The Debt Panel: 'It's been two years and my bank has still not acted on a scammer who raided my account'

Despite constant follow-ups, the Al Ain resident had to take out a loan to cover the loss and has now lost his job due to the pandemic

In March 2019, I became the victim of a bank fraud scam and Dh43,000 was stolen from my credit card and savings account. I notified my bank immediately and had the credit card blocked. I also reported the crime to the police an hour or so after my account was raided by the scammers.

In the meantime, I had to take out a new loan to cover the money that was stolen from the credit card, as well as the fees and interest the bank charged me, which quickly ballooned to nearly Dh60,000.

I was paying Dh7,000 a month in instalments and more than Dh1,000 in penalty fees associated with the amount that was stolen. However, it became difficult to keep up with the payments on top of our other monthly expenses.

I ended up applying for a top-up loan of Dh160,000 to consolidate my debt and pay off the balance of the amount that was stolen to avoid the penalty fees. My monthly payments were reduced to Dh4,500 a month and I left the remainder in my account for an emergency fund.

However, I lost my job in July 2020 when my contract was not renewed. I continued to make the monthly instalments on the loan for as long as I could. But when my end-of-service gratuity of Dh75,000 was transferred into my account, the bank immediately froze it and I was unable to access the funds. My credit card was also deactivated without notification.

When I visited the bank branch, they said my gratuity was frozen because I no longer had a salary and if I wanted it released, then I would have to provide documentation from my new employer, along with a salary transfer letter and salary certificate.

I used up the remainder of my savings to take out a trade licence with a free zone company to provide the bank with the documentation, but they then told me that the type of company I set up was not eligible and they couldn’t release my gratuity. I also lodged a complaint with the Central Bank of the UAE, but was told they did not handle fraud cases.

I am now out of options and have exhausted my funds. I have two small children and a wife to support, with no job prospects in the middle of a pandemic. It has almost been two years and I have not received a single call, email or letter from my bank regarding this case despite following up constantly. Can you advise me on what I should do? Is it possible to lodge a new complaint with the Central Bank of the UAE? QR, Al Ain

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

Understandably, this is a very difficult position to be in and we are sorry to hear about your job loss. Unfortunately, the pandemic continues to heavily impact many individuals and families, leaving them with unanticipated financial burdens.

However, you acted in an appropriate and swift manner by contacting your bank and the police about your fraud case. It is also great to see that you maintained your commitment to repaying your debt in a timely manner, which will help you when negotiating with your bank.

For your end-of-service gratuity, you will need to refer to the terms and conditions of your loan agreement for more clarity on your rights and obligations. Typically, loan agreements in the UAE include a clause that allows lenders to allocate end-of-service gratuity payments towards debt repayment. This is done as a safety measure for the lender, ensuring that the borrower will not default.

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You should not have been liable to pay the charges for these disputed transactions if they are indeed fraudulent

We highly recommend that you escalate this matter immediately to the highest relevant representatives at your bank and emphasise the financial pressure recent events have added, especially with your ongoing and unresolved fraud case.

Ensure that you provide them with a record of all your correspondence with the bank and proof of your fraud case. Maintaining a transparent relationship with your bank is crucial at this stage to guarantee that your rights are upheld.

According to the UAE Central Bank’s recently updated Consumer Protection Department regulations, banks are required to enforce an independent and fair complaint resolution mechanism to help address consumer complaints.

Banks are being highly encouraged to offer flexibility and security for consumers who are recovering from the impacts of the Covid-19 crisis by assessing each situation fairly and on an individual basis during this difficult time.

If your bank does not offer you a valid response within 30 days of receipt, you are entitled to escalate this matter to the UAE Central Bank's Consumer Protection Department. You will need to provide your complaint reference number, along with proof of your efforts to contact the bank, for them to follow up on your case and provide you with decision.

Debt Panellist 2: Stuart Ritchie, director of wealth advice at AES

You need to be pursuing a fraud claim with your bank. Unless you are proactively following up on your claim, your bank will unlikely be progressing their investigation. Given you notified your bank immediately at the time, any expenses should not have been incurred by yourself and a loan to cover this was not required.

This is based on information provided by a major credit card provider that states: “If the card holder does not react, any losses will be incurred by the card holder until the issuing bank is notified about the theft or loss and blocks/stops the card.”

Whenever you report a fraudulent transaction, your provider will investigate it first and then provide a solution. After the resolution of the case, if the outcome favours you as the card holder, the transaction will be reversed by the bank and any charges and interest dropped.

You should not have been liable to pay the charges for these disputed transactions if they are indeed fraudulent and you have no responsibility for these, but you are responsible to pay the legitimate outstanding balance.

Your bank should have statements relating to your account that show when the scam took place. It is important to know that the issuing banks have the right to investigate the dispute to establish if the transaction was fraudulent or not before the money is credited back to your account. However, as a card holder you will not suffer losses due to fraud where it is beyond your control.

While your claim is being investigated, consider what you can do to seek new employment. Not only would this offer you and your family security, but provide access to your frozen gratuity.

The employment market is recovering well and job prospects are increasing thanks to the vaccine push in the UAE, so there may be more options now compared to when you lost your job. It may also be worth considering relocating closer to Abu Dhabi or Dubai to boost the number of opportunities available to you.

Debt Panellist 3: Ambareen Musa, founder and chief executive of Souqalmal.com

You've been caught up in a very unfortunate situation. From what you've mentioned here, it is obvious that the fraud investigation did not lead to a favourable outcome.

In hindsight you could have pursued the case harder to stop the penalty fees and interest from piling on. Did you ever lodge an official complaint with the bank regarding this, since the amount you were being charged interest on was already disputed and reported by you as fraudulent?

The fact that your gratuity was frozen when you needed it the most may seem unfair, but it's standard practice in the UAE. A clause in the terms and conditions of personal loan contracts allows banks to set off the customer's end-of-service-benefits (EoSB) towards their outstanding loan amount with the bank.

The bank would reassign the EoSB if the borrower submits a request in writing and there is no outstanding loan balance remaining, or if they can produce proof of new employment and salary transfer to the bank.

In your case, the bank offered you the latter option, however, your newly acquired trade license did not prove sufficient. You may have grounds to file a complaint about this if the bank failed to make the conditions for getting your gratuity unblocked clear in its communication with you.

Given the financially tight spot you're in, it would be best to try to unlock a source of income as soon as possible. Perhaps you could consider freelance work, part-time opportunities or, if it is feasible, your wife could help by also finding a job. You could also approach your country's consulate/embassy to get some pro-bono legal advice on how to handle this situation further.

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

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