My local UAE bank and its signature frustrations

Nima Abu Wardeh is sad to see her local bank branch closing down, but she wishes they could resolve her signature issues before they do.

Gary Clement for The National
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Last week I found out that my bank branch is destined for closure on March 31. I know this not because I'm a customer, but because people talk. Staff don't know whether they'll have jobs elsewhere when it happens, or when they'll be told. Customers are still in the dark. Not exactly 101 in how to communicate with anyone.
Management is probably more concerned with how to make the books look better than how people feel. This, I understand, is because the bank lost significant amounts of money on bad debt - companies that have cleared out after receiving money and people who have absconded without paying back loans. That, coupled with a rapid expansion in more recent times - and the money it takes to be plastered all over buildings and billboards - is very likely a reason cheques I sign are being returned.
It started a couple of months ago. It was the first time in over a decade. A cheque I wrote out was not honoured because of "signature irregularity".
It had happened only once before, about 14 years ago, and I was the victim: I had gone to the branch and written a cheque out for cash. The cashier told me the signature didn't match that of the account holder. I explained I was the account holder, produced my passport and asked to see the sample signature on file.
I was not allowed to. A bit of a farce commenced, which ended when I called the branch manager on his mobile phone. He vouched for me and I got my cash. I thought nothing more of my non-conforming signature, until now that is.
Cheques are important to me. They make tracing payments easy and are much cheaper than bank transfers. In fact, every month at least three cheques with my signature are honoured, and have been for years. So this isn't so much about my signature changing as something in the bank.
My guess is that there has been a directive instructing staff, espe­cially those approving payments, to be extra diligent. Unfortunately for me, and the people who accept my cheques, this has translated into many man-hours lost - first deposit the cheque, then pick it up, get a new cheque from me, go back and pray it will be accepted. This is another reason I am gutted my branch is closing down - they process all cheques issued by me because they know me, and have apologised for who­ever it is in HQ who is on this signature mission.
Looking for a solution, I asked if I could update my signature - seeing as the one they had was 16 years old. I was asked to write a letter - I did there and then - and forms were handed over for me to fill in. One asked me to sign using my old signature, and then to give an example of the new one. Commence new farce. How could I sign like the one they have on record when I'm not allowed to see it? Unperturbed, I signed and handed the paperwork over. The woman in charge scrutinised her screen and told me they didn't match up. I had failed my own signature test.
It's an impossible Catch 22.
I am not alone in this conundrum - a friend with better skills of persuasion managed to see her signature on record - her cheques were also being rejected. What she saw was a very obvious heavy black line traversing the length of her signature. She believes it must have been a fold in a paper, or a mark on a surface when the signature was scanned - point is, how could she possibly reproduce something that she has no knowledge of? And how can she reproduce something that she glimpsed - secretly and fleetingly - that she never created in the first place?
But hold on. I'm getting sucked into a drumbeat of illogic and frustration.
I'm all for security and safeguarding money, banking information and so on. But in this day of electronic chips and codes, how is it fathomable that we end up wrangling over scribbles on a piece of paper? As for it still not being accepted when the owner of said signature produces their passport as supporting proof of identity, well then, this is where we lose the plot - signatures are all about identifying a person. If a person can be identified by other means, then that should be that. Alas, common sense has left the banking building, and we still have to satisfy the signature police, even though they know who we are.
It's difficult to believe that an entire system depends on something as basic as this.
Come on banks, get real and get with the times - we rarely use signatures in the rest of life, and even then it's just a person jotting down a squiggle that is not held up for comparison against a pre-existing one.
A medical scientist, who at the end of a comment lamenting years of practicing cursive writing as a child, explained that he doesn't have much use for writing by hand. He uses his keyboard to write, record, and do all manner of things. He signed off by producing what looks like a squashed lightening bolt along with these words:
"Here's my signature. I don't expect to be asked for it for many more years, as I have better ways of identifying myself." No, he doesn't live in the UAE.
Back to my bank and all the others out there: I'd like to wish the stressed, worried staff at my branch all the best. Perhaps if people at the top spent more time identifying real needs and reasonable ways of addressing them, they'd stay ahead of the game, with no cause for retrenching.
Nima Abu Wardeh is the founder of the personal finance website You can reach her at and find her on Twitter at @nimaabuwardeh