internet banking for my two accounts in California and New Jersey. We have a few accounts in St Petersburg but over the years I have been wary to try internet banking here, although it is available.

    Telephone banking would present difficulties as while many banks have some personnel who are able to speak English... you never know if you are clearly understood... and my Russian is hard for intelligent Russians to comprehend!

    Thank you for getting me to think about what may be do-able with Russian banks that I have not fairly considered.

  9. I use paper checks only when a business does not give an alternative- notably, the only one at this point is my medical insurance. In most stores when someone writes a check, it is treated like an electronic debit and the paper check is returned to the customer. Paper checks are easy to commit fraud with if not paired with some electronic verification. Small businesses (that cannot afford the instant verification fees) are the ones who most often lose on check-fraud, and here in Idaho many have a sign in the store that says "Sorry, no checks accepted". The only downside to eliminating checks is the security of accounts- every time we use any electronic transaction, there is a possibility of fraud in the future. SO, we have exchanged security for business with personal security. hmmm... perhaps cash and wisely-used credit cards are good alternatives.

  10. Hi Margo,

    You see the limitations of checks, and the dangers of electronic accounts.

    You just can't be too careful in St Petersburg as unfortunately sometimes computer fraud is pinned on Russians as apple pie is connected with Americans!

    Thank you for your interesting comment. Much appreciated!


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