Guide to smart banking: You can always bank on this Ombudsman

When Pulak Saini* noticed some unrecognised withdrawals from his savings bank account with a Dehradun branch of a nationalised vank, he made enquiries with the branch staff. To his horror, however, he realised that the withdrawals had been made against three cheques — which, he claimed, had been stolen from his desk and forged. The signatures on the cheques, he said, bore not the faintest resemblance to his own, but the bank staff had cleared them perfunctorily.

The bank staff, however, denied the allegation, and claimed that the variance in the customer’s signature on the cheque leaves was within the permissible range, and the cheques had been passed in good faith. If the customer had indeed lost the cheque, he ought to have informed the bank, they argued. Saini has preferred a complaint, which he has resolved to take before the in-house Banking Ombudsman — and even to a Consumer Court, if necessary.

Saini’s experience may seem slightly old-fashioned in today’s digital world, where complaints about electronic hacking of accounts are rather more the norm. But it is a reminder of the fact that some crimes never go out of fashion; in equal measure, it sends out the message that there are grievance redress mechanisms built into the banking system, to which customers can turn.

According to data from the Reserve Bank of India, in recent years, with the expansion in the range and volume of financial services, there has been a spurt in the number of grievances as well. Typically, these relate to non-observance of the fair practices code, followed by complaints related to ATM/credit card/debit cards, non-adherence to the Banking Codes and Standards Board of India (BCSBI) and pensions, among others. To a large extent, deeper and wider financial literacy and a general awareness about banking and the financial world will act a shield against deficient service.

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More specifically, it is useful to have a wider knowledge of financial products and processes and a proper understanding of how to deal with various problems or issues that one typically tends to face in financial transactions with banks.

But the bottomline is this: if you have a genuine grievance with your bank, there is a due-process redress mechanism that has been put in place by the RBI for consumer protection, in the form of the Banking Ombudsman.

All scheduled commercial banks, regional rural banks and scheduled primary co-operative banks are covered under the Banking Ombudsman Scheme.

The Banking Ombudsman is an easy, inexpensive and yet effective platform for bank customers to seek resolution of complaints relating to certain services rendered by banks. The Banking Ombudsman Scheme was introduced under Section 35A of the Banking Regulation Act, 1949 by the RBI with effect from 1995. Currently, it is governed by the Banking Ombudsman Scheme, 2006 as amended up to July 1, 2017. As of now, there are 21 offices of the Banking Ombudsman across the country to ensure fair treatment of customers.

The due process

But there is a due process to be observed. At the first level, the complaint must be made at your bank branch. You should approach the bank with a written complaint. But if you do not receive a reply from your bank within one month from the date of receipt of complaint by the bank, you can take it up with the Ombudsman. If the bank branch rejects your complaint, or if the response given or action taken is not to your satisfaction, you can similarly approach the Ombudsman.

Registering a complaint with the Banking Ombudsman is a simple procedure: you can do it online or through email/fax/post; the contact details are given on the RBI portal.

According to RBI data, during 2016-17, the total number of complaints increased by 27.3 per cent, up from 20.9 per cent in the previous year. Most of the offices of the Banking Ombudsman in Tier I and Tier II cities recorded a significant increase in the number of complaints.

The six Tier I cities received 54.7 per cent of the total complaints. Population-group wise, the largest proportion of complaints was received from urban areas followed by metropolitan, semi-urban and rural areas. During 2016-17, the share of complaints from urban and rural bank customers increased while the share of metropolitan and semi-urban customers fell marginally.

*name changed to protect identity