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Can I bank on the bank?

More than a decade ago, I was living in the nation’s capital. Navigating New Delhi’s traffic, dredging up my high school Hindi and coping with work and managing my own place was quite a juggling feat. In the middle of this, I got a call from my landlord gently chiding me for not paying the previous month’s rent. But I distinctly remembered writing the cheque and depositing it and so couldn’t fathom what had gone wrong. Anyhow, I promised him I would look into it and if needed pay double with the next cheque. My landlord, being a lovely person, was content with that promise. 

I promptly checked my account to find the cheque had been written and the amount debited. I then called the bank helpline to find that it had been deposited, but in the account of a Mr. Raman (not my landlord’s name!) in a completely different bank (landlord had an account with HDFC)! When I queried how that could be, the helpline person had no answer. Instead he tried to get me to invest my money with the bank. I did not know whether to laugh or cry! Here I was basically finding out that the bank had stolen/misplaced my money and they were wanting me to trust them with investing my money? 

Thanks to sound advice from a family friend, I wrote a letter to my bank demanding a copy of the instrument (i.e cheque) within 48 hours. I duly handed over the letter to my branch manager and asked for acknowledgement in the copy of the letter. This is always a good procedure because you don’t want the other party to claim they never received your letter/complaint! Another good tip I received was to be clear and concise with my demand, and ensure there is a timeframe mentioned.

The bank said they would share a copy of the cheque. (The  reason for asking this is to check if any changes were made on the cheque. Back then small corrections on a cheque could be made and you would have to countersign the correction but today no corrections are entertained on a cheque. In my case, after 2 days, I got a phone call informing me that the cheque had the name Mr. C (my landlord) scratched out and Mr. Raman added as recipient. This was a crossed cheque! And the bank details given at the back had been cut and new details entered. I was informed of this verbally, while the bank continued stalling and withholding  the copy of the cheque (which is my right as a consumer). Meanwhile, the bank manager kept advising that I take it up with HDFC. The fact that HDFC never received the cheque and so were not involved at all didn’t seem to sway him. The question was how had my bank cleared my cheque when blatant changes (in a different handwriting) had been made? It pointed clearly to some wrongdoing on their part. 

At this time I had had an accident and my leg was in a cast. So a few days later I hobbled into the bank, slapped my visiting card on the table of the person who I had been talking to all these days. She said, “Madam, we have your contact details. Thank you”. 

I said, “I know you do. I just want you to see what I do for a living and note that I will leverage that to publicise how you rob your own customers. Also you are harassing a person with a disability, albeit a temporary one. Finally, I do know there have been similar cases taken up with the RBI’s Ombudsman and the ruling was in the customer’s favour with a considerable penalty imposed. As a last resort, I am annoyed enough to go to consumer courts. This money is small change for you, but for me it’s one month’s rent and my hard earned money”. I walked out of the bank. Twenty-four hours later, the money was in my account. And what did I do for a living back then? I was a journalist (although it was for a magazine and not connected to any mainstream media!).

Nevertheless it was an experience understanding how the sector works and how they obfuscate and make it difficult for the consumer to demand their rights be upheld.

A more recent banking adventure was just two months ago when my bank (different bank from the previous story) here in Chennai tried to charge me for something that was their error. I have a joint account with my mother dating back to when I was a minor. It is an ‘either or survivor’ account which means either/both of us can operate the account. Though my mother has never operated the account, legally she can. Recently a payment needed to be made and since I was not available, I asked her to sign the cheque. She did and the cheque got returned because the signature did not match the specimen signature. To add insult to injury the bank charged me a fee for this - Rs 295. 

The first step is always to find out as much as one can informally. So after a couple of visits to the bank we understood that they had compared my mother’s signature to my specimen signature and unsurprisingly they didn’t match. They did not have a specimen signature of the joint holder! We then pointed out that it was not our oversight but the bank’s and therefore charging a fee was unfair. The bank hummed and hawed and promised to reverse charges but nothing happened for over a month in spite of repeated follow ups.

Finally, since I work in CAG, I approached CAG’s helpdesk. The advice, as always, was simple and valuable - write a formal letter and get an acknowledgement. I followed the same tips I mentioned earlier - gave all relevant details, made the demand clear and concise, and finally gave a timeframe within which the demand was  to be met. I sent this to my branch and to the customer grievance email ID provided. The response was complete silence. After another week of waiting, CAG wrote directly to the branch manager. Within 2 working days, the charges were reversed.

My takeaways from these experiences:

Do your research: Understanding one’s rights is crucial but make sure the source is a reliable one. While friends and family are a good starting point, find someone with experience in the relevant sector. Other than that, consumer protection groups like CAG are a great source of information. 

Documentation is key: Ensure you have relevant documents and put down the series of events clearly and concisely. Ideally try to get responses in writing - email or paper.

Don’t give up: A simple strategy that businesses follow is to ignore you or keep brushing off the complaint. Tenacity is half the battle won. Often when it's small amounts, it does not feel worth it to fight but imagine how many such cases the sector is getting away with.

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