Debited for 17 years, branded a debtor without knowing, bank customer fights for justice

ONWUKA

TESSY IGOMU examines the travail of a bank customer listed as a debtor on the Central Bank of Nigeria’s Credit Risk Management System without his knowledge

The experience of a Lagos-based journalist, Azuka Onwuka, is a byzantine tale, which many bank customers might readily identify with. He is presently in a race against time to salvage his reputation, which he claimed was dented by an action taken by the United Bank of Africa, and to prevent likely further damage arising from it.

He alleged that the bank carried out “fraudulent, hidden debit” on his dormant account and branded him a debtor without his knowledge.

Onwuka claimed the action had cost him huge financial losses, emotional and psychological trauma.

A debtor in absentia

In April 2022, Onwuka clinched a multimillion naira business deal with an international firm but had to forfeit it after finding out that his name was uploaded to the Credit Risk Management System of the Central Bank of Nigeria, an online portal with comprehensive details of individuals owing banks across the country.

He explained that when such an action is taken, the integrity of the individual involved comes into question.

Onwuka noted that the person’s name would always pop up as a defaulter when a background check is carried out by a potential employer or business partner. “That was my ordeal. UBA left a dormant account that I had with them and used my details to open another one without my knowledge and debited it progressively and cumulatively, leaving a debit balance,” he alleged.

Fallout of 2005 Bank merger

Onwuka told PUNCH Investigations that what started as a regular background check on an account he left in 2006, turned into an ugly experience that deprived him of sleep and loss of productive man-hours channelled into the exchange of correspondences between him and UBA from February 2022 to May.

Onwuka recalled that it all started with a salary account he opened with the defunct Standard Trust Bank that merged with UBA.

Bank merger

In 2005, due to the need to strengthen the operational capabilities of the banking sector with to increase waning public and global confidence, the CBN instituted a reform that led to the merger of 89 banks in existence at the time.

With STB merging with UBA, all customers’ accounts, including that of Onwuka were transferred to UBA.

The embattled man said a year after the merger (2006), he stopped banking with UBA but left some money in the account with hopes to have it reactivated one day.

Onwuka, a writer and columnist, noted that he continued to receive monthly statements but at a point, noticed that the account had been wiped out, leaving him with zero balance.

Emergence of international business deal

Onwuka said in February 2022, an international business opportunity came up and knowing full well that the organisation usually carries out credit checks on its partners, he decided to find out the state of all his accounts, including the dormant one.

The man said he was shocked to discover that another account was opened in his name and that a debit had accrued on it.

Onwuka recounted, “I requested for a statement of account from UBA, but received two instead of one. The balance on my dormant account was zero, while that of the strange account created by UBA in my name without my knowledge, and which had been debiting progressively and cumulatively since 2006, had a debit balance of N48, 882.05.

The bank statement made available to PUNCH Investigations on the new account showed a debt that accumulated from January 2016 to February 2022, and UBA maintained a 19 per cent interest rate on it.

Ordeal with UBA customer service

Disturbed by the development, Onwuka sent a mail to the Customers Fulfillment Centre of UBA, requesting a detailed explanation on the new account and the accumulated charges

Three days later, UBA acknowledged receiving his mail and gave an assurance that he would be attended to within seven days.

“One week later, I sent a reminder to the email through which I received a reply, but got an automated response, asking if I have heard about the new UBA mobile App,” he added.

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Onwuka said to get more clarity on the matter, he contacted his account officer via WhatsApp on March 8.

Screenshots of the chats, which he shared with PUNCH Investigations, showed that Mary, who initially promised to attend to the complaints, suddenly stopped responding to Onwuka’s chats.

Onwuka said when he realised that it was taking the bank a long time to address the issue, he paid the sum of N50, 000 into his dormant account to offset the accrued debt, so that his name can be cleared.

“After making the payment, I was told that the money should have been paid into the strange account. I was asked to send a letter of authorisation and indemnity for the money to be moved to the strange account. I was later contacted to pay an additional N1, 900 because charges on it had accumulated, bringing the so-called debt to N51, 900,” he said.

The writer claimed that despite following UBA’s directive to the latter, the financial institution had yet to take steps to remove his name from the CBN’s CRMS.

Losses, double trauma

Onwuka claimed that aside from the inconvenience and extra burden that came with paying an unauthorised debit, he lost a big business deal due to the debtor tag allegedly attached to his name by UBA.

The writer said having basic knowledge of how the CRMS works and its attendant negative implications, made him stop further business discussions with the international firm.

He said, “I had to make that decision because I value my name more than money and would not want any negative report that would brand me as not being credit-worthy. It would be a dent on my integrity as a person. I lost that international business opportunity.”

“I ended up paying UBA for a debt that I didn’t know its history and wasn’t aware of its existence. It will be hard to quantify the mental and psychological trauma UBA put me through from February when this strange debt was discovered to be hanging on my neck, till date.”

CBN CRMS

Like Onwuka, any individual whose name gets uploaded to the Credit Risk Management System of the CBN would be flagged by any financial institution as a debtor or defaulter.

The CBN on its website explained that the portal was created because the late 1980s and early 1990s witnessed rising non-performing credit portfolios in banks that significantly contributed to the financial distress in the banking sector.

The apex bank also said the initiative was based on the existence of predatory debtors in the banking system whose modus operandi involved the abandonment of their debt obligations in some banks only to contract new debts in another.

It added that the use of status enquiries on bilateral basis between banks was characterised by weaknesses, adding that status enquiries were regarded as business courtesies to which some banks either didn’t respond to or gave vague replies. CBN stated, “In spite of the systemic weakness, many banks continued to extend fresh facilities to customers who already had hardcore and un-serviced debts with other banks and financial institutions. On the part of the regulators, the paucity of credit information had inhibited consistent classification of credits granted to certain borrowers and their associated companies.’’

Going public

On April 5, a frustrated Onwuka went public about his ordeal and the bank’s alleged evasive responses.

He, however, said before taking the action, he informed the financial institution.

He provided PUNCH Investigations with copies of email correspondences with the bank’s Customer Fulfilment Centre.

Onwuka claimed that after the social media post went viral, he received a mail from a UBA employe, identified as Abolaji A, formally notifying him about the conclusion of a probe into his complaint.

The mail read in part, “Kindly be informed that investigations have been concluded and the recommendations have been sent to the management level for the requisite approval to implement them. Please permit us to renew the turnaround time and revert to you with a conclusive position on or before April 20, 2022.”

Onwuka claimed that he was not contacted on the promised date and was surprised to get a call from the bank requesting an additional one week.

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The writer said as soon as the time elapsed, he sent a mail to UBA, informing it of his plan to seek redress.

“I have shown patience and calmness since February till now (end of April), despite the shoddy way UBA has treated me on this matter. Having done all that, I will now proceed to take steps to get justice on this matter,” he stated.

Onwuka said he later got a mail from Abolaji on Saturday, April 30, asking for approval to work on his request.

It read, “We would like to inform you that in the aftermath of your conversation with the GH-CFC, that we pushed internally yet again for the approval required to initiate the refund and close this case effectively, but it remained pending prior to yesterday. Consequently, your email to us yesterday was appropriately escalated, and we are glad to inform you that we now have the requisite approval to close this, sir.

“Unfortunately, due to the weekend and relatively long holiday spanning till Tuesday next week, we will be unable to consummate the closure until beyond Wednesday.

“Hence, we humbly seek your indulgence one final time to allow us work on it and ensure that we close out on or before Friday, 6th May, 2022 without fail, sir.

“We appreciate the exceptional patience you have had with us on this matter and also apologise one more time for all of the inconvenience you have endured while this lasted, sir.”

Onwuka told PUNCH Investigations that on Wednesday, May 4, he received yet another mail from the UBA CFC, informing him of recommendations made after investigations were carried out on his matter.

“The sum of N51, 818.32 which you paid into the account – 1003284792 to nil off the debit interest accrued over time, be reversed and written off.

“That your credit status be updated on the Credit risk management system of CBN. Also, please provide an account number to credit as both accounts have been previously closed,” it stated.

Dissatisfied and miffed by the bank’s recommendation, Onwuka, registered his displeasure and rejected the commendation through a mail sent on Saturday, May 7.

CBN Consumer Protection Department unresponsive

Still unhappy with UBA’s handling of the matter, Onwuka sent a mail to the CBN Consumer Protection Department, reporting the conduct of UBA.

In the mail titled, “How UBA took my money, tarnished my image, snubbed me and made me lose money,” he called on the apex bank to wade into the matter.

He also demanded an official apology from UBA for sending his name to CRMS; compensation for his alleged tarnished image, financial losses, psychological trauma and emotional pain.

He, however, claimed that the mail was reversed because the mailbox of the department was full.

Onwuka said when he sent a message to the CBN’s verified Facebook account, complaining about the reversed email, the handler said, “We are currently working on resolving this issue.”

CPD, CBN response system verified

The CPD was created in April 2012 in furtherance of one of CBN’s core mandates of promoting a sound financial system and to develop and implement an effective consumer protection framework that would promote consumer confidence in the financial system.

It is basically meant to treat complaints from financial institutions that are licensed and under the regulatory purview of the CBN.

A dummy message was sent by PUNCH Investigations to the official email of the CPD – [email protected], to find out if the mail was active and immediately got an automated response highlighting guidelines for addressing complaints.

The CBN was also contacted via its verified Facebook account to find out why the CPD email was inactive and got a message from the handler that it had been activated.

However, questions on how the CRMS works, processes involved to have a debtor’s name removed from the portal and if there are sanctions for banks that violate the CRMS guidelines, were not responded to.

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Nigerian banks’ regime of illegal, excess charges

The Nigerian banking sector has always received backlash over complaints made by customers over outrageous, illegal deductions and excessive charges, especially on social media platforms.

These complaints have attracted calls for banking reforms and stiff penalties.

CBN, as a financial regulator, said it had recovered billions of customers’ money from various banks in the last 10 years.

In 2018, the apex bank announced the recovery of N65bn from commercial banks, which it claimed were illegal charges and deductions from customers’ deposits. It explained that the illegal charges were deducted from 2012, adding that by 2021, the sum recovered had risen to N89bn.

The CBN Acting Director, Corporate Communications Department, Osita Nwanisobi, noted that the money was based on 23,526 complaints received from customers bordering on illegal charges and other related matters as of June 2021.

UBA’s CFC unresponsive

On June 3, PUNCH Investigations sent a mail to the UBA Customer Fulfillment Centre, the unit handling Onwuka’s matter, to find out if the issue had been resolved as promised. The mail was specifically addressed to Abolaji. A, as he had variously communicated with the writer.

Onwuka’s account officer, May Adegoke was also contacted through her Whatsapp number, but she asked for a mail to be sent.

As of the time of this publication, no response was received from any of them.

Name removal is instant, says CBN

Contacted for its reaction on the issue, the CBN Corporate Communications Department, Osita Nwanisobi, said ideally, removing the name of a customer that had repaid a debt from the CRMS portal should be instant, as all banks have 24-hour and seven days access to the portal.

He, however, noted that it must not exceed the end of the month when the repayment was made.

A latter message sent to find out sanctions stipulated for banks that fail to comply with the directive was not answered.

However, the CBN guidelines of 2017, published on its website, stated, “Submission of misleading, incorrect, invalid and/or incomplete information as well as failure to update existing/live records to reflect the status of the credit or loan are infractions that are punishable.”

One of the sanctions highlighted include payment of N25, 000 per day for each incorrect or invalid data from the day it was submitted to the date it was discovered.

Both accounts opened by Onwuka -UBA

Head, Media and External Relations, UBA, Nasir Ramon, confirmed that there have been correspondences between Onwuka and UBA, noting that his name had been taken off the CRMS.

He, however, said he has no information on when the action was taken.

Ramon revealed that Onwuka once worked for a subsidiary of STB called Excel Logistics and noted that both accounts were opened for different purposes by him. “One was a current account and the other, a salary account,” he added.

“So, there was an email they sent to him three weeks ago and he has yet to respond to. They told him you were using this account actively and initiating transactions on it up to 2011 with a closing credit balance of N866.35.  Being a current account that it was, the standard depleted to N274 due to debits, turn over and account maintenance charges. No secret account was created on your behalf as both accounts were opened in December 2003 by you with the same name, signature, address and phone number. Both accounts opening were initiated by you for different purposes.

“Accounts that go into a negative position for a duration of time are automatically flagged, reported to the CBN and ultimately reported on CRMS. Your accounts, due to their negative positions over time became qualified for this consideration.”

Claims diversionary -Onwuka

Confronted with Ramon’s claims, Onwuka said they were lame and diversionary.

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