Beware of ATM machines at London Heathrow

I landed at London Heathrow today and after clearing customs, proceded to get some cash from an ATM in the lobby. There were many to choose from, but I chose the closest. It was a Travelex machine. I took out 300 GBP. The minute my receipt was printed, I knew something was wrong and I had been taken.

The receipt claimed I had chosen to make the "payment" in USD, that I had been given a choice of doing it in GBP or USD (untrue) and that I had chosen USD. (This is a lie). It also said the transaction was final and there was nothing I could do.

I was livid, because no such choice was given when I was on the machine. This was a clear ripoff/scam with no one around to report it to or complain to. I am an experienced enough traveler to know to never pay for anything overseas in US dollars. I would never do this even though the receipt falsely claims I was given that choice. I was not.

Bottom line, is that I ended up getting charged an extra 10% over the regular exchange rate. I believe the machine did an internal calculation of dollars to pounds and then back to dollars, just to incur more profit. I called my bank, but the money was already gone.

My bank's advice to me was to use a bank ATMs only. They suggested the Royal Bank of Scotland because it is 65% owned by the British Government.

What happened to me is a scam. It's certainly unethical and should be illegal if not already so. The very fact that the receipt reads like a legal document tells me that they themselves know they are ripping the public off, and the receipt tries to make it sound airtight. The receipt also lies about my having a choice of how to do the withdrawal.

Bottom line: beware of ATM machines at Heathrow (and possibly elsewhere). And use only machines that are attached to real banks.

Posted by Linda
Petaluma, Northern California
345 posts

It would be great if someone traveling to Heathrow could take a picture of this ATM-- it would be great for online articles about scams, ATMs, and money.

Anthony, you should post this on the Scam Alert section of the helpline. Information gets lost on the helpline.

Posted by Peter
Manchester
461 posts

Are you sure it was an ATM machine?

Traxelex are money changers and as well as manned bureau de change booths they have automated money changing machines. These look like ATMs (although they are clearly marked as bureau de change) but operate like any other change booth, just billing your debit card and charging the usual fees.

My advice to other travellers is not to waste time looking for RBS ATMs, other bank ATMs are governed by exactly the same laws and are equally as "safe."

Posted by Gary
New Hampshire
182 posts

I can see how these machines can all look alike and there would be areas where they are all lined up. Obviously one needs to use a true ATM machine.

So what makes an ATM machine look like an ATM machine? How does one tell the difference? What if you're in a country that doesn't use english as the primary language, are the ATM's marked differently so one could get confused?

Posted by Peter
Manchester
461 posts

The only place I've ever seen money changing machines is in an airport (usually next to an exchange booth) and they've always been marked in multiple languages, bureau de change, cambio etc.

Posted by Andreas
Frankfurt am Main, Germany
2511 posts

I always use Barcley's ATM machines at Heathrow to withdrow GBP from my €uro bank account. It's always worked fine for me with no hidden charges other than that 1% conversion rate (it's about time the Brits finally adopt the €uro or how much lower do they want to see their currency slide?)... Looking at http://www.travelex.co.uk it appears that they're more like a PayPal than a bank. So the adivse to only use ATM machines that are attached to a real bank, that carry a real local bank's name certainly is a very valuable one!

Posted by Adam
Boston
2629 posts

This sounds like the latest wrinkle in what is called dynamic currency conversion, a trap that many travel writers warn against.

I'd never heard of it at ATMs before. Anthony, thank you for the warning--I could easily see myself falling for this, and I'm sorry it happened to you.

Posted by Larry
Elk Grove, CA, USA
6698 posts

With my BofA ATM card, I'll be heading for the Barclay's ATM machine. BofA and Barclays are members of the ATM Global Alliance. With this reciprical arrangement, there are no fees between these banks as long as you use the ATMs in the Bank's home country. Deutsche Bank is also a member of this alliance.

Posted by Frank II
USA
4377 posts

Travelex is not a bank. It's a currency exchange. You basically asked Travelex to convert your U.S. dollars in Pounds Sterling. And rather than hand it cash, you gave it permission to take that money and it charges a fee--which is normally higher than any bank.

Now, when you use a bank ATM, you're saying please givee me my money and oh, BTW, could you give it to me in the local currency. It does and charges you the current interbank fee for changing money--which is less than any currency exchange will charge.

This is why it's always smart to check with your home bank to see if they have any reciprocal agreements with banks overseas, and to do a little research to know the names of the larger banks in the countries you'll be visiting.

Cavaet Emptor

Posted by Anthony Don
Atlanta, GA, USA
5 posts

I am the original poster. First of all, I am not stupid or naive. I travel internationally 6 to 10 times a year and have been using ATM's for 10 years to get cash overseas.

Up until now, the way it works is that I go to an ATM, put in my card, request how much in local currency I want and the money comes out of the machine. My checking account gets charged the equivalent amount at the international banking exchange rate - a very good rate.

What happened yesterday was that this was not a bank ATM. It was a Travelex Money Machine posing as an ATM. It was in the same line as the other ATM machines and it was not disclosed that it was an exchange machine, not an ATM as some of you say it should be.

My receipt claims that I initiated the withdrawal in USD which then had to be converted to GBP and then back to USD when taken from my bank. They did 2 exchanges incurring 2 exchange commissions. I requested 300 GBP from the very beginning. There is no option to request USD (I mean this is the UK), but that's what they claim I did.

It's a variation of the scam where the foreign merchant askes if you wish to pay in USD (in a foreign country!) so you don't have to do exchange rates. Well, they do 2 exchange rates behind the scenes and it costs you more.

That's what happened here. I think it's unethical. And the receipt saying I requested it this way is lying.

Posted by Ms. Jo
Frankfurt, Germany
4757 posts

Have you contacted the company that owns this machine? I think you would get more satisfaction from them. Or at the very least contact the authorities at Heathrow. They can do something about it, we can't, unless you just wanted to rant. Perhaps you can effect some real change.

I deleted my original post, since I did not quite understand what had happened.

Posted by Jane
Lebanon
605 posts

I never use Travelex for anything. Many banks in the US are now using them for European currentcy. It is smart to remember that anyone can tell you the rate of exchange is anything.. I always check on Oanda.com for the real rate.

Posted by Anthony Don
Atlanta, GA, USA
5 posts

I will report it on my way out of the UK when I go back to Heathrow. Thanks for the suggestion. The reason I posted this is not to complain to you guys, but to warn others. I am a seasoned traveler and got fooled.

Education is the best antidote to such scoundrels. I want to educate as many travelers as I can.

Posted by pat
victoria, Canada
7820 posts

I am sorry this happened to you, and I believe you were basically decievced, but of course it is also done on the line of what is legal.

Thanks for heads up,, I hope others read and heed this post, stuff like this can happen so easily. We are tired when we arrive, we just want our money and then to get to hotel.

Seperate point, I do always arrive with a bit of local currency, I just do not want to deal with trying to find ATM or get in line for ATM at airports,, I do it later in day after checking in. I live in a tourist city so its easy for me to pick up some GBPs or Euros without having to preorder.

Posted by Connie
Everett, WA
827 posts

Anthony Don- Thanks for posting. Something like this can be a humbling experience and I appreciate you taking the time to let us know about what happened to you. It could happen to us just as easily, but now we know to be careful and watch out. (which I always thought was the purpose of your post) I hope the rest of your trip was amazing.

Posted by Nancy
Bloomington, IL, USA
7675 posts

Travelex is notorious for their high fees for things like buying foreign currencies before traveling, prepaid debit cards, etc. The best answer is to use an ATM connected to a bank. Thanks for the heads-up with regard to exchange machines. We should all be careful to make sure we are dealing with a bank ATM instead of such machines.

Posted by Wayne
New Hampshire
86 posts

I landed at Heathrow a couple of years ago and needed to find an ATM. I found a row of machines, got my card out and was ready to insert. Something didn't look right. These machines do look like ATM's. The only reason I didn't use it was I could not find the name of the bank it was attached to. I didn't realize what they were until this post.

This is a great heads-up. Thanks.

Posted by Martine
Ottawa, Canada
565 posts

Anthony, the same thing happened to me at Gatwick, I blamed it on the the lack of sleep,but it sure looked like all the regular ATM machines to me.

Posted by Joe
Houston, TX, US
28 posts

Rick Steves now has a warning about using Travelex, Euronet or Forex machines overseas. Avoid them! My advise would be go to your Bank for some advice before you leave. Also look on back of your bank card. Mine shows "interlink" and "Plus" symbols so finding a machine with those symbols or wording would seem to be the way to go.

Posted by Anthony Don
Atlanta, GA, USA
5 posts

That's very good news -- that Rick now warns people about such ATM scams -- and names names. Thanks, Rick.

Posted by Rosalyn
Berkeley
1002 posts

Unfortunately, the scam of "dynamic currency conversion" is spreading. And, make no mistake about it; it is a scam. It's a way to squeeze a little more out of unwitting tourists, with no benefit to them. Depending on your bank, you may still even be charged a foreign transaction fee. We ran into it in Spain a couple of years ago at the atms of one of the big banks. At least we were given the choice then. We also had the game Anthony describes played on us by Hertz in Sicily. Some time after returning the car, I took a good look at the receipt and noticed that I had been charged in USD for the extras, tax and insurance that I had declined (but that's another story). I had been so occupied with arguing (fruitlessly) about the insurance that I didn't notice the charge was in dollars. It also stated, in very small print, that I had agreed to it. Of course, it had not been mentioned at any time. To expand on Anthony's bottom line, scrutinize every transaction.

Posted by Michael Schneider
New Paltz, NY
6827 posts

"...Also look on back of your bank card. Mine shows "interlink" and "Plus" symbols so finding a machine with those symbols or wording would seem to be the way to go..." Travelex ATMs have those symbols on them. Interlkin and Plus are simply networks that connect your card to your bank's computers, they have no control over any extra charges you might incur. Also, in the past four years of travels overseas, all ATMs (be it bank owned or private like Travelex) give me the dynamic conversion option, there seems to be no way of avoiding it anymore. Just decline it and your good.

Posted by Bets
Bloomington
1964 posts

Whoever dug this old post up THANK YOU. This is very good information that needs to be recirculated.

Posted by Edwin
Arlington, VA, USA
248 posts

Still exists as a problem at Heathrow Airport. Report and the british authorities are fine with this scam at their airport. Avoid any ATM at Healthrow Airport and wait you until you can find a bank outside of Healthrow.

Posted by Ed
Pensacola
7963 posts

Relax. Travelex is a world-wide company. They're in Atlanta as well as Sydney and everywhere else. They're not scammers. They have the lock on Heathrow and several other airports. If you don't want to do business with them don't. It's no different from using Winn-Dixie instead of Piggly Wiggly. I don't especially care for them, but if it's the only game in town, you can toss in a hundred bucks and get ninety back - - you've tossed ten dollars for a cup of coffee and a way into town until you can find a better deal.

Posted by Paul
Cedar, IA, USA
2371 posts

I think the point is to be aware of the issue, as Micheal noted above, this is becoming more and more common. I have encountered it at Heathrow, as well as in London, and several places in Spain, not to mention the many places it was brought up as an option when using a credit card. I would have no reservations using an ATM at Heathrow, just choose the option for local currency and go.

Posted by Marco
Oxford, United Kingdom
772 posts

DCC has been found in some cash machines since 2006. It will rarely if ever be in the favour of the withdrawer to select it over the local currency. The caution is that different machines operate in different ways so the option question might have to be answered yes or no, or something selected / deselected. Banco Santander in Spain offer DCC to Santander UK customers even though a withdrawal in Euros would be free of any charge.

Posted by Anthony Don
Atlanta, GA, USA
5 posts

Thanks. Amazing how this discussion has come to front and center after four years. In retrospect, the problem with using a non bank ATM machine (at Heathrow or anywhere else) is twofold: 1. The DCC (see link below)
2. The very bad conversion rate even if you can choose local currency (and avoid the DCC). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dynamic_currency_conversion Some machines or merchants give you DCC whether you want it or not. I had an experience at a restaurant at the Bangkok airport where the waiter asked if I wanted my charge in American dollars. I said, "No." The charge came, and in very very tiny print at the bottom it said I had chosen to put the charge through in USD and they had done this for me as a courtesy. I was very angry and it took me 25 minutes to get this undone.