On behalf of Citibank... Blame it on the dialler!
Citibank agents are making blank calls every day to a person recovering from serious ailments, and who, despite all difficulties is repaying minimum amount due every month
The cellphone rings. I see the number and say "hello". Usually, it is a call "on behalf of Citibank". Only, in last two-three months, it was very rare to hear even this introductory sentence every time I respond...
Rare because most of the times, no one speaks from the other end. It is a blank call. May be if I am lucky, some human being does come on the line and the usual chat regarding my Citibank credit card ending with 4996, of which I have fallen behind in payments.
This is because of various factors, including no income for a long time. To add to that, I was down with indifferent health, long hospitalisation and finally the day arrived when doctors dramatically gave their verdict: "Multi-organ failure, condition critical; we can only keep him under observation". I was the only earning member of the family, but being unemployed for a long time there was no money left with us. In fact, we are living on borrowings. (I had no medical insurance because no one would give to me. Had heart bypass surgery in 1994, which failed soon enough; suffered heart attack in 1998, was advised against any further surgery but there was consensus from second, third, fourth and fifth opinions -- from eminent doctors from Mumbai to Hyderabad to Chennai -- that I would not go beyond two to four years.)
Some 16 years later, my treatment -- medical and financial -- by this corporate hospital is another story. The brain was impaired and yet during a few moments of consciousness in the Critical Care Unit, I whispered to my wife, "I want to die at home" ...and closed my eyes.
There were many good Samaritans, who pitched in with help, but why waste money when doctors themselves had given up hope? The wife took a decision, which she said was inspired by God, to take me home the very same day, on 2nd July last year.
The hospital initially refused to discharge me. My wife explained about our financial situation and told them she wanted to take me to another hospital where we could get discount based on a community health card. They agreed. Once in the ambulance, she gave the driver the directions.
One senior doctor, who had stepped out, had a doubt and looked at her. She confessed: "I am taking him home." He said, "I think you are taking a wise decision". By then, I was reduced to being almost a vegetable and a skeleton.
Once we reached home, all life-saving paraphernalia was removed and I was laid on the bed. All medicines given by the two previous hospitals were stopped. I survived and lived to see another day...
Anyway, calls "on behalf of Citibank" continued even through the nearly two months of hospitalisation in three different medical facilities and despite having mentioned to the callers of my condition and not being able to communicate. Two-three months down the line, I received a postal/ e-mail communication from Citibank officials themselves and I explained to them the situation via e-mail. I even promised that I will try to sell my house and nearly half an acre of land and repay the entire outstanding. The markets were dull.
Over phone, one official suggested that I make some payment, say about Rs10,000. Since then, during the first week of every month, I have been regularly paying at least 5% of the outstanding, which is over Rs10,000.
Yet the calls continued. It became very irritating at first and downright mental harassment later. Almost every day, the calls used to come, several times a day, that I even stopped lifting the phone for a few days. Once they disconnect the call on my cell phone, my landline starts ringing. And whenever I receive the calls, there was no one on the other end and it gets disconnected.
In December 2014, one “human being” spoke to me and I mentioned about the mental harassment the situation has created. The person on the other side was rude and said harshly, "We will continue to keep on calling you". Please note here that I am paying Citibank every month, thanks to a monthly 'dole' I am receiving to take care of my medical and household expenses besides the children's education and so on from my brothers-in-law ever since I was down and despite their own family issues.
I happened to mention this harassment on Twitter in December. Two kind souls, @suchetadalal and @moneylifers replied to my tweets, asking me to record a conversation and write a story. Someone also mentioned that the TRAI had once shut down Citibank's phones for a short period.
Someone from Citibank also sent me a tweet with a link, which led to a form on their website in which I was asked to give my name, number, e-mail address and grievance. I chose not to do so.
However, the calls stopped the very moment my tweets appeared. Peace at last, I thought. Before the next due date, I again made a payment.
About a month later, peace was again shattered by a series of calls every day. I was itching to implement the suggestion of recording a call if it ever came through.
Once or twice, someone did talk, but I was not prepared for the recording. On 3rd February, one caller seemed genuinely surprised that I had already made a payment on that day itself.
On 4th February, after quite a few of the usual blank calls, one Mr Shriram "calling on behalf of Citibank" came on the line. I asked him to hold on and switched on my recorder.
"Sir this is regarding your Citibank card ending with number 4996..."
I cut him off, saying I wanted to talk to him instead about the scores of blank calls I was getting from their side. I wanted to know what was happening and what the problem was.
"This is due to some technical problem in the dialler, sir," he said.
I told him this had been going for a long time and that every time I pick up the phone no one answers.
He attempted to defend his earlier line: "It will be disconnected automatically or ...no response from your end."
I said, "What do you mean by no response from my end? Every time, I do pick up the phone".
The caller tried to insinuate that I do not respond to their calls. But when I insisted that I do receive the calls, he started mumbling something, unlike the person from the last time who was very, very rude.
And then I said, now I am going to complain to TRAI, the Telephone Regulatory Authority of India. The next time when they want to talk to me, they should first set right the system and not blame the dialler (presume it is some automatic phone calling software system) or some machine.
He changed his tune. After trying to say something, he mumbled again "...can only say sorry for the inconvenience, sir.”
“Please accept our apologies for the inconvenience," Shriram said.
I reiterated that they should set their systems right before attempting to call me, also mentioning clearly that they had no reason to call me since I have been making a minimum payment regularly.
A quick check, on the net, shows that these callers are from Chennai and they apparently belong to some Citibank franchisees who deal with collections. The calls are from different numbers and I am listing some of these numbers so that TRAI can take note:
+914466639300, +913366639500, +913366639200, +913366639600, +913366639100, +917845000164, +919043001265, +918122000197, +918122000390, +917845000193, +917845000195, +917845000119, +918122000329, +918122000409...
(Shrikant N Shenoy has been a journalist since 1980, having worked in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Dubai. He launched a news portal and an online Konkani language channel from Manipal, Udupi, but ran out of money. In 2011, he successfully an English newspaper with five editions simultaneously on a shoe-string budget. He tweets as @udupinet.)