The Debt Panel: 'I can't return to the UAE and my debts are piling up'

The former resident has been stuck in Pakistan because of the Covid-19 travel restrictions and his banks are now threatening a travel ban and legal action

Steven Castelluccia / The National
Steven Castelluccia / The National

For a number of years, I maintained a good relationship with the banks that I have accounts with in the UAE and never missed my credit card repayments.

At the beginning of the movement restrictions in the UAE in March last year, I was on annual leave in my home country of Pakistan and was unable to travel back to the Emirates to resume my job.

In April 2020, I received a letter from my company informing me that my job had been terminated due to the global Covid-19 situation and travel restrictions.

Since then, I managed to pay a few instalments on my three credit cards, which are with three different banks. One credit card is fully paid off. Now, however, I have no money left to pay my remaining debts.

I have emailed the two banks several times to request that they put my monthly repayments and late charges on hold until I can return and clear my outstanding dues. It is important to me that I continue the good relationship that I have with my banks and avoid their threats of legal action or a travel ban.

However, the banks have ignored my emails and I cannot visit them in person. I remain unemployed in Pakistan, so currently have no means to start repaying my monthly instalments. I have eight dependents relying on me as the breadwinner of my family, including my father, who became paralysed in December 2019, and my mother, who lost her sight in March 2020.

I don’t know what to do anymore – can you help to guide me to find a solution? TA, Pakistan

Debt Panellist 1: Steve Cronin, founder of DeadSimpleSaving.com

Not paying off your credit card in full every month makes you vulnerable to unexpected events, which is exactly what happened here. Nobody could have predicted the pandemic, though you could have been fired anyway and found yourself in a similar situation. A credit card is not an appropriate tool for borrowing money and rolling the debt over from month to month – the interest rate is far too high.

Under the Central Bank of the UAE's Targeted Economic Support Scheme (Tess), you should have been entitled to an interest-free payment holiday of at least three months on presenting the banks with proof of job loss. In theory, this is still available but it may be hard to get your banks to grant it while you are out of the country.

Given you have been regular with your payments in the past and are being forthcoming with regards to your current situation, you may request them to defer the payment start date for your new loan by three months

R Sivaram, executive vice president and head of retail banking products at Emirates NBD

With annual interest rates of 40 per cent or more, your debt will be ballooning rapidly in the UAE. Try phoning the banks and insisting you are put through to someone who can discuss your debt with you. It may be an expensive call from overseas but otherwise you will make no progress. Be clear that they need to work constructively with you if they are to get the money back.

You may have to look beyond the UAE for work, to other GCC countries or further afield. It will be difficult for any UAE employer to bring you into the country on a visa if you have unpaid debts. Meanwhile, do whatever you can to bring in some income and focus on looking after your family. You will be able to earn more once the pandemic passes, even if this takes a while.

Are any of your dependents able to work? There are ways to earn small amounts of money online, such as taking surveys on prolific.co or freelancing on upwork.com. Think what skills you have that may translate into ways to earn money, even if it is outside your industry.

Debt panellist 2: R Sivaram, executive vice president and head of retail banking products at Emirates NBD

You have gone through some very unfortunate circumstances and I empathise with your situation. I would recommend that you inform both the banks of your current situation and request them to restructure your credit card debt into a loan.

The restructured loan will have a longer tenure with a lower and fixed interest rate, which would allow you to prevent your debt from ballooning because of the higher interest rates.

Given you have been regular with your payments in the past and are forthcoming with regards to your current situation, you may request them to defer the payment start date for your new loan by three months. This would hopefully give you sufficient time to find suitable employment to start servicing your debt.

I wish you the best of luck in finding suitable employment at the earliest and a speedy recovery for your family.

Debt panellist 3: Carol Glynn, founder of Conscious Finance Coaching

I’m sorry to hear you are facing such difficulties. It’s no doubt a very stressful situation to be in, but well done for continuing to communicate with the banks and not ignoring the issue. This will benefit you in the long run.

Have you tried calling them? Banks are often more responsive by phone and it’s easier to build a relationship with a manager or senior person who has the authority to make decisions and help you.

Having a relationship with a senior manager who understands your personal circumstances can help when facing issues such as yours, so ask to speak to someone senior, get their name and number and communicate directly with them as much as possible.

If you call and the bank continues to be unresponsive, I would recommend you write an email documenting your situation, your past good credit history and every attempt you made to communicate with the bank.

Submit the email through the bank's official complaints email address and ensure you keep a copy for your records. You could also request an online meeting, such as through the free Zoom platform, to discuss your situation.

The UAE Central Bank's guidelines allow the bank 30 days to respond and for a satisfactory resolution to be found. After this, if you are still unhappy with the bank’s lack of communication, you can raise a complaint with its Consumer Protection Department.

Lodging a complaint with the UAE Central Bank should be considered as a last resort as, ideally, you can work out a repayment plan with the bank directly, which will help you maintain the relationship you fostered before your current situation arose.

Regarding income, are there opportunities to earn money while you are in Pakistan? Any small contribution towards your debt will not only help reduce the compounding effect of fines and interest, but will also show a willingness to pay and may also help maintain a positive relationship with the bank.

Do you have any skills you could use to obtain freelance work? Common sources of additional or temporary income include website design, copywriting, admin assistance and consulting work, or even tutoring in a subject you are knowledgeable in. I see you are eager to return to the UAE to work but if there are part-time or temporary opportunities in Pakistan, I would recommend you seek them out so you can earn an income while you work on returning to the UAE.

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: May 6, 2021 11:48 AM

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