Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 6 December 2020

The Debt Panel: 'I was detained by immigration after my bank failed to update its records'

The UAE resident was stranded in India for five months during the Covid-19 lockdown but quickly caught up on his loan repayments despite the bank ignoring his deferment requests

Mathew Kurian / The National
Mathew Kurian / The National

We have all been impacted in some way or other by Covid-19. Unfortunately, I was in India on holiday in March when all flights were halted because of the pandemic and was unable to fly back to the UAE until July 12.

Because I was taking a holiday less than 12 months after starting at my company, our HR department has a policy that means my salary was on hold until I returned to work. I was only meant to be away for two weeks.

I wrote to my bank to alert them about my situation and to request a payment deferment on my loan, but they did not respond. However, in July, the bank deposited my loan instalment cheque and it bounced.

When I was able to return to the UAE, my company released my salary and I made all outstanding payments to the bank on August 3. I was assured that everything was OK and the bank had cancelled my bounced cheque case.

But in September, I received a message from the police to present myself over the bounced cheque. I explained the situation to them and they suggested that I talk to the bank again to resolve the issue, otherwise I would have to pay the full outstanding amount owed on the loan, as well as the money I’d already paid in August to catch up on my monthly instalments.

I contacted the bank’s collections team and requested that they withdraw my case as my salary was being credited to my account. On September 13, I deposited my new cheques and was again assured by the bank that all legal action had been cancelled.

I also informed them that I had to travel on emergency medical leave for five days and didn’t want any problems when leaving the UAE. But I was detained by airport immigration overnight because the bank failed to update its system and withdraw the case against me.

To be released, I ended up having to pay Dh7,000 for the bounced cheque case that the bank told me it had cancelled. I have lost all the money that was supposed to pay for surgery and I had to go through the embarrassment and trauma of being detained at the airport even though I’d caught up on my payments and the loan deductions from my account were back to normal.

The bank’s collections team is ignoring my calls and emails regarding the matter. It is not my fault that they haven’t updated their system and I want them to compensate me for the money I’ve lost and to immediately cancel the travel block they have placed in my name. Can you advise me on how to do this? SM, Dubai

Debt panellist 1: Philip King, head of retail banking at Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank

It is very unfortunate that you have had to endure these difficulties during this challenging period. You have followed the correct steps by promptly communicating with your bank about the delayed travel back to the UAE and the freeze on your salary, as well as asking for a payment deferment.

In addition, you have demonstrated a clear sense of accountability for your finances by ensuring that you have made all your outstanding payments.

Throughout the Covid-19 period and in light of the exceptional circumstances that have affected many people’s finances, banks have been encouraged to practise leniency with their customers.

That said, your bank has not demonstrated adequate support or empathy to your situation. We urge you to proactively communicate your case again and escalate the matter to higher management if necessary. Provide them with written proof of their agreement to waiver the bounced cheque case and reiterate that even though you have suffered many unanticipated mishaps due to the pandemic, you still managed to meet your repayments.

In addition, highlight the extent of the emotional and financial inconveniences the travel ban has caused you, given you have a surgery to pay for.

If your bank remains unresponsive to your requests, we recommend that you approach the Consumer Protection Department of the Central Bank of the UAE, which works to protect consumers from unfair banking practices. When communicating with the Central Bank, ensure that you provide proof of your multiple disregarded correspondences with the bank, their agreement to waive the bounced cheque case, and all related paperwork. Your case will then be reviewed for misconduct of any breach of the law and hopefully you should receive a fair outcome.

Debt panellist 2: Ambareen Musa, founder and chief executive of Souqalmal.com

Since you've already been going back and forth with the lender, which still hasn't updated your repayment records, it is best to take the formal route of complaint resolution. You can lodge a complaint with the Central Bank, informing the regulator of the inconvenience and financial loss you have faced due to the bank's failure to withdraw the police case and subsequent travel ban placed against you.

If you don't make any headway with this complaint mechanism, you could also seek legal guidance to help you approach the lender and have your grievances acknowledged. Make sure you retain proof of all communication with the bank and its collection department.

You can also make a complaint with the Central Bank's Consumer Protection Department if you’re unable to find a solution with your bank, or your matter has been pending with the bank for more than 15 working days

Stuart Ritchie, AES International

If hiring legal help is beyond your means during these trying times, you could also seek pro-bono legal advice. Both Dubai Courts and the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department offer free legal consultation services to individuals who cannot afford judicial fees. Alternatively, you can also reach out to the Consulate General of India in Dubai to seek legal advice on how best to tackle your current deadlock with the bank.

Ultimately, this whole issue seems to have been a result of mishandled communication and operational lags at the bank in question. If you have written proof of the bank assuring you that the bounced cheque complaint had been withdrawn and any subsequent legal action had been dismissed, you can use this to support your case.

And a word of caution for the future: Never rely on verbal assurances from bank representatives or collection agents. You should always obtain every agreement between you and the bank in black and white.

Stuart Ritchie, chartered financial planner at AES International

You need to register a formal complaint with your bank if you wish to pursue compensation. To do so, however, they will require all the information regarding your case. Gather all the correspondence you have had with the bank about the loan, as well as repayment statements to show the amounts and dates you made these.

You may find that visiting your bank branch will give you the opportunity to explain to a member of staff. They may be able to help you speak to the correct person, rather than you trying to connect by telephone.

You can also make a complaint with the Central Bank's Consumer Protection Department if you’re unable to find a solution with your bank, or your matter has been pending with the bank for more than 15 working days. You can file your complaint via the Central Bank's website.

The Central Bank is currently developing the Financial Consumer Protection Regulatory Framework, which establishes set time frames in the processing of complaints that banks must comply with, as well as requiring them to provide clear reasons, in writing, as to their decision on the complaint matter.

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: October 27, 2020 10:26 PM

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