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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nickname Is a Drain on Credit and Creditability

The telephone rang on my desk. It was Alexander Knaster, the chief executive of Alfa Bank, Russia's largest commercial bank.

It was early 2000. I had written a profile of the bank, and it had recently appeared in a business magazine.

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I had interviewed Knaster, a soft-spoken American citizen of Russian heritage, in his office for the article. He spoke with long pauses, as though chewing through each thought before spitting it out. He lavished praise on the bank like a father boasts about his child. He refused to talk about his own family.

In the interview, Knaster touted Alfa's stability and emphasis on customer service. He spoke of the bank's drive to adopt Western standards.

Now he was on the phone to say he liked the profile.

"I called to thank you for the article," he told me. "I owe you one."

Two years later, I decided to try to take Knaster up on his offer for a favor.

A medical emergency came up requiring several thousand dollars. My credit card didn't permit large ATM withdrawals, so I had to go directly to a bank teller. I went to Alfa Bank.

Late in the afternoon, I rushed into an Alfa office and offered my Visa card to a bespectacled, middle-aged clerk. She asked for my passport.

After comparing the credit card with the passport, she looked up and firmly shook her head. The problem: My passport read Andrew Robert McChesney, and the credit card read Andy R. McChesney.

"Andy is the nickname for Andrew," I said.

She shook her head again.

I explained that in more than six years I had never had a problem with the card being accepted in Moscow. Bank Moskvy and Raiffeisenbank had never said a word about my nickname. The somewhat-Soviet Sberbank also took the card. (But on another trip a teller emphatically refused to touch my presorted collection of spare change. She said the coins would take her longer to count than the three years it took me to collect them.)

An Impexbank teller once not only accepted the card but identified me only as Andrew Robert in the paperwork.

The Alfa teller was not impressed.

I offered further documentation of my identity and suggested that she compare my signature with that on the card.

She refused.

I was out of luck. It was after 5 p.m., and other nearby banks were closed. I had to get back to work.

The first thing I did back at the office was fish Knaster's business card out of my desk and send him an e-mail. I asked for that old favor in the form of an explanation. Why had the bank turned down my card?

Knaster's secretary responded by e-mail a month later, saying her boss had been on vacation. She said he would look into the matter.

Within an hour of receiving the e-mail, my phone rang. It was Alfa Bank's deputy chairman, and he promised to get to the bottom of the matter.

Months passed. Curiosity and the need for some money led me back to Alfa Bank. I tried a different branch. The resounding rejection was the same.

Andrew McChesney is deputy editor of The Moscow Times.