This content is from: Portfolio

When Global Banking Goes Wrong

Barclays isn’t putting customers first — at least not this customer.

George Bernard Shaw famously once said that Britain and the U.S. were two countries separated by a common language. I wonder what he would have to say about their banking systems.

On December 29 I went into my local Barclays Bank branch in Bath, England, to request the transfer of a not inconsiderable sum of money — more than the $10,000 minimum that, per U.S. law, obliges banks to report transactions — to an account in the U.S. The money was withdrawn that very day but never deposited in the U.S., a fact I didn’t discover for more than two weeks when my building contractor, who was supposed to have received the money, told me he hadn’t.

I was upset that this had happened, and that Barclays had not thought to inform me, but when I discovered the source of the problem — the clerk at the branch had typed in the wrong account number — I assumed the matter would be easily resolved. I was wrong. After almost two weeks of trying to find the money and get it transferred to my contractor, I am no closer to a resolution.

Instead, this is what happens: I call the Barclays international desk, and get a call center in Noida, India. After giving my account information, I am put on hold for approximately two minutes while my account is pulled up. Then I spend five minutes answering account verification questions, only to be put on hold for a further five minutes while the customer service agent pulls up the notes on the account. The notes supposedly explain what is going on. So far as I can tell, this is where things stand: On January 21, after I had called the bank and fixed the error with the account number (for which I had to pay a £20 fee!), Barclays sent a message to Citibank, where the contractor has his account. On January 24, Citi acknowledged receipt of the message and promised to be back in touch. That same day I called Barclays again. At my request, they sent a “chaser” — an electronic message — to Citi asking about the funds. I was told it could take up to three days. Three days later I called back. Nothing. When I made contact again, the only option the international desk offered was to send another chaser, requiring another three-day wait.

My only recourse was to lodge a complaint, which I did while yelling down the phone. But that just produces another note in the file, which presumably now identifies me as a frothing maniac. Throughout all this, Barclays is not proactive. As mentioned, they never informed me that there was anything wrong with the transaction. Despite my request, duly noted in the file, that they call me daily to let me know the status, I have not received a single phone call. Of course, no one at Barclays calls Citi. It is all done electronically by, I take it, a computer sending and awaiting automated responses.

Like every other major bank, Barclays transfers vast sums internationally all the time in their investment banking and trading business. The bank, which in June 2012 was fined $200 million by the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, $160 million by the U.S. Department of Justice and £59.5 million by the U.K.’s Financial Services Authority for attempting to manipulate interbank offer rates Libor and Euribor, certainly knows how interbank transfers work. Yet it is quite happy to let its customers’ funds sit in limbo owing to a simple error that could be resolved with one phone call.

Things could be worse. The money could have been transferred to the wrong account entirely. That, according to a June 2014 letter written to the Guardian’s Consumer Champions column, sounds like a real nightmare to resolve. Or someone from Barclays could have stolen my money. Barclays business manager Vaijawanthi Aneet, 36, currently faces jail after stealing close to £15,000 from a customer’s account while she was working at a Barclays branch in the City of London. But the bank can take a comparable sum out of my account without taking any responsibility when that money goes missing. What if it were a time-sensitive emergency? I am very fortunate that my contractor has been so understanding, even though he can ill afford to be extending free credit to his customers.

We all know that the major banks today are not the warm-and-fuzzy people-loving institutions of our grandparents’ era. Even many small-business owners don’t know their local bank manager. And if you’re a customer whose net worth stops well short of high — and far below that of the 1 percent — your relationship with your bank is likely purely transactional. After the 2008–’09 economic crisis, lawmakers and regulators in the U.S. and the U.K. took steps to try to make banks do better by their retail clients and small businesses. The banks themselves have pledged to do better.

When he was appointed CEO in August 2012, Antony Jenkins, 53, promised an end to the era of global expansion that his predecessor, American Robert Diamond, had embarked upon in an effort to make Barclays one of the world’s largest investment banks. “We have made serious mistakes in recent years. We have much to do,” Jenkins, the former head of consumer banking, said on taking the top job. He has pledged to cut costs and increase Barclays’s use of technology, telling the Financial Times in a December interview that “there is a huge premium now on banks who can use technology to automate everything that they do.” Including, presumably, continuing to automate and outsource as many customer service functions as possible. Appointed in the aftermath of the Libor scandal, Jenkins has promised to hold Barclays to a higher ethical standard. Yet for the second half of 2014, according to the U.K. Financial Conduct Authority, Barclays Bank was, once again, the most complained-about bank in the U.K. with 278,426 logged against it.

Interviewed by Bloomberg Television’s Guy Johnson this month at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Jenkins reflected on the role business can play in making a difference. People today, he said, “feel more economically vulnerable; they are less optimistic about the future. That is causing a degree of skepticism about the benefits and efficacy of business. I think business has an obligation to really get out there and make sure that it is having a positive impact in the world.”

At least that was Jenkins’s perspective from the snow-capped peaks of Davos, where a surging Swiss franc last week produced the phenomenon of the $43 hot dog. If, by the time he returns for next year’s forum, rocketing exchange rates have boosted the price of dinner for two to $10,000, presumably Jenkins will have no problem transferring the funds.

In the meantime, excuse me while I call Noida again. There is more than a common language that stands between me and my money. It’s the entire banking system.

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