The world’s local bank has indeed come a long way in Incredible India, giving credibility to its punch line. It’s no surprise that in emerging countries like India, business models like extortion is more rewarding than ethical banking business. More so when in India, the law-makers are most often found to be the law-breakers; banking regulators prefer the role of preaching than acting with the attitude of ‘see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil’, and systems working as systems is more of an exception than the norm.  

As I look back at my past experiences of banking with HSBC, I can safely state that the bank has adapted to the changing need of Indian society in order to grow, mastering all those skills needed to succeed in ‘profiteering’ in its Indian operations quite fast, and at any costs. 

Many of us know about the classic letter sent by a customer to a bank in the United States sometime back in 2002, which was subsequently published in The New York Times; because the bank manager thought it was amusing enough. The intriguing aspect was missed, and customers all over the world probably can vouch even today that there was absolutely no learning our slogan-shouting global banks had from repeated customer complaints other than fine-tuning the much abused slogans like ‘Customer is the King’ to ‘Customer Delightment’ to what not and to what extent. However what’s practiced is quite different, more so when it comes to a few extra bucks, that too unethically violating all senses of business and moral values; as same banks figuratively rape and murder these same customers to perfection without any slogan to that effect. 

Let’s come to my story, where the story is unique in many ways, however the style of banking communications are more or less same; and many of us may have suffered similarly many times. 

I had been a customer of HSBC for a period of few years, the relationship started almost seven years back. Along with few products, I also had a credit card of this bank. Thing were going smoothly as long as it was business as usual. 

Some three-four years back, realizing that I had acquired certain Reward Points against the usage of my card, I visited their online rewards catalog and asked for, say ‘Product X’ to redeem my reward points.  After a few days, I receive ‘Product Y’. When the same slip was pointed out to them, they acknowledged the mistake, and promptly sent a person to pick up wrongfully shipped Product Y from my residence, promising me to send Product X as soon as possible.  

However in next couple of months, I neither receive Product X, nor I see equivalent Reward Points credited back in my credit card statement (the reward points were debited when ‘Product Y’ was shipped, and subsequently ‘Product Y’ was returned). I tried explaining them a few times over phone; however no one listened, took responsibility and acted to rectify the mistake. There was no outcome for couple of months as per monthly statements. My Reward Points were gone with some hassles but without any reward.  

I used my HSBC credit card for the last time for paying the membership services in a library for the amount equivalent to the value of my Rewards Points that was wrongfully debited. Anyway, I had zero debit balance till then; and it was pre-decided that in case they fail to act in expected line till next billing statement; I would not clear this bill. Normally I cleared my credit card dues within interest free credit-period (and within days of receipt of the first statement post a transaction).  

However this time I deliberately didn’t want to do that till the mistake at their end gets reflected in my card statement, because I felt I have every fair right to do that having being the victim of their wrongful actions.  

The imbroglio continued for a few months, and with every passing month, the amount increased at a faster rate than the forex reserves of Chinese economy, and now has become almost ten times of the original disputed value. They even sent some debt recovery agents to my place couple of times, and I politely told them to understand the background and come again. Thankfully the debt recovery agent understood my point, and went back without causing muchtrouble, which by the way are unexpected in Indian society if media reports are to be believed.    

Subsequently umpteen communications were sent to them till I tired; and thereby realized that in the other end there are few stones, and a stupid information system. 

I gave up the communications, but was determined not to succumb to their pressure. And surprisingly what followed is one statement showing I have zero liability. Achieving justice, I threw away all the earlier statements, documents, mails along with the pieces of the card. 

I was not aware that there were more surprises in the pipeline. I continued to receive statements from them again in-spite of my informing them that I no longer want to bank with them for any products, and stating that I have destroyed the already defunct card upon receipt of that zero-liability statement.  

However the statements never stopped, and again started showing same earlier debit balances in my account as if the in-between statement never came, which was anyway thrown away (I regret throwing those documents today as I narrate this story, but then how many documents do we keep and that too for how long?). 

I was at my wits’ end. I sent HSBC couple of e-mails stating their statements to be false, and also stating that they owe me equivalent money. Surprisingly this time they responded to my e-mail, denying my statement. I denied their mail, they again denied mine, I sent a final mail saying I can’t waste my time like this; and if they don’t agree with my mail, let them produce evidence. Things somehow came to an end in those exchanges of e-mails; however physical statements along with promotional materials were in my letter-box at regular intervals. 

hat has prompted me to write this piece here is another communication from them threatening me that they would now submit my record to Credit Information Bureau of India Limited (CIBIL), set up by Reserve Bank of India (RBI). They have also informed me in that same letter following:

“…we expressly reserve all our rights without further notice to take whatever action we deem necessary to best protect our interests. (Including, without limitation, the use of a debt collection agency (in India, debt collection agencies are mostly similar to extortion agencies run by gangsters) or the right to take legal proceedings and/or to exercise all other powers conferred on us by law or by any security, or guarantee held)”. 

Honestly I don’t care what they do. I still am equally determined not to succumb to their pressure tactics. However I also felt enough is enough. Web 2.0 has given us voices that we seldom use as honest, law-abiding citizens. And the power that the world’s 2nd largest bank acquired would now be used to harass a customer as if harassments over last 3-4 years have not been enough. Web 2.0 has given us more power than the laws of the land, more so for countries like India where getting justice from judiciary or regulator is equivalent to another round of unending harassment.  

Therefore after much internal debate, I felt I should take my real-life story with HSBC in BNN; and should not encourage these types of high-handed, unethical, unresponsive, immoral, corrupt business practices to continue for any other fellow customers anywhere in the world.  I know I won’t achieve that goal alone; however together we sure can.  

I also understand HSBC isn’t the exception India. Most Indian private banks, barring a rare few are in same category. India’s largest private bank, in order to grow, made the life of all urban Indian citizens miserable by calling them at least once a day in order to prospect/sale their different financial products. As the overall society grew aghast with those disturbing unwelcome calls, regulator (RBI) did talk about the need to monitor such disturbing calls through a ‘Do Not Call’ (DNC) registry. One can understand the need for such a centralized registry; however this private bank went ahead with a marketing campaign of ‘DNC’ as a private registry. They say the series would be followed with titles like  ‘Do Not Harass’, ‘Do Not Abuse’, etc.

That means if customers indeed don’t want to be disturbed; they would have to register with hundreds of banks operating in India separately, and not through a centralized registry. What was surprising that the regulator also watched that marketing campaign without disgust whereas millions of consumers like us who suffered (think about someone not well physically, alone at home and desperately seeking a nap gets finally some sleep may often be painfully disturbed by such promotional calls, mostly in the afternoon hours) kept quite as we didn’t have a choice in a country like India; and can’t take on the erring parties and erring regulator every now and then with our individual efforts. 

Taking a cue from that campaign of DNC, I have been thinking about inserting a fine-print in my web-site that other than specific listed purposes; no one should call me/send me mails; failure of which would make the erring party liable to be penalized by a significant monetary amount.  

Inserting that fine-print in my web-site would just be practicing what this largest private bank in India preaches and practices, and thereby ‘taking as my model the procedures, attitudes and conduct of (that) very bank’. 

The examples of violation of ethical banking laws are aplenty in India. Another one that comes to mind in this tightening of interest rate cycle is how banks unilaterally decide their Prime Lending Rates (PLR), against which most of the floating interest rates for housing loans and other loans are pegged. Although the central banker raised interest rates by couple of points since this tightening cycle, borrowers are being forced to pay by twice that hike, if not more. Here again the regulator completed his official duty by preaching that there should be something like a central PLR; and not that each bank can have its independent PLR to ‘profiteer’ from existing borrowers. No one listened; and customers now pay through their noses for the money they borrowed to finance their dreams; the same dreams that these banks promoted and continues to promote. It’s same when the matter comes to applying unlawful forces. 

Coming back to HSBC, probably nothing much would happen with this article also. However optimist as we are; I hope that their global senior management team examines the credibility of my story; and does the needful so that as customers we can indeed keep faith in HSBC. And it should also encourage Indian regulators to shun their existing approach, and be more pro-active in penalizing erring parties with exemplary punishments when the need arises than merely preaching. 

Is HSBC at all ready to acknowledge their mistake? Even if they are, I am not ready to forgive them so easily. I would like exemplary punishment imposed on them by Indian banking regulator (RBI here), for nothing less than $ 10 million, and award that money to any worthwhile NGO. I would also like to be personally compensated at $1000/hour basis for some minimum 50 hours I spent in various communications with them; and an amount of $100 per day basis for the last 3-4 years since I have gone through this mental agony. 

When these banks are made to pay through their noses in their standards for their wrongdoing as we often are forced to pay in our standards for no faults of ours, we can be reasonably certain that better senses would prevail in Indian banking industry.

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