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Spam calls and Citibank

August 23, 2005 15:01 IST

Spam or junk mail is ubiquitous. But, so far as e-mail is concerned, you can at least set filters. Spam snail mail is also easy to handle.

A byproduct of liberalisation is that everything useful seems to come through courier services, while everything that comes through regular post is invariably junk.

Therefore, you can safely tear up the latter, without even bothering to read it. But I still don't know how to handle spam phone calls.

Caller IDs or contact lists aren't good enough, because there are always non-spam calls from people who aren't on such lists. Some variation of Murphy's or Sod's Law seems to apply to such spam calls. They always occur at the most inconvenient time possible.

For instance, on a landline, at three in the afternoon on a Sunday. And on a mobile, when you are in a meeting. Or worse, when you are in the bathroom. Mobile phones are more personal and less anonymous.

It therefore irritates me all the more when such spam calls occur on my cell phone. There are no mobile phone directories.

Therefore, you must have given your mobile phone number to someone, ignored the fine print that says that this information can be passed on, and that database has subsequently been sold to someone interested in tele-marketing.

I wonder how much marketing success such spam callers have. And I wonder whether companies realise how much irritation such unsolicited calls cause and turn off existing or prospective customers.

I have no idea whether the limited sample survey of unsolicited calls in our household is representative. But if you take a vote in our household today, the consensus will be that banks offering credit cards (or personal loans) are the worst culprits.

Three years ago, hotels offering assorted memberships were a close second. Such calls are rarer now, implying that they have finally given up on us or that the hotel industry is doing better.

And if you again take a vote in our household about which bank is the worst offender, the consensus will be Citibank. Standard Chartered, HDFC and ICICI will be a distant second. It has taken me two years to get out of Citibank's clutches.

I have learnt, the hard way, that it is best to have a credit card issued by the bank with which you have an account. That way, if there is a problem, the bank sorts it out for you. But, as I said, I learnt this the hard way.

I dispensed with pure Citibank cards a long time ago. But Citibank also has co-branded cards. And the last one that caused me several months of problems was a co-branded card with the India Habitat Centre. I didn't want the card.

This was also before the RBI issued guidelines saying that unsolicited cards shouldn't be sent. Although I didn't want the card, because the IHC was involved, I accepted the card when it was sent to me, but changed my mind later.

And my problems started. The card wouldn't get cancelled. I wasn't using the card. But I was being billed for annual charges and because I never got any bills, was defaulting on these charges.

Even when I finally cleared these charges, I was defaulting on interest. As a defaulter, there were several calls from Citibank. In particular, a lady named Shalini. Everyone in the household got to recognise Shalini's voice.

Not that Shalini could solve your problem. Because she was not from Customer Care. Not that anyone in Customer Care could solve your problem, either.

Because every time, you talked to a different person and each such person ended up feeding your cancellation request into the computer and nothing changed. You ended up paying Citibank even though you didn't use the card.

Eventually, the problem was solved and I was delighted when RBI guidelines surfaced. No more unwanted cards, no more unsolicited phone calls. I celebrated too soon. After these RBI guidelines were issued, I have now been sent a Citibank card, co-branded with Hutch.

True, the card wasn't activated and wouldn't be, unless you wanted it to. But why was I sent an unwanted card? I rung up CitiPhone. Not to activate the card, but to complain. And spoke to someone named Vaishali, who promised a letter of apology, which never materialised.

Quite independent of this card, I continue to get calls from Citibank, invariably on my mobile, offering assorted other cards. Reflecting the RBI guidelines, a brochure titled "Important Terms and Conditions" came with the Hutch co-branded card and states, "If you do not wish to receive any direct marketing or telecalling/telesales call from Citibank, please call 24-Hour CitiPhone and inform us."

I have tried that as well, but it doesn't work. I have visited Citibank's website, to try and seek if I can be taken off the tele-calling database. No such option. So much for the RBI's guidelines.

Personal grievances apart, the more important point is the one I mentioned earlier. Even if I want a financial product, thanks to these spam calls, I am unlikely to ever go to Citibank.
Bibek Debroy
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