NZINGA QUNTA: My name is Nzinga Qunta, standing in for Fifi Peters. Tonight we’re going to be discussing reports that bank employees have been fired over account-activation irregularities. That also led me to think about the role of the banking ombudsman, who is someone that we hear about on the news quite a lot, and someone who is there to assist consumers when they have challenges with banks. That can seem quite a daunting task if you’re just an individual trying to fight against a corporation, whether it’s about your house being taken away from you, whether it’s about charges that you feel are irregular or unfair.
So joining us on the line is Reana Steyn, the banking ombudsman. A very good evening to you. Thanks so much for your time on the SAfm Market Update this evening. Just explain the role of the ombudsman to us.
REANA STEYN: Good evening and good evening to the listeners. Thank you for having us. The role of the ombudsman? We are a free dispute-resolution service, and that really just means that if you have a complaint against your bank, any one of the banks and this is not being resolved by your bank, then you can come to our office. We employ a team of lawyers who can look at any contract, who can assess any matter that you have – interest rates, whatever it is – and we can then make an assessment and decide whether you are right or whether the bank is right. And, if you are correct, we will order the bank to correct the situation. And of course, if we decide that the bank is correct in a specific case, we will tell you why we say so and try to explain.
Sometimes we also just mediate a situation where it’s not quite a right or wrong situation. There is a dispute, but something that can be resolved. It’s a free service and we are there really for bank customers, so that they’ve got somewhere to go where they don’t have to pay if they’ve got a problem with the bank.
NZINGA QUNTA: Right. Just tell me about the legislation that gives you powers to do that.
REANA STEYN: In terms of the FSRA, the Financial Services Regulation Act, the Ombud Schemes have been established. Our office has been around for 21 years. As you know, the legislation was written a few years ago and in that legislation they also made provision for registration of our Ombud Schemes with the Ombud Council, which is also a body they’ve established in terms of that act. That’s an oversight body that will then make sure that we do what we have to do in terms of the legislation.
At the moment we are a voluntary scheme for all the banks, but we have oversight by the Ombud Council in terms of that act. So that’s sort of how it fits together.
NZINGA QUNTA: Right. And what did you see in terms of complaints during Covid-19, with these powers of yours and with the job that you do at the ombudsman?
REANA STEYN: Sorry, can you maybe just repeat that? We don’t have a very clear line.
NZINGA QUNTA: Sure. Not a problem. During Covid-19 I was reading that there was a report that the banking ombudsman produced that said there was an increase in the number of complaints against banks by individuals and consumers. So I’m just asking you to explain a little bit about what happened there.
REANA STEYN: We saw an increase in complaints last year and the year before. Basically, even if you look over the last four, five years, our numbers of complaints have increased every year. There may be many reasons for that. Even during Covid our complaints increased, but not so much because of Covid. We did sort of have a new category of complaints which we then listed as a Covid complaint, as opposed to a typical ATM complaint or internet banking or whatever, or a savings account complaint. So we listed their Covid complaints specifically, but we did not see many of those complaints in our office. We suspect that the banks handled a lot of those complaints before they ever came to our office because I’m sure they were inundated but they set up special call centres and teams to deal with people with complaints around Covid issues. We have seen a few of those complaints.
But overall our complaints increased in the last two years, which we call the Covid years. It could be [that] people were sitting online, they were Googling more, they were working from home, they were debt-stressed generally, so they were looking for somebody to assist them. Also I think our consumers are more aware of their rights, so every year we see more complaints. So I think there are many reasons why our complaints increased, not all Covid-related.
NZINGA QUNTA: Right. we saw that there was a report of bank employees being fired over creating these so-called ‘ghost accounts’ to try and meet targets. Have you had complaints from consumers around that, and can you speak on that?
REANA STEYN: No, we haven’t. I speak under correction because I haven’t done research over all the years if we’ve ever had a complaint; this is obviously quite new. We also saw it as breaking news. I don’t think we’ve had complaints about this yet, but I do think that we need to just tell consumers that if they fear that they’ve been a victim, that accounts have been opened in their name that they know nothing about and that they don’t want, and they then don’t get assistance from the bank to cancel that account and make sure that they don’t pay a single cent of fees, our office is there for them to complain. If they don’t know how to complain, if they feel they’re not sure, again we can assist.
I think the other thing [is] we can advise consumers. It’s a good thing, as you know – we always say this – that people must check their credit records. Now, maybe if you are a scholar, a matriculant, you [perhaps] don’t quite know about credit records, but other people do know and they should know. It’s something that you should do at least once a year. So if you think that you just want to make sure that you are not one of these victims because you did hear something about it, go and check your credit record because, if they opened an account, then I suspect there should be a record of that through the bank systems into the bureaux. It will show on the bureau that you’ve got this account. Many clients come to us and they see something on their credit report that they don’t agree with and that they know nothing about. Then of course we assist [in getting] that removed. So I think that’s another way for people who feel a bit weary and don’t know if they have been affected, if they were a victim of this fraud …
NZINGA QUNTA: We need to wrap up, so my apologies for cutting in. I also just wanted to find out about this thing that we experience, I think, across banks, where there’ll be an outage, and suddenly if you are with X bank you cannot transact at all. Are our rights as consumers being violated in an instance like that where there’s a technical issue, and do we have recourse if something goes down for three or four hours and we cannot transact?
REANA STEYN: Well, I think if it’s only a case of a couple of hours [in which] there’s no access, that on its own I don’t think necessarily gives you any financial loss or a claim – unless of course you can prove that. If the system blackout caused a glitch in the system, say for example a payment went through twice and you couldn’t see that the first payment went through, so you made another one and they don’t reverse that, that’s the kind of thing that we can certainly assist with and that the bank should fix themselves. So it depends on what happens in this period.
NZINGA QUNTA: Okay. Thank you so much for your time and your insight this evening. Reana Steyn is the ombudsman for banking services, and has been speaking to us about that news report that we are seeing coming out around ‘ghost employees’, what you can do if you believe you’ve been a victim, but also really understanding the role of the banking ombudsman, a free service for consumers who feel they may need recourse against banks.