The Debt Panel: 'I lost my life savings to a fraudster while I was sleeping'

The Dubai resident woke up to find $14,430 missing from his account and reported it to the police, but his bank has refused to reimburse him

Nick Donaldson / Getty

In November last year, I woke up to find two messages on my mobile phone that were sent by my bank. One of the messages was a one-time password number and the other informed me that Dh53,000 ($14,431) had been deducted from my account. The transaction was carried out from Baku, Azerbaijan.

The money that had been taken was my life savings. I immediately contacted my bank, the police and the Central Bank of the UAE to inform them that my money had been stolen without my knowledge.

The police investigated my case and gave me a letter detailing the incident, which I then gave to the bank for its investigation into the matter.

However, the bank told me that it was a secured, authorised transaction and it was not responsible for my money disappearing. I don’t understand how this happened as I did not give the OTP to anybody and it happened while I was sleeping.

I have since lodged a complaint with the bank as I am unhappy with their decision. I have also made a formal complaint with the central bank.

I don’t know what to do to get my money back. It is all I have and nobody is helping me. Aside from lodging official complaints, which I have done, what else can I do to get my bank to investigate the matter and reimburse my life savings? MA, Dubai

Debt panellist 1: Sameh Awadallah, acting global head of retail banking at Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank

Sadly, you are not alone in what is becoming an increasingly common kind of fraud, both in the Gulf region and around the world.

While OTPs remain an incredibly safe way to carry out transactions, there are several ways in which criminals are succeeding in deceiving people into sharing them — either through pretending to be calling from your bank or by using malware.

It is important to remember that no bank will ever call you to ask for an OTP or your account password.

If you were asleep when this happened, it might be spyware or malware that enabled the fraudsters to hack into your phone to access the OTP sent to your device.

If your bank has refused to help you, you may be protected under the central bank's Consumer Protection Department, which has been created to help people resolve any disputes they may have with a bank or other financial organisation.

Many banks use dual-factor authentication, which requires you to log on to your bank account using your username and password.

This serves as the first layer of protection. An OTP cannot be generated without that first step being taken as it acts as the second layer of security.

Therefore, it is possible that the fraudsters who appear to have hacked into your phone will also have gained access to your banking username and password, either through malware or by you mistakenly disclosing your details.

If you have not done so already, you would be well advised to change all your online passwords and usernames.

Debt panellist 2: Jaya Ratnani, managing partner at Freed Financial Services

The rise of online banking comes with many benefits but they also raise privacy and security concerns, which have led to an increase in fraudulent cases.

However, banks are constantly updating their technology and authentication processes.

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It is possible that the fraudsters who appear to have hacked into your phone will also have gained access to your banking username and password, either through malware or by you mistakenly disclosing your details
Sameh Awadallah, acting global head of retail banking at Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank

To ensure your online transactions are secure, it is important to follow a number of steps:

  • Keep the banking app updated
  • Avoid using public Wi-Fi networks
  • Enable two-factor authentication
  • Be wary of phishing scams
  • Never share the OTP

When a fraud incident takes place, it is vital to alert the bank immediately, change your passwords, fill out the dispute form and file a police report — all of which you have rightfully done.

However, in your case, if the bank has declined your request, it means that the OTP was verified for the transaction to be secured.

Banks can retrieve the proof that an OTP was used through their systems. In such cases, any compensation or insurance claim is not usually approved by the bank.

However, you can continue to approach the central bank or get a written confirmation from the police and file a case in court, along with the corresponding evidence.

Debt panellist 3: Alison Soltani, founder of Leap Savvy Savers

I am sorry that you are going through this and can only imagine the pain caused by having such a large amount of money stolen from your account.

As mentioned, you have already raised a complaint with the police, your bank and the central bank, which means you have taken most of the steps to recover your stolen money.

My advice would be to contact the police again and explain what has happened since your previous report to see if there is any further support they can offer you.

You could also keep following up with the central bank through its website, by visiting its office in Abu Dhabi or calling 800 22 823.

It will be obliged to investigate your case, and I recommend that you request specific timelines and outcomes so that you know when to expect updates and a potential resolution.

Be aware that the investigation may be a lengthy process — some investigations into fraudulent bank activity can take from 120 to 180 days.

If the bank is not at fault, the card issuer — usually Visa or MasterCard — may have to investigate which specific merchant was responsible for the transaction before refunding the money.

Your final option is to seek legal advice. If you do not have the financial means to do this, you could reach out to Facebook groups and bloggers in the UAE to check if there are any lawyers who may be willing to take on your case for a reduced fee or offer you a free consultation.

Unfortunately, financial scams have become very sophisticated in recent times and it is becoming increasingly more difficult to track and recover stolen money.

I am aware that this won’t help your current situation. However, it is always advisable to spread money out over several financial institutions and keep some offshore.

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If the bank is not at fault, the card issuer — usually Visa or MasterCard — may have to investigate which specific merchant was responsible for the transaction before refunding the money
Alison Soltani, founder of Leap Savvy Savers

This way, if you become the victim of fraudulent activity, the perpetrator will not be able to access your life savings.

Additionally, try to use credit cards and cash for all of your financial transactions as recovering stolen money from credit cards is an easier process and you are at a much lower risk of your savings being stolen.

Finally, never save your card details on any websites, change passwords regularly and clear cookies and history from your devices frequently.

You have already taken reasonable steps to recover your money and, while I would continue contacting the relevant authorities to pursue your case, it may be worth directing some energy and effort into building your savings pot again, but this time, taking necessary precautions to protect your hard-earned cash.

I wish you the very best of luck.

The Debt Panel is a weekly column to help readers tackle their debts more effectively. If you have a question for the panel, write to pf@thenational.ae

Updated: March 30, 2022, 5:00 AM
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