The afternoon of February 11, 2006. Dhaka. Arijit Sengupta, country manager, IMISoftware, a multinational telecom firm, setting up business in Bangladesh, tries to withdraw money from his bank account ' which is with the Industrial Development Bank of India, Golpark, Calcutta Branch ' using his international debit card. But the screen on the automated teller machine flashes a message ' ‘Transaction denied, please contact your branch’. Initially Sengupta doesn’t panic as it is not unusual for bank customers to be temporarily denied transactions through the ATM. It could be for a number of reasons ranging from ‘servicing’ to minor, short-lived technical faults. But Sengupta soon realises this is no momentary glitch ' he is in for what he terms “a harrowing experience”.
He explains: “I couldn’t contact my bank because, it being a Saturday, the branch had closed early. Also, I didn’t know whether to wait a while and then try again or attempt the transaction from another ATM centre because the message didn’t indicate what the reason for the failed transaction was.” Cash strapped in a foreign country and urgently in need of money, he did both. “First I tried to withdraw from the same machine again,” he says. “But the same message reappeared. I then drove down to another ATM centre. Again, it was the same message.”
When, after repeated attempts, he called up his wife in Calcutta, she went to the bank and found out there was a major link failure. It was fluctuating and transactions were being permitted only sporadically. The real ordeal began then. “My wife, who got lucky and managed to squeeze in a ‘balance enquiry’ transaction with her debit card at a moment when the link reappeared temporarily, found that my account was practically depleted of all balance.” Each transaction which was attempted at Dhaka was registered, but Sengupta had not received the money.
There was still more to come.
When he contacted the branch on Monday, he was told that the procedure for reversing the amounts debited erroneously requires at least seven working days. “I was livid. I felt completely helpless. I was virtually stranded in a foreign country without money and there was almost zero balance in my account. At least because I work there, I had infrastructural backup. But what if I was travelling' What would I do then'”
Good question. What exactly are you supposed to do if you find yourself in a similar situation while working or travelling abroad' Is waiting and watching your only alternative to panicking'
Not at all ' if bank officials are to be believed. In fact, they point out that banks have their own business continuity plans to handle different kinds of emergency situations.
Explains Baishakhi Banerjee, Zonal Head, IDBI Bank, East, “During international money transactions, the customer is accessing a global network, which is not restricted to his/her bank.” A withdrawal request through the ATM, for instance, travels from the point at which the customer is doing the transaction through the Visa/Electron/Master Card service centre for verification to the actual branch where the customer holds the account. “The link failure may occur at any one point and cause the disruption of services. However, if during a link failure the customer’s account reflects a debit and the customer has not actually received the money, the system does register this and the reversal takes place based on this. But the reversal is not done overnight, because it involves verification at several stages.”
But meanwhile, what is the consumer supposed to do'
Bank officials advise customers themselves to get proactively involved in the process of problem solving.
“It is important that the customer informs the bank about the situation to have the problem looked into at the earliest,” says Malini Thadani, head of public affairs for Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Mumbai.
As a matter of fact, says Sengupta, “It was after I pointed out the sheer difficulty of my situation, that the branch manager Sanjit Kumar Dutta, stepped in and had the procedural rules bent in order to have the reversal done in less time. They were obviously convinced of the genuineness of the case”.
Otherwise, Sengupta would have had to wait for at least seven working days, after informing the bank. It takes longer time for reversals where the transactions have been done overseas or abroad. “This is because of factors such as differences in time zones which means that branch timings and working hours are different and therefore coordination between the banks involved takes time,” points out Banerjee. Moreover, IDBI has no branches overseas. So the customer has to access the account through the ATM of another bank (in Sengupta’s case, he tried Standard Chartered Bank followed by HSBC). Therefore the verification process takes more time.
Thadani, feels that it is a good idea to have alternate sources of money, such as credit cards and accounts with other banks and advises that customers, whose banks extend phone banking facilities, “always keep the phone numbers handy”.
She points out further, “So that the bank customer is not inconvenienced in any way, a bank such as HSBC has opened hundreds of branches and ATM centres across the world. But still very often customers panic during a link failure, especially if the account reflects a debit.” However, she reassures, “There is no reason to feel helpless or stranded. It’s a question of being aware of the steps to take.”
steps to take
• If your account balance reflects a debit which you have actually not incurred, immediately inform the bank
• The next step is to fill up a form, indicating the date, time, location, amount, account number and other details
• If you are claiming reversal for wrongful debits, try and keep all ATM-generated records of your transactions
• Keep the phone/fax numbers and email addresses of your bank with you when travelling
• Most bankers also emphasise the need for keeping alternate sources of funds such as credit cards and accounts with other banks in case you cannot access money from a particular account.