Saturday, 23 October 2010

And Another Thing... Banking As Usual

Hi. You don’t know me, but I am one of the 2.5 million people currently unemployed in this country. I suspect that my story is little different from most anyone’s, except that the government QUANGO I was employed at was shutdown, not for economic reasons, but because the Department of Health decided that a badly managed, three tier complaints system would be better handled by abolishing the middle tier. That’s another story for another time.

I have applied for some jobs, done some temping to make ends meet, but even that seemed to have dried up and so I needed to claim Jobseekers Allowance. Due to the high volume of new claimants, it was two weeks before I was called to interview, and two weeks beyond that before I heard that my claim had been successful. And in the interim the fun started.

I called my credit card company, Halifax, a few days before I was due to make a payment and explained the situation to the guy at the call centre. He was very nice, but very well trained, and informed me that as my case had not yet been sent to the Debt Recovery Department, there was nothing he could do to put my account on hold and avoid incurring charges for late payments. He did put a note on the system, but I would have to default and someone would be in touch.

Halifax, it should be said, is part of the Bank of Scotland, which is a subsidiary of the Lloyds Banking Group. The British government now holds a 43% stake in Lloyds, following its receipt of a slice of the £37 billion government bailout arranged at the end of last year. As better people than me have already stated, the government could have given that money to the banks’ customers to help with their debts, while still stimulating the economy. The net result to the banks would have been negligibly different than the one the government actually chose. Instead, they handed it straight over and the banks put it in their back pockets. Funny that there’s always enough money for invasions and for bailouts, but never enough to reduce the biggest gap between rich and poor in Western Europe.

So the next thing that happened was that I received five automated phone calls from the Halifax in two days. The first one I hung up on, assuming it was a scam. Yet no matter what I did to disconnect the call, each time I pressed for an outside line, there was the same electronic voice carrying on regardless, an unstoppable machine, like Arnie in Terminator. She even managed to somehow leave a voicemail message, which signed off, “We will call again later.” I’d half expected to hear, “I’ll be back.”

A couple of hours later and she was back and I was bored, so I decided to indulge her. I followed the instructions, which didn’t ask for anything too personal, a multiple choice question about my date of birth, and agreed to make a payment within fourteen days. No problem.

Two days later and she called three more times. Exactly the same damm phone call, making the same damm request for payment. If I was merely flabbergasted before, now I was simply annoyed with her damm cheek and the cheek of the Halifax and Lloyds in general. So I agreed to make a completely different payment, forlorn in the hope that my paradoxical payment promises might cause her head to melt.

Then, finally, a call from a human being. Another nice guy, who was genuinely helpful. I expressed my unhappiness at the use of their automated phone calls, explaining that while I may not feel intimidated, I am not elderly, or of reduced faculties, persons for whom these calls could seem sinister. Moreover, after a standard of acceptability is established, however sleight, this leaves the vulnerable open to future scammers. If one automated call is ok, why not them all?

Joel Bakan, in his book and movie, ‘The Corporation’, presents his thesis on why corporations are essentially sociopathic in nature, valuing profits and the interests of their stakeholders over the good of the planet and the people living on it. Society has a duty to protect the vulnerable and this is a highly anti-social method of communication, granted not to the extent of an oil spill, but it all adds up. The guy sympathised, telling me that they’d only been told they were starting automated calling two weeks before commencement (although I‘ve seen comments on forums from 2007 that make reference to them. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt).

As I had had some money through in the meantime, I tried to make the necessary payment, at which point I discovered an even more irritating problem. The payment was declined and when I checked my account, I discovered that my overdraft hand been decreased by £260 with neither consultation nor information. Now, because I was a three year temp at my last job, I got paid weekly, had a lot of expenses at the time and was consequently never out of my overdraft. As I wasn’t making them enough profit, my bank, The Co-op, decided to start reducing my overdraft limit at the beginning of each month. I wouldn’t have minded so much if it hadn’t been the bank that sold me, with moderately aggressive insistence, a bigger overdraft increase than I’d wanted to take.

When I rang The Co-op I was informed that the six month agreement had come to an end, they don’t send out letters informing clients that this period is ending, and it is the customer’s responsibility to get in touch and renegotiate the terms of the agreement. This from the bank that writes to you every time someone scratches their arse at head office. I’d had three letters from them that week, all claiming to contain important information and every one of them a forest depleting dud.

Being unaware I was supposed to ring, they had made the reduction and charged me £40 in over-limit fees, for being three days overdrawn, although I did get half of this cancelled, as a ‘goodwill gesture’. Despite some arguing, it seems I was only entitled to £20 of goodwill. My overdraft was reinstated to its former glory, minus the £20 reduction. I was charged a further £20 in ‘administration fees’ for the privilege. Including the subscription fee I pay each month for the privilege of having an account (must be why they call it a Privilege Account), the Co-op made £104 from me in a little over a month. You can see now why they don’t notify the likes of me that our agreement is nearing its end.

A legal ruling last year declared that the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) had the power to cap the amount banks can charge their customers in over-limit fees and other ‘administration fees’. Eight banking groups had sought to censure the OFT’s powers through legal restriction. The OFT has stated that it believes that anything over £12 is excessive, but the appeals process is likely to drag on for some time. Despite this, most banks are now complying with the OFT’s directive. It may be an altruistic admission of defeat, or an attempt to induce amnesia, should they ultimately loose the legal battle. We will probably never know. The Co-op is one the few banks still persisting with excessive charging. What is it they know that Halifax, the Abbey and Natwest don’t?

This, as I tried to make the woman on the phone understand, is supposed to be, ‘The Ethical Bank’. What made me angry was that I hate advertising and yet I fell for that slogan. Maybe it would be more truthful to have the strap line, ‘The Co-op, more ethical than your average bank’. But then, when was advertising ever honest?

The Co-op girl was far from helpful. I have worked in call centres and have used what is known as the broken record technique many times (the technique by which you repeat the same thing over and over again to a tricky complainant until they get bored and go away), so maybe this was karma catching up with me. “Is there anything else I can help you with?” she said in that rising intonation that suggests you have succeeded in been helpful in the first place.

Look, I don’t wish to sound like I’m moaning, I am in relatively little debt, and while money may be tight for now, I am blessed with generous friends and family (Beggar that I am, I am even poor in thanks, but I thank you.). I am certainly a lot better off than many people in this country and in this world. What I am though is an aspiring writer and a student of life and wheresoever I find myself how can I not comment on the things which I observe? How can I not point out the absurdities I see in this increasingly topsy-turvy world?

The government made a very good show of calling the banks to task. Some practices that should have been illegal a long time ago have finally been outlawed, but ultimately the status quo has been preserved. It has been my observation that capitalism is the creative art of siphoning money to the rich from the poor, which I know makes me a wishy-washy, lefty-Liberal, but you know what? I’m ok with that. In a 'democracy', society is whatever we say it is. I offer the not too unreasonable suggestion that we should protect our vulnerable citizens from irresponsible practices like automated calls (literally, cold calling). Besides, we bailed out these people (our grandchildren will be paying for it) and yet I have not heard much in way of explanation of how this is all to be prevented from happening again. And after all that money, haven’t we purchased the right to at least speak to a human being whenever we like? I do most of my banking online, but when I want to speak to someone, when I proactively ring to try and come to an arrangement, shouldn’t I be able to speak to correct person, first time? Or am I just being unreasonable? You can tell me. I can take it.

I thought that if I wrote an article about my finances and how they relate to the global economy, some national paper might appreciate the irony and publish it for a small fee. After all, if I’m going to be paid for doing anything, it may as well be for something I’m good at and something I am passionate about. As for you, you can do something as well. Sign the online petitions listed below. If you bank with the Lloyds Banking Group, write to them to ask them to discontinue the practice of automated calling. You could also write to the Co-op, but then you would just be following my agenda. Whoever you bank with, write and ask them what measures they have taken to prevent another fiasco from happening, like the sub-prime mortgage meltdown. Change and progress are inevitable, yet they sometimes need a shove in the right direction. I am writing to my own banks and I shall ll let you know how I get on.

Customer Relations,
PO Box 548,

Dear Sirs,

Ok, I admit it, the other Thursday I spent two hours in the bath reading the rather excellent book, ‘Leviathan; Or the Whale’, but was it really necessary to leave me five automated messages on my answer phone during that time? Was it then necessary to leave another five the following day? I know I owe you money, I know I was late making my credit card payment, but doesn’t ten calls in twenty four hours strike you as overkill? And yes, I am aware that I was late with my payment last month too, when you rang me three times in one day. However, on that occasion I agreed to make a payment within fourteen days, yet still you rang me three more times two days later. If I fail to make a payment this month can I expect fifteen calls?

I wouldn’t mind, but I did actually go to the trouble of proactively ringing you before my payment was due to explain that I had been made redundant and was waiting for a Jobseeker’s Allowance claim to be processed. I was fobbed off, told there was nothing you could (would) do to come to an arrangement and that I would have to default and then someone would be in touch.

Now correct me if I’m wrong but aren’t the Halifax part of the Bank of Scotland, which is a subsidiary of the Lloyds Banking Group? Doesn’t the British government now own a 43% stake in Lloyds, following it’s receipt of a slice of the £37 billion national bailout arranged at the end of last year? Funny that when you mismanaged your finances, the government stepped in to underwrite your incompetence. I owe you £60 and suddenly that warrants electronic harassment. Our children will be paying for your financial mismanagement, if not our grandchildren, the least you could of done was write off your customers debt for a month as a act of appeasement. Instead, as I have titled an article on this issue, it’s ‘Banking as Usual’.

Joel Bakan, in his book and movie, ‘The Corporation’, presents his thesis on why corporations are essentially sociopathic in nature, valuing profits and the interests of their stakeholders over the good of the planet and the people living on it. I strongly object to your use of electronic calls (literally cold calling), because of their intimidatory nature and the effect they will have on your more vulnerable customers. I have worked for a number of years in NHS complaints and I can only imagine what effect these calls have on the elderly or mentally ill. Moreover, how can you ensure that using this form of communication will not leave those vulnerable customers open to exploitation by scammers? I appreciate that you do not ask for any personal information beyond a date a birth, but by using this method of communication a level of acceptability is established. If one automated phone call is ok, then why not them all?

I am not only a Halifax customer, but a member of the public. I and everyone else in this country bankrolled the incompetence of the Lloyds Banking Group. Your customers have at the very least bought the right to speak to a human being when required and not to be harassed and harangued by some electronic harpy. I have started a campaign calling for this anti-social practice to be banned. Moreover, its introduction (which I am told by one of your employees was introduced with two week’s notice to staff) is further evidence to support Joel Bakan’s theory. Your organisation seems to have learned little, if anything, from last year’s financial crisis and I would like to know what procedures you have put in place to prevent such catastrophic meltdowns in the future. I consider myself to be fairly well read with regards to current affairs, yet I am still to be convinced that you have taken adequate steps to address this problem. Certainly when your staff do not know how to resolve problems that are presented to them, it is hardly surprising that we’re in this mess.

As well as the general issues I have raised, I would appreciate answers to the following specific questions:

  • What is the rationale in using automated calling?
  • What action has been taken to ensure that customers are not bombarded with automated calls and vulnerable customers are given adequate protection?
  • How many automated calls are made to a customer before this triggers a call from a real employee?
  • Is there an option to opt out of this practice?  What action will you be putting in place to ensure that customers in financial difficulty can inform the right department first time and agree a payment scheme?
  • What measures has the Lloyds Banking Group put in place to ensure that the kind of financial mismanagement revealed last year (i.e. subprime lending and the buying of toxic assets) is avoided in future, which would, I assume, require further public investment?
  • As a 43% stakeholder, how much of your day to day business does the government oversee?

I look forward to a timely response.

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