Have you ever been unpleasantly surprised to find your bank balance less than your expectation? Only when you check your statement do you realise out that your bank has graciously charged Rs 200 or more for simple act of maintaining your account or for your debit card. The most common complainers at a commercial bank I used to work for were account holders who suddenly found out that Rs 500 disappeared from their account every month because they had not maintained the minimum balance. When they demanded an explanation, they were shown the fine print in the 'Terms and Conditions' they signed.
Many banks and financial institutions make millions each year from charges and penalties. Apart from maintenance fees, these charges are imposed for unauthorised overdrafts, bounced cheques, breaching the minimum balance limit and for several other conditions. Sometimes, changes made in the account's terms and conditions which, by default, allow the bank to debit your account.
Principally, charges should only reflect the administrative costs of dealing with the problem. In other words, the customer should only be asked to pay the cost of fixing the irregularity in the account. But often, these charges are overpriced. It is difficult to believe that the cost of informing an account holder that he or she has crossed the minimum balance limit so that they correct it is more than Rs 250 per month.
Financial institutions argue that these charges are fair as they are contractually allowed to do so. But the issue is that in most cases the banks do not even make an effort to inform the customer about the irregularities in their accounts or about changes in the terms and conditions. When you fill up an application for opening a new account, the bank asks you your mailing address, phone number, mobile number and email address. But this information is shelved, and used only when the credit card bills are due or when there are new schemes available.
Even the customers think that banks have a legal right to make all these charges and let them pass without complaint. But pick up the form of a new account for any bank, you will also find clauses such as: 'The Bank reserves the right to amend these rules at any time and in any manner which the bank deems necessary with or without notice to the applicants or the public'.
Competition may have transformed several aspects of the banking sector in Nepal, but customers are still treated shabbily, as if the bank is doing us a favour and not the other way around. A bank that thinks the small guys don't matter is doomed, but that message hasn't sunk into most bank boardrooms. Easy cash earned by slyly cheating the customer can be costly in the long run. Customer is king (well maybe president) still.
The central bank has to be proactive in ensuring that the banks play fair. Recently, Nepal Rastra Bank issued a circular regarding banking fees. It directed the banks to establish a front office and to inform all customers about the conditions of fees clearly. In absence of a consumer's court, this step is not enough to protect customers. It has to devise a banking code that strictly ensures disclosure of every condition and cost involved in an agreement. The banks must also give customers an early notice of charges so that they have a chance to correct their accounts. Until then, customers need to be informed and aware themselves.
• Read terms and conditions carefully
• If bank balance does not match your calculations, demand an explanation
• If unfairly charged, challenge the fees
• Keep sharp eye on your account
• Stay out of the red.