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How To Make Banks Treat Customers Fairly

April 10, 2023 09:59 IST

Nobody is held accountable for lapses, no matter how badly it affects the person or business whose accounts are frozen.
Nor is there compensation for losses.
Most people get to know their accounts are blocked only when a cheque bounces, points out Debashis Basu.

Photograph: PTI Photo

About the worst experiences we have as consumers are with banks and financial services.

False promises in equity and insurance investment schemes, harmful outcomes of traditional insurance products, and getting locked into products you cannot get out are routine, as is mis-selling by agents and distributors.

The reasons for such horrible experiences are two-fold.

One, most of these are non-standard products or services.

For a bar of soap, production and benefit features can be standardised; so all bars will do the job of cleaning.

Not so for financial services, where some products will work for some customers and will not work for others, especially when it comes to market-linked products.

The second reason is poor regulatory enforcement, especially for banking and insurance services.

The Reserve Bank of India's regulatory philosophy is to issue guidelines and create a process of grievance redress.

It is not too interested in finding out how these guidelines and processes work on the ground. Consider the following:


Indiscriminate freezing of accounts

Banks are quick to freeze savings and current accounts without proper warning and notice, merely for a delay in updating KYC.

On paper, the RBI requires at least three notices to be sent to customers before initiating any coercive action.

Yet, in innumerable cases, including the freezing of my accounts, the bank was sloppy about sending notices.

Even though account freezing causes enormous harassment and embarrassment, there is zero accountability or punishment for banks that have not followed the rules.

India boasts being a tech superpower.

Our payment systems are the envy of the world.

Banks are using technology to target customers with third-party products.

And yet, the RBI is shy of checking the digital footprint of KYC updation notices sent to customers that ought to be available with each bank.

A centralised process under core banking generates notices, which are then expected to be sent by the branch.

In my case, while notices were generated at the centralised level, the branch did not bother to send them.

Banks are not asked to produce proof of having sent email/SMS notices to update KYC before freezing accounts and depriving people of their own hard-earned money entrusted with the bank.

Nobody is held accountable for lapses, no matter how badly it affects the person or business whose accounts are frozen.

Nor is there compensation for losses. Most people get to know their accounts are blocked only when a cheque bounces.

Lost or misplaced documents

The Moneylife Foundation has come across many cases where banks and finance companies cause permanent damage to the value of properties by losing all or part of the chain of documents kept in their custody against loans.

These include business loans as well as home loans.

If the chain of property documents is not complete, the loss of value is permanent.

Other banks also do not accept such defective documentation while granting loans.

Yet, the bank or finance company responsible for causing the loss is simply not asked to compensate customers, even when they admit that it is their fault.

Often, banks do not admit any fault.

We know of one customer who was asked to go to the bank's warehouse where documents were stored and hunt for the papers himself!

In another case, a top bank is unable to complete the police procedure required to obtain a certified true copy and complete the chain of documents.

Meanwhile, this customer is unable to sell his property.

Once again, how hard is it for the RBI to issue standard operating procedures (SOPs) on dealing with lost/misplaced documents, which covers all eventualities, including compensation to victims?

Nomination and transmission issues

The absence of SOPs is acutely felt in the area of nomination and transmission, where each bank, finance company, and even individual branch make their own rules.

The RBI's circular says that banks need to take necessary precautions while transferring account proceeds of deceased customers to their nominees, but cannot make superfluous and unwarranted demands such as seeking bonds, indemnities, and sureties from them. This continues to be ignored.

Bank lockers

The RBI recently asked banks to sign stamp-paper agreements with customers for opening bank lockers.

In the absence of SOPs, there is no standardisation on the value of stamp paper either.

Clear guidelines need to be issued and it should be mandatory to provide customers with a copy of the agreement.

In a digital world, it should be very simple to make a scanned copy available and also keep it on the customers' records for easy access.

How to fix this

It is easy to eliminate this hardship inflicted on consumers if our regulators change their regulatory philosophy.

The current attitude of the RBI is benign and distant.

It issues edicts and rules, but does not bother to check how they impact customers.

What is needed are two simple steps. As far as possible, issue SOPs for all aspects of banking operations so that there is no scope for banks, especially branch officials, to interpret them, impose conditions, or arm-twist customers to meet sales targets.

Second, initiate punitive action and compensation for customers when the bank is at fault.

If both banks and bank officials are personally liable for steep fines and damages, they will automatically exercise due care.

Unfortunately, for some strange reason, all adjudicating authorities (regulators, tribunals, and courts) in India are extremely coy about imposing punitive damages.

In the absence of punitive damages, there will be no serious improvement in customer service.

Debashis Basu is editor of and a trustee of the Moneylife Foundation.

Debashis Basu
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