CULTURE VULTURE By Therese Jamora-Garceau (The Philippine Star) Updated February 16, 2009 12:00
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You can bank on them: Cecille Fonacier (left), Customer Franchise director, and Melissa Henson, vice president for Consumer eBusiness of Citibank Philippines. Photo by Jun Mendoza

Imagine you’re a businessman treating a group of clients to dinner. The mood is convivial and you’re feeling generous, so you urge your guests to order whatever they want. Three bottles of (rather expensive) wine later, sweat starts to form on your brow. You’ve just realized you have no idea what your credit-card balance is, and if it’s enough to cover the expenses rapidly accruing on your dinner tab. Do you excuse yourself and rush to the nearest payphone? What do you do?

Thanks to Citibank’s new Two-way SMS service, the days of panic-dialing your bank are over. Two-way SMS is Citibank’s latest mobile phone-based service. It allows cardholders to send Citi a text message inquiring about their available credit balance, amount due (whether total or minimum) and payment due date.  And, instead of being put on hold for a knuckle-tightening number of minutes, Citibank texts you right back with the information you need. 

“The latest innovation we’ve launched is SMS banking,” says Cecille Fonacier, Citibank’s Customer Franchise director. “Right now we have Citi Online, which is Internet banking, and Citi Mobile, which is SMS banking and payments done through the cell phone.”

Anyone too busy to physically transact at a bank, or who’s vainly tried to reach a human at the other end of a landline, will appreciate the convenience of such innovations.

“SMS banking is really Citi customers getting the information they request most,” says Fonacier.

If you’re a Citi Card holder and you want to check your available balance, just text “CITI BAL” and the last eight digits of your Citi Card to 2201.

To check your card’s total amount due, minimum amount due and payment due date, text “CITI BILL” and the last eight digits of your Citi Card to 2201.

The service is automatically available to all customers whose current mobile phone numbers are updated on Citi’s files. If a customer attempts to use the service but his mobile phone is not updated or not on record, he will receive a reply advising him to call CitiPhone to update his information — a measure to protect his security and ensure that credit card information is only sent to valid mobile phone numbers.

We will give you your card balance just through texting,” says Fonacier. “Another way is us ‘pushing’ a number to you. If you signed up for an alert to inform you of large account debits or credits, any time there is a credit or debit for amounts of, say, P20,000 — that will come out in an SMS. So we push messages to you, based on what you want, and at the same time you can pull messages, again based on what you want.”

Citibank noticed that most of their customers carried mobile phones or gadgets with them, so they pushed the technology envelope to provide their customers with the utmost convenience, free of charge (“The only thing they pay for is the message they get back,” notes Fonacier).

Another high-tech feature of Two-Way SMS is the payment service: simply by texting, you can order prepaid Internet load (from Blast), prepaid mobile phone load (from Globe, Smart and Sun), flowers ( and food (Shakey’s and McDonald’s), and have it delivered wherever you want, say, a pizza or Happy Meal to your hungry child waiting at home.

Cardholders can also pay their bills for Globe postpaid plans.

“We are the first to offer this around the world,” says Melissa Henson, Citibank’s vice president for Consumer eBusiness. “In other countries they can do that on a debit card; we’re the first to offer it on a credit card. The Philippines is known as the text capital of the world — the whole country is fascinated with mobile phones and texting — so (our head office) is very, very supportive of what we’re doing. They know that the technology is here, the market is here and it’s very easy for people to adopt it.”

Citi Online, meanwhile, is another way to do your banking more conveniently. After logging in through a Dynamic Pin Pad (DPP), a special security feature that prevents people from capturing your keystrokes whenever you enter your PIN code, you are then greeted by a My Home page. Here, you can customize the services that you want to see on one page: choose from Account Summary, which allows quick and easy access to all information; Event Reminder, which notifies you on all your special occasions; Quick Links, which provides you with a shortcut to the functions you most frequently use on the site; and My Mailbox, which allows you to send and receive messages to and from Citibank customer service representatives. You can also view your statement online, transfer funds from one Citi account to another, and make payments (including recurring payments on a bill).

Of course, when you’re talking about financial transactions done through text or online, the issue of security is bound to come up. But there’s no reason for concern, according to Henson. “Since we have financial transactions on our website, we have enhanced the security on the site. Customers will find they are authenticated multiple times when they enter; it’s not just the first password, we also have security questions we have them set up when they first use the service so that we can doubly verify that it is, in fact, the customer who is logging on and accessing their financial info.”

With Citi Mobile and Citi Online providing such instant access and convenience, it looks to be the trend of the future. Or is it? “It takes a little bit of getting used to,” acknowledges Fonacier. “More people are used to going to the branch and making their transactions there, but once they’ve tried it, it’s just a matter of time before they find that they can’t do without it.”

Fonacier herself got hooked on the passing on of credit-card load: “Because I have a son and daughters who have cell phones, it’s so easy for me to pass on load. I only have to text and load is moved on to them. And the nice thing is, it’s charged to my card, so you earn rewards from it.”

Her son, who is now 21, got his first supplementary card from her when he was 18. “He pretty much keeps to his spend limit,” she says. “Another nice thing about Citi Card is we have a spend limit, so if you issue supplementary cards, you can assign a limit so you don’t expose the entire amount of your credit line. My son was first assigned to P5,000; he was able to manage that so I bumped it up to P10,000. He has to pay for it out of his allowance so it’s a good way to learn fiscal responsibility.”

Citibank, which was voted Outstanding Consumer Internet Bank by Global Finance in 2004, attributes its thriving business to a wide base of loyal customers who trust the way they provide wealth management and card services. For the Citi Mobile payment service, for instance, they’re hoping to grow their merchant partners to entice even more cardholders into using the service.

“This is a convenience we expect our more than one million cardholders in the country to embrace, and just a couple of weeks from launch, we are already seeing many users,” observes Aneth Ng-Lim, Citibank Philippines’ vice president for Public Relations and Communications. “Now you can just text and know whether you can confidently present your plastic.”

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Citi Card customers can provide or update their mobile phone information and enroll in Citi Mobile Payments by calling Citi’s 24-hour CitiPhone at 995-9999 (Metro Manila), 234-9999 (Cebu) or 1-800-10-995-9999 (toll-free through PLDT from other provinces).

For more details, visit