When Susan first moved to Abu Dhabi to take up a post as a teacher in 2007, she hoped to build a nest egg for retirement.
Yet more than seven years on, Susan, who asked that her name be changed, faced about Dh700,000 of debt on one loan and four credit cards. Like many, she had become financially trapped by the lure of easy credit.
“I just got caught up in the life here,” says Susan, now 60, who earned Dh11,000 plus accommodation in her first job, a figure that rose to Dh20,000 following a promotion a few years later. “It wasn’t like I was driving Maseratis, but I was spending above my means - getting my nails done, taking the odd trip and just pouring money at my son, who was still living in Canada.”
Incredibly it took Susan just three years to pay what she owed. She returned home to Canada last week with Dh90,000 to her name.
To achieve this feat she took three banks she had credit card debt with - Dubai First, Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank (ADCB) and First Abu Dhabi Bank (FAB) - then First Gulf Bank - to Abu Dhabi Commerical Court over her sky-high credit card bills.
Susan represented herself in all three cases and while the court ruled in her favour in the cases against ADCB and FAB - wiping the debt and ordering the financial institutions to pay her a lump sum - she settled with Dubai First part way through the process.
ADCB said it did not "share any details or confidential information about existing or ex-customers". FAB and Dubai First declined to comment.
Diana Hamade, a lawyer and the founder of International Advocate Legal Services, says someone would be justified in taking a credit card debt case to court if they “produce evidence that the bank has misled him/her to make them look like they owed the bank a debt when they actually did not.”
In Susan’s case, she says the court ruled that the banks were charging interest on interest and that she was paying unreasonable amounts for credit insurance.
She now wants her story to be an example to others of how taking one or two credit cards can quickly spiral into an unmanageable situation.
"I want my case to give people hope – that they can approach the courts and ask for what’s fair," she says. "That’s all I asked for. I never thought I would get money let alone have it reduced to zero."
Michael Routledge, the founder of savememoney.ae, a website that advises people in chronic debt says the idea of taking a bank to court could be "a real game changer for a lot of people".
"If people have been mis-sold products then we could see a huge shift, ” says Mr Routledge. “The problem is that a lot of the people we deal with have zero financial knowledge, so they would not know that their debts are being mishandled. And with a lot of sub prime borrowers, as I call them, they don’t really care what the charges are they just want the credit.”
Susan says her finances started to falter shortly after arriving in Abu Dhabi when her then 18-year-old son’s mental health deteriorated. He suffers from chronic anxiety; one of her reasons for moving to the UAE was to encourage him to become more independent.
“His anxiety got worse and I brought him over for a while,” she says, adding the flights plus his medical expenses and the Dh8,000 a month she was giving him to fund his university studies started to mount up. “I started using credit cards to help me."
Susan signed up for her first credit card just eight months after she arrived in the UAE to rent a Nissan Tiida.
She quickly maxed it out and signed up for a second one 18 months later. By 2011, both cards were maxed out, the first from National Bank of Abu Dhabi at Dh10,000, which she later closed, and one from ADCB at Dh15,000.
“I’d be close to the maximum limit, and the bank would call and offer more credit and I’d give in and take it,” she says. “For the longest time I was able to keep it under control but then it got to the point where I was only paying the minimum.”
She later signed up for another card from FAB and another from Dubai First.
“I kept thinking 'I can keep this under control and pay them down' and I thought having the cards was a safety net,” she says. “When I was late on the payments, the banks would phone and demand a payment and then say 'listen we’ll raise your credit, you can take out the money and make the payment'. So I did that a few times and then of course you get into even more trouble."
With no backup savings in Canada — she had invested her pension in a scheme that was embezzled - Susan knew she was in trouble and took out a consolidation loan to control the situation. But she did not cut up her cards and the situation spiralled once again.
She started borrowing from one card to pay another. However, despite paying the minimum balance she noticed that one of her balances was still going up,
She approached lender Union National Bank for a consolidation loan of Dh350,000 over five years to pay down her debts. She also made the decision not to use the credit cards anymore but making the monthly payments was a challenge and she claims she received threatening letters from the bank.
“Some of the calls were vicious," she say. "‘Why have you got into this mess - you are Canadian', they’d say. ‘Why is a woman of your age in so much debt. You are stupid.’”
In desperation she turned to a banker she knew for advice.
“He told me the story of a woman that had taken the banks to court and had her payments reduced,” she says.
So in December 2014, Susan went to Abu Dhabi Commercial Court and filed cases against the three banks.
Each case required a court-appointed expert at a cost to Susan of Dh5,000 per expert.
At that point the teacher owed Dh655,000 on one loan and four credit cards: Dh325,000 to UNB, Dh160,000 to FAB, Dh70,000 to Dubai First, Dh50,000 to ADCB and another Dh50,000 to ADCB.
The Dubai First case was settled out of court after Susan had a car accident that left her with 10 broken ribs. When the police attended the hospital to speak to her, she says they revealed a cheque had been lodged by the lender over missed payments. To avoid jail, Dubai First agreed to make a settlement. Susan says that the bank's clerk demanded a Dh5,000 fee to speed the process.
"I paid him and he still didn't get it done in time and I ended up in jail for two nights," she says, adding that she was released when the bank agreed to accept Dh40,000 for the Dh70,000 debt. "Church friends gathered together and gave me the money out of love so that I could be released."
On the ADCB debts, the court ruled in October 2016 that the bank owed Susan Dh12,000. And on the FGB case, after several appeals the court ruled in May this year that the bank owed Susan Dh27,000. "They had applied charges costing Dh1,000 a month for a credit shield and interest on interest," says Susan.
“All the debts were wiped by the court. They were charging interest on interest and fees that they should not be allowed to including a high credit insurance," says Susan.
Ambareen Musa, the founder and chief executive of the financial comparison site Souqalmal.com, says customers are generally asked in advance if they want credit shield - a type of cover, sold as an extra with your card for a monthly fee, to protect against death or permanent disability - applied to their credit statements
"The amount applied is typically 0.5 per cent to 0.99 per cent of the monthly outstanding balance - each bank differs as the cover differs too so it is important to check that it is not being automatically put on your statement," says Ms Musa.
With her credit card debts resolved, Susan continued to make the Dh10,800 payments on her consolidation loan with UNB before clearing the outstanding balance with her Dh209,000 end of service gratuity when she returned to Canada last week.
“I learnt some valuable lessons,” she says. "The first was to have clearer financial parameters with my son, who is now 28 and working in Canada. The second was to say no to credit. It blows me away how I managed to get rid of all that debt. While a lot of it was reduced by the courts, I paid off the rest myself. When I was at the 95 per cent debt burden ratio levels, I had Dh2,000 a month to spend on grocery and fuel.”
So, what is her advice to others in her situation?
"Once you get your first consolidation loan, stop. They are just as addictive as the credit cards because you feel like you have paid. But if you don’t cancel your cards you will only build up more debt," she says. “At that point it’s time to pour a cold bucket of water over your head."