The Reserve Bank of India (RBI), which had so far maintained a stony silence over the unfair treatment meted out to bank customers, is finally talking about it. In a recent speech, SS Mundra, Deputy Governor of RBI, said banks should not use service charges as an excuse to deny service or to drive away ordinary people. Unfortunately, this is exactly what is happening in the banking sector. Banks are arbitrarily increasing service charges without giving an opportunity to the average customer to react to a proposed hike. (Read: SBI, Canara Bank, Bank of Maharashtra again hit customers with hiked charges
Mr Mundra said, "While banks have been granted autonomy in fixing minimum average balance or for charging for premium services, it should not be used as an excuse to deny service or to drive away the common man." Ironically, he was speaking at the Annual Conference of Principal Code Compliance Officers, organised by the Banking Codes and Standards Board of India (BCSBI), in Mumbai. BSCBI was set up as a toothless organisation by the Reserve Bank to set up common standards for all banks. It has neither laid down effective codes nor are these codes mandatory. BSCBI is another white elephant designed to pay lip service to banking standards.
Incidentally, Moneylife Foundation has been at the forefront of speaking up for bank customers. An online petition launched by us has garnered more than two lakh signatures. (Sign the Petition
) One of the key points of the petition is about unreasonable and unfair bank charges. "Frequent increase in charges and billing customers by stealth through opt-out clauses that are not noticeable must be stopped immediately. For e.g. HDFC Bank started levying charges for an invite-only program, which unethically assumes that the customer is already in and willing to pay for it. The levy is stopped only when the consumer notices it and calls the bank to protest; this too is not an easy process," the petition says.
The petition at Change.org has asked RBI to come out with a master circular or notification on its Charter of Customer Rights issued on 3 December 2014. The charter recognises five basic rights of bank customers: Right to Fair Treatment; Right to Transparency and Fair and Honest Dealing; Right to Suitability; Right to Privacy; and Right to Grievance Redress and Compensation.
The Charter covers almost every problem that consumers were likely to face. Three years later, the RBI has not fixed timeframes for grievance redressal nor announced penalties for failure to treat consumers fairly, despite repeated appeals by consumer groups. Consequently, the Charter remains a toothless tiger.
Another issue that was mentioned in the online petition was about limited customer liability in case of an unauthorised banking transaction. The petition states, "While the Union Government is pushing consumers into digital transactions, we are not adopting global best practices to protect consumers. On 11 August 2016, the RBI issued a draft circular on limiting customer liability
and shifting the onus of proving customer fault on banks. RBI had sought feedback from public before 31 August 2016. However, it has not yet been converted into a Master Circular. We feel that with the increased use of digital payments post the demonetisation drive, it is necessary to have in place a mechanism or system to protect customers from unauthorised banking transactions. A Master circular/notification by the Reserve Bank on limiting liability in an unauthorised banking transaction will make a huge impact on protecting customers from frauds."
The RBI Deputy Governor, in his speech, admitted that there is an immediate need for plugging all the gaps and vulnerabilities in tech-enabled service delivery, especially looking at several incidents of theft of personal information, fraudulent use of ATMs, net banking frauds, ATM/ Debit card incidents or cases of unauthorised access to bank servers. "With greater thrust on digital banking, especially in the wake of withdrawal of legal tender status of specified bank notes and consequent increase in complaints relating to unauthorised or fraudulent transactions, a need for having a comprehensive policy to limit the liability of customers cannot be over-emphasised. RBI had come out with a draft circular on ‘Customer Protection – Limiting Liability of Customers in Unauthorised Electronic Banking Transactions’ earlier and based on feedback received from the concerned stakeholders, final guidelines are expected to be issued shortly. In view of the impending guidelines it would be prudent on the part of banks to internally tighten their IT security systems and operating procedures so that grievances are minimised," Mr Mundra added.
He also admitted that the internal ombudsman system that is in place for the past two years has not become an effective forum. "Office of Internal Banking Ombudsman (IBO) was envisaged as the ultimate authority to which all unresolved or partially resolved complaints were to be escalated before giving final verdict to the complainant. Only in cases where the customer remained unsatisfied with the resolution should she need to approach the BO. A continuous rise in the number of complaints to the BO is perhaps a pointer to the fact that the institution of IBO has not been very effective or has not been empowered enough by the Management," he said.
The online petition, titled, "RBI Governor: Please Stop Banks Fleecing us Depositors!", says, "Over the years, the RBI has remained silent on several anti-depositor actions of banks. The Banking Ombudsman's rulings also tend to side with banks, making no attempt to observe the pattern of complaints which would amply bring out rampant mis-selling of insurance and wealth management products."
Mr Mundra asked banks to be prepared for a few impending regulatory changes as well as enhance their focus on some of the supervisory concerns relating to customer complaints that have been observed by RBI.
Talking about cryptic and generally inscrutable entries or narration, despite extant guidelines that mandated recoding of intelligible particulars in bank passbooks or statements, the Deputy Governor, said, "Of late, we have received numerous complaints not only from customers but also from the investigative agencies, who find it extremely difficult to understand the transactions during the course of their investigations. RBI is in the process of reiterating its guidelines to banks to provide essential minimum relevant details in respect of various transactions in the passbook or statement."
In the online petition, the making of banking transactions safe by capturing additional data, such as name and branch details, and having a robust redress process for inadvertent mistakes, was highlighted.
Bank customers, especially senior citizens, often complain about several issues they face in the branch. Taking note of this, Mr Mundra, in his speech, said, "Customer service to senior citizens is an area of major concern for the RBI. Difficulties are faced by pensioners in receiving updated pension, issuance of life certificates, verification of signature, and need for periodic KYC. Several grievances have also been received from nominees of deceased customers while seeking settlement of death claims."
Mr Mundra also asked banks to address the frustration felt by customers while dealing with call centres or automated response systems. "In this context, while the efforts by some of the banks to use artificial intelligence-driven chatbot for enhancing customer service are welcome, it needs to be ensured that the customers do not end up receiving robotic responses!" he concluded.
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