He arrives to the meeting in a modest foreign-made car and stops right on a zebra crossing. Instead of a hunk with shifty eyes and an intense look, I see a stout man who looks more like a scientist than a money changer. Alexey’s regular customer and my old friend persuaded Alexey to come to the meeting.
"Only out of respect to N.N.," he repeats. "If someone recognizes me, I am lost. I will not be able to earn money anywhere, albeit legal or illegal business."
We had to change his name and refuse from taking a photo even from the back. We did not mention the make of the car, his nicknames and biography details, either.
Alexey (name changed) looks around 60; he was born and lives in Kharkov. He was involved in the exchange business in 1993.
"I was on vacation when my friend suggested to earn a little money. I took my salary – 80 coupons – and exchanged it into roubles. Then again into roubles and again into coupons. I already had 160 coupons at the end of the day."
He worked in the wild (street) market until 1995. He used to stand near department stores, metro exits, markets, exchange stands, and the railway station.
"The most popular place with the money changers remains the entrance to the central market in front of the Department of Internal Affairs, the so-called "hood".
He had to get involved in the exchange business in early 2014.
"I was reduced from January 1. The question was how we could survive. It was then that currency transactions went into shadow – it was an opportunity to earn some money."
He is married and father to three adult children. His pension is UAH 1600. Extra earnings thanks to exchange transaction reach 500 dollars a month.
"USD 600 for two people is not very much when your wife is approaching the retirement age and is unemployed. It is enough for food, medicine and second-hand clothes."
He drives a used foreign-made car. He says children helped him with it.
I got involved in the exchange business to feed my family. Neither my wife who worked at a factory nor me received the salary in 1993.
The youngest moneychangers I knew was 15 years old. He came to a bad end – he was broken both legs. The oldest one was 80 years old. He goes "to work" on a cheap car once a week. It is a kind of amusement for him.
I remember working near a clothing market – some hunks came and tried to put the squeeze on us. A fight broke out. One guy was beaten badly, his coat got torn. We were good friends then – we clubbed together and bought him a new coat.
When exchange in the street was flourishing, there were raids about once a week. Police cars came and took everybody to the local police department. I was taken once – I did not have anything then, I said that I was finding out the rate. They let me go. One young woman started cracking jokes so she had individual inspection.
Each encounter with the police means money. Either all the money was taken away or a rate was given. Nobody bargained. There was a funny incident when all money changer from the municipal market were detained, including a mother of many children who had to earn living for six children and a disabled husband. The policeman said to me: "You are a newcomer so you must pay one thousand, and how many children do you have?" She said six. "Then you must pay 6000."
Two changers whom I knew were robbed and killed in the 1990s. One went to Moscow and never returned. The other one was found in a wood. There was a case when a guy got jabbed in the stomach with a fork; he spent six months in hospital, and then he had to change his profession.
In the 1990s, I regularly came across counterfeit banknotes. Eventually, I started feeling dollars, whether they are genuine or not. There were cases when someone tried to give me counterfeit notes or give less than expected. Once I realized it, but there was no way out – I was surrounded by Gypsies. I exchanged money and then went to our common friends to get it clear.
Safety rules while working in the street are simple: do not go to a driveway, do not get into a car with strangers. First take money, then give yours. I have never thought about a gun. I will not have enough time to use it anyway.
Today, there is only one place where currency is exchanged in the broad daylight – near the central market, right opposite the City Police Department.
I returned to the exchange business when my friends called me. People need dollars and it is impossible to buy them anywhere. One call, another one, then a third one. The official exchange rate was relatively small – 9-9.5, but foreign currency was not sold at exchange offices. I decided to earn some extra money. The risk is minimal. I exchange money only for the friends or upon their recommendations. Sometimes in the car, sometimes at the client’s home.
I find out the exchange rate at the exchange offices. Then it is a matter of creativity. In order to attract customers, black money-changers reduce the margin (the difference between the buying and selling rates), and set the dollar to hryvnia rate at 19/20, not 19/21, for example. The greater the amount the lower the margin.
Today, the real exchange rate of the dollar is 19.15 for selling and 19.25 for buying. It is so in the wholesale exchange market. Retail rates for USD 100 will be 1900 hryvnia at most. Exchange offices will not buy for more than 18.50 even from their acquaintances.
People rarely agree at once. Frequently, they call 10 times call, find out the rate and make the exchange only from the 11th attempt.
The money changer’s code is simple – do not fool the customer. If you have agreed on a rate you are obliged to exchange for the set rate while the customer drives to the meeting no matter how the rate has changed.
Maximum weekly earnings is $ 1000 – it was in 1997. Now, it does not make more than USD 200. I am a lazy money changer, it is extra earning for me, I have no more than ten loyal customers. Those who are engaged in exchange business round the clock and increase the customer database have hundreds of clients.
The largest amount I have exchanged was 110 thousand euros. A person took a credit, but he needed dollars for his business. Where did I have 160 000 from? I did not have it, but there were exchange offices. I went there and exchanged this sum of money.
I keep money in my pockets, the most reliable was is to keep it in inner pockets in a jacket or a coat. I also have a wallet, but I keep it at home as a souvenir. It is very dangerous to keep money in handbags. There are swindlers who prey specifically for handbags. My friend was stolen a handbag three meters away from the police department. When I have much money, I take it in an ordinary plastic bag.
I "work" occasionally, but I should be ready at any time. I always keep about 2 thousand dollars.
Money changers deal with small amounts - USD 100 to 200, rarely 500. The lion's share of foreign currency are exchange at exchange offices. The average daily turnover amounts to 20-30 thousand dollars.
If I could understand what determines the rate, I would be a millionaire. There are global factors - war in the east, Western financial aid, and elections. Or statements of NBU (National Bank of Ukraine) officials. If they say that the hryvnia will be stable, it means that it will get cheaper. But everybody knows it. And there are invisible factors, and only the chosen ones are aware of them. Or there are governmental decisions that are impossible to predict.
If you want to sell dollars at the black rate, you should be polite and unobtrusive at exchange offices, "Please, tell me, could you call your boss? What is the maximum rate he can buy my dollars?" Or: "Excuse me, I'm in a foreign city. We exchange money this way in Lviv..." You can call me, I will tell you where to go, and they will exchange everything at a normal rate.
Today, my clients are decent people and they recommend the likes. When I worked in the wild market, everything could happen there. Someone could snatch the money and run away. No matter whether you stand together with two or three people.
After the National Bank prohibited the banks to sell gold, clandestine market re-emerged (from October 4, 2014, the NBU prohibited buying precious metals in the amount of more than UAH 3 thousand under Resolution No. 626. – Gordon). It means that black trade in precious metals is flourishing, too.
There has never been an internal conflict because of violation of the law. I violate it much less than the majority of heads and deputies. I have not cheated or robbed anybody. I had a rich friend, a multimillionaire. There was an inscription in his office reading, "If you have no money, you are a criminal." Everyone must have money.