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Bank Robbery - First Direct Style

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Almost like highway robbery - only drier and warmer

Our correspondent writes ...

If you thought bank robbers always wore stocking masks and carried sawn-off shotguns, think again. Most of them work behind the glass screens, or in the back office, or in the regional office, or at the bank's headquarters. Yes, they are the bank's employees!

Allowing for the fact that some employees (in all types of organisations) are too thick to work anything out for themselves, you have to have some sympathy for customer-facing employees because they don't make the policies they are asked to enforce and they have the same dilemma that most employees have - they need a regular salary to keep themselves and their families. So, no matter how dishonest their work is, they keep schtum and carry out their supervisors' instructions without question. Any principles they may have are, of necessity, swept under the carpet, or the expensively panelled counter in the case of banks. The price of whistle-blowing is high and the chances of future employment are minimal.

For the employees who don't have to face the customers, it is much easier. They don't have to see the anger of irate customers so they don't care so much. They may even be instrumental in generating the crap that causes problems for lower-level employees or they may be the trained liars that all companies now employ to cover up the truth and earn big bucks for their bosses, even if their bosses are happy to break rules and regulations that were meant to protect the public.

After all, if it all goes pear-shaped they can often rely on the old fallback - the thing that regularly gets the blame. The thing that usually resides in one of those windowless, air-conditioned back rooms. Yes, it's the COMPUTER SYSTEM.

The computer system apparently does nasty things that nobody can control. It thinks for itself and often makes decisions that the staff do not understand and cannot explain. The computer is the fall guy. Customers will always understand that the computer is a metal-jacketed villain that makes life so difficult for everyone ... won't they?

But that may no longer be the case. More people are now computer literate. They know computers only do what they are told to do by programmers and system analysts. So when bank customers are told the charge that suddenly appeared on their statement was inadvertently added by THE COMPUTER they often suss that somebody is telling porkies!

Conversely, many others do not have this depth of knowledge so they blindly accept what they are told and they have no option but to believe it.

But the truth is that banks are making millions and they are often boosting their profits with scams they can always blame on the poor computer.

Case in Question

My daughter is a student at a university in Kent. Like most students, she is cash-strapped and relies heavily on her student loan. This rarely arrives on time so she is cautious and eeks out her deposited cash as best she can given that she has living expenses to meet every week - whether food or rent.

She also has an agreed overdraft limit with her First Direct bank account and she knows she is sailing close to the wind because her student loan is even later than usual. So she is extra careful and cuts out all unnecessary expense. Finally she makes a payment of 11.50 to ASDA for groceries but what she hasn't realised is that for the last four months First Direct have been charging her 2.50 a month for their text message banking service - a service she did not want and never requested. Result? the payment to ASDA took her 11 pence over her overdraft limit and First Direct slapped a 30 charge on her account!

She took the issue up with First Direct  but it was four months before they refunded the text message banking charges they had taken from her account without asking - the same charges that had pushed her 11 pence over the limit in the first place. But they still had the temerity to keep charging interest and in total they applied three more penalty charges of 30 each. In one telephone conversation, my daughter was rudely advised that, as a student, she shouldn't be banking with First Direct anyway and would be better advised to go to HSBC. (As if they'd be any different!)

When the student loan finally arrived, she transferred her remaining funds to an account she already held with NatWest. First Direct closed her account having earned a considerable amount of extra profit by operating a disgraceful scam - especially on a poor student.

There had been quite a lot of verbal and written communication whilst this fiasco took place and at one point my daughter received a letter from Robert Kernaghan, First Direct's Customer Relations Manager. It offered her a payment of 150 but without any admission of liability whatsoever (his words). He also had the cheek to write that if my daughter pursued her claim for a refund through the court, First Direct would successfully resist any legal challenge in relation to the fees they had charged.

Well, now they have a chance to test their resistance. Today (12th January 2007) I emailed Mr Kernaghan telling him that if First Direct did not make a proposition for full compensation to my daughter, together with an admission that liability for all the problems rested entirely with First Direct we would take court action based on an allegation that First Direct had systematically stolen money from my daughter's account. I asked for a response by close of business today and they have failed to respond so court action will be commenced on Monday, 15th January.


My daughter unfortunately forgot to advise the Student Loans Company that she had changed her banking account. She admits this was her fault and accepts full responsibility for this oversight. Consequently, the following term's loan was sent to First Direct and they accepted it even though they had closed her account two months previously. Then they deducted a further 69 in charges and blocked her online facility to transfer the monies to NatWest. The result? She cannot pay the rent on her flat nor any other bills until First Direct release the funds.

If First Direct was an honest corporation, they would have returned the funds to the sender saying that the account was closed. But hey, when were banks ever honest. They had a golden opportunity to make even more interest on money that was not theirs and they never look gift horses in the mouth. Corruption abounds even in the organisations we mistakenly think are honourable.

Editorial Comment:

This is an absolute disgrace but it is typical of the behaviour exhibited by many large companies and organisations. They earn huge amounts of money from their customers but they treat them like dirt.

Although First Direct like to give the impression they are the perfect bankers, they are rapidly developing a well-deserved reputation as one of the worst. Yet, in this respect there is perhaps little to choose between any of the banking fraternity. In a just world, these people would be treated like the crooks they are but unfortunately money is the driving force in world affairs and banks get away with things that mere mortals can not.

They dictate to governments and governments meekly do as they are told so there is little chance anything will ever change. The best you can do in circumstances like this case is take them to court. One thing banks do not like is bad publicity and we can always hope the judiciary will uphold the laws that govern banks' operations even if the government prefer to stick their heads in the sand.

"Many men stumble across the truth ... but most manage to pick themselves up and continue as if nothing had happened."

Winston S Churchill

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