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Our banks & us: We need financial ombudsman service

By Helen Ovbiagele, Woman Editor
CASE ONE:   A young lady was in tears when she couldn’t withdraw a desperately needed twenty thousand naira with her ATM card. The till said she had only one thousand naira left in her account.

She almost fainted!  She had all the money she’s been saving for over ten years in that account, and she had never withdrawn any big money.  She went into the banking hall of that branch. They checked and told her that she indeed had one thousand naira left.

Where had the almost half a million in the account gone?  She was advised to go to her own branch where the account was.  She did and it was confirmed there that only one thousand naira was left in the account.  She asked for a printout of ATM withdrawals made  on it.

She discovered that in a day the previous week, a little over three hundred thousand naira was withdrawn at different points all over Lagos Island and Mainland.  The next day, almost a hundred thousand naira, the same way. How could that have happened?

Isn’t there a ceiling to the amount of money you can withdraw in a day, using your ATM card?

Apparently there is.  Someone told me it’s forty thousand naira. Why did her bank allow the incidents to happen? They refused to accept liability, saying she must have withdrawn the money herself.  But she hadn’t, and the card had never left her possession.

“If I wanted to make all those withdrawals, (which I never did), should the banks have allowed it; granted the ceiling placed on withdrawals in a single day?” she asked.

“Shouldn’t the bank have got suspicious about the invasion of withdrawals from various points all over Lagos on a particular day, and stopped the withdrawals at a point?”

Her bank wasn’t buying that. It took the intervention of an accounting professional before that bank agreed to investigate the matter, while still rejecting any responsibility for the theft of the poor lady’s life savings.  She’s waiting for results.

CASE TWO: It was month-end. Mrs. C, a middle-aged teacher in a private school, went to her bank to withdraw some money. “Madam, er, I’m sorry, the money left in your account cannot carry this cheque,” said the cashier. “I don’t understand.  Surely my salary is in now.

Why is money short in my account?” “Please ma, go behind and ask the operating officer.  They will get out the print out and explain to you.” In the print out of her credits and debits, Mrs.C  found that her salary had been paid in, but there had been some ‘strange’ deductions as bank charges. “What’s this?

Why was forty thousand naira taken from my account?  C.O.T?  What’s C.O.T” “Madam, that means cost of transaction.” “Cost of transaction?  What transaction?  I don’t run a business. I’m only a salaried teacher.  Did you deduct forty thousand naira from my meager salary for handling my salary?

I’ve been having my salary paid into this only account that I have, for almost twenty years. Nothing has been deducted so high for doing this.  How much do I earn that you should take forty thousand naira for anything as bank charges?” The officer looked puzzled herself.

She beckoned to another colleague and they tried to unravel the mystery.  After more than an hour they said she was charged for changing from one bank investment certificate transaction to another.   She told me she almost screamed down the place.

“How can you charge  for that when you already take tax, and anyway, the money is still here with you, not sent to another bank.  Besides, for such meagre savings, would you charge so high?”

She was told to write the branch manager a letter, protesting the ‘illegal’ deductions, since the money didn’t actually leave that bank. I don’t know the outcome of this yet. I must say these two incidents shook further, my faith in our banks.

It appears they take our money anyhow just because many of us don’t really understand what’s legal for our banks to charge, and what’s not.

I think banks should display in their banking hall, their charges, so that we have the option of either entrusting our money to them, or wrapping it up and burying it in the ground somewhere, or, fritter it away to prevent the banks enriching themselves at our expense.

Those with big money may never feel the pinch, but what about the majority of us who have to watch our money like hawks? We need a monitoring body like the financial ombudsman service (of the U.K.) to fight for our rights for us, and rescue us from the highhandedness of some  banks.

CASE THREE:   This took place in the United Kingdom. An elderly ‘auntie’ who lived and worked many years in Britain, kept open her account in her usual bank there, so that the little annual U.K. pension she’s entitled to can be paid in.  She’s had the account for over forty years.

Then the bombshell. When she visited last year and went to withdraw some money, she was shocked to be told that her account was zero and she had even overdrawn by five pounds before she rang to close down the account.  Also, she was alleged to have verbally told them of a change of address in London.

She said she was so visibly shaken that she thought she would pass on. She stoutly denied withdrawing money from her account or asking for it to be closed.

They didn’t believe her.  Since banking activities are now centralized, she was asked to write to their head office in Scotland.  She did this and there began a stream of correspondence when she returned to Nigeria.

The amazing thing is that she got replies to her letters.  After some months, she was told that after a ‘thorough’ investigation, they discovered that she was the one who withdrew all the money and closed the account.

They said they were unwilling to continue to dwell on the matter and considered it a closed issue. However, they said if she wasn’t satisfied with their verdict, she could appeal to the financial ombudsman service, and they enclosed forms she could fill for the purpose.

When she showed the forms to her children, they were impressed that her bank could give her that option, but there were so many detailed information and documents to be supplied and mailed that they told her to forget it. The money was gone, and anyway, it wasn’t a fortune.

All she had to do was ask that her pension be sent directly to her here. Auntie refused to give up, and for several months she assembled all the documents on her connection with the bank; cheque stubs, statements, correspondence,  etc. and a letter of protest at the way they dismissed her as a liar.

“My dear, it’s a matter of clearing my name, that I’m not a fraud,” she told me whenever I tried to urge her to give up.

“Just because I’m Nigerian, they can’t assume that I’m a thief and a liar!  At my age! No way.  The money involved is very little, but it’s a case of my honour.”

She mailed the huge envelope at great cost to the Ombudsman.  They acknowledged receipt, and rang her up to confirm her identity.

Five months later, they rang her up to say they had investigated her case and had advised her bank, not only to restore her money and re-open the account, but to give her fifty pounds as compensation, for not believing her. We all jumped for joy.

She wrote back, thanking all concerned. Can we get such attention and service here? No, despite all the intelligent and highly qualified professionals we have in the financial industry in the  country.


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