Banks can lose your money in seconds - why do they take days to return it?

Financial institutions shouldn't take customer loyalty for granted

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, July 31, 2012:  
UAE dirhams. (Silvia Razgova / The National)
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Most of us recognise the words “bank error in your favour” from the stack of community chest cards in Monopoly, the popular board game that has spurred family rancour and ribbing since 1935. But few of us have bumped up against them in the real world. A bank admitting its mistake and compensating a customer – how often does that happen?

No wonder, perhaps, that Hasbro, the game’s manufacturer, has been canvassing people for suggestions of how to make the cards more in tune with modern life.

Updated community chest cards may see bank errors and beauty contests being retired and replaced by more contemporary scenarios. Winning business at an influencers’ conference or meme stocks soaring in your favour are two of my favourites, but we will find out soon enough how the new cards stack up, Hasbro says.

It is, of course, a truism to say that banking has changed a lot since Monopoly gave the pre-war world a taste of property empires, aggressive acquisitions and mortgages. We’ve moved from bowler hat-wearing bank managers holding all the cards back then to robo-advisers helping customers today.

However, two recent interactions with my bank suggest the sector has made lightning advances in some areas but may be lagging behind in others. Both incidents give some perspective on what the sector needs to do to prepare for today and tomorrow.

Let’s start with the timely intervention.

Early last month I received a string of text messages saying my bank had declined several attempted purchases from an outlet in the US. I was in the UAE at the time.

When I called the bank, which I won’t name, they said they regarded the purchases as suspicious, which they undoubtedly were. They blocked the card and delivered a replacement within 48 hours.

This was exactly the kind of Minority Report-inspired pre-emptive strike that I’d hope modern financial institutions would make to combat fraud. It’s really good that my bank was so switched on to this threat.

Few of us have had 'bank errors in our favour' in real life

Official figures vary, but at least one in four of us has been subject to phishing attacks. It is a statistic that is only likely to get worse and is also probably chronically underreported. Fear of being judged or victim-blamed tends to stop people publicly admitting they have fallen prey to scammers.

And now for the less satisfactory story.

Last week I tried to pay my credit card bill on my bank’s mobile app, but the platform had a technical fault and told me to try again. I did, and the payment eventually went through.

When I checked my balance afterwards, the amount had been debited twice from my current account.

Only one payment had made it to settle my credit card bill, however, while the other was lost in the digital ether. It wasn’t in my account nor was it registered as a duplicate payment against my credit card. I was more than Dh15,000 ($4,080) out of pocket and that’s a problem, because the end of the summer is an expensive time of year for many families, including mine.

When I called the bank I found myself stepping back on to the call centre carousel, something I wrote about a few years ago after falling victim to credit card fraud, as I attempted to get the “lost” money back in my account. My case was assigned a reference number and I was told it could take more than two weeks to resolve, which I felt was an unsatisfactory timeframe.

Each time I called the bank for an update, it took more than 20 minutes before I got through to another human to discuss the problem. While every call centre operative I spoke to was broadly sympathetic, none could resolve my situation.

They told me the app had experienced some outages, but no one could tell me that the money was definitely coming back. In the absence of reassurances, I filled the vacuum with worry. I also wasted hours on fruitless phone calls.

Thankfully, the error was corrected late yesterday and the lost money has been returned to my account. I can get on with my life now, but the experience also left me with many questions.

How can a significant sum of money be erroneously taken away in seconds but take days to be returned? Why was it a struggle to make sure that the right result was delivered? And frankly, why has the bank not apologised for its mistake? No wonder that Monopoly card about bank errors feels so otherworldly.

Banks should take note, because customers will not grin and bear this kind of situation indefinitely. The days of someone being a customer for life are receding.

In the era of sophisticated Silicon Valley inspired solutions in most areas of our lives, we have come to expect tech to work in real-time - and all the time.

If we encounter a bug-riddled website or a bad app, increasingly we'll go elsewhere next time.

That’s a problem for banks, particularly as they move closer to true digital banking, with more than one local entity launching its own products this year in this area.

They will need to make sure all parts of their operation work at the same speed, because customer expectation is a rising tide.

Newer or younger consumers won’t tolerate a hybrid model of a lightning quick digital front-end meshed with back office procrastination in the way that older generations, including me, have sometimes been schooled to put up with.

Banks also need to own up when they make errors, like they currently do in the Monopoly world. We all make mistakes. It is what we learn from them – and how we deal with them – that really counts.

The bank called me shortly before this column was published. Its representative said it was sorry for the inconvenience and that it would not happen again.

Published: September 02, 2021, 7:00 AM