The tale of the callous bank

This is a true story that says as much about Australia as it does about the banking and postal systems.

The saga began on October 20, 2002, when my wife purchased a bank draft for $S200 from the Bulleen branch of the Bank of Melbourne. Bulleen is the suburb next to Doncaster where I live. Two days later, I posted the draft to a friend in Singapore. It is impossible to mistake his address for an Australian address as Singapore has a postal code system which is totally different from that in Australia. Perhaps I should have sent it by registered post as I had already had one experience, last year, of having a letter sent to Singapore end up in Malaysia from where it was redirected back to Singapore. But then hindsight is always the best tutor, isn't it?

I informed my friend by email about having sent the draft and asked him to let me know when he received it. By November 15, I was getting a bit jittery and reminded him about the draft, again by email. The next day, he replied. He had not got it but mail was being delayed due to the anthrax scare; he asked me to wait another week and then stop payment of the draft.

A week later (November 23), he sent me an email advising me that it would be better to stop payment. I went to the Bank of Melbourne in Doncaster Shoppingtown on Saturday, November 24. I asked the woman at the counter to stop payment of the draft; her reply was that it could not be done immediately. The bank would have to first investigate whether the draft had been presented for payment at any of its branches and then they would get back to me; if it had not been presented, I could then choose to stop payment. I filled in a form and paid a fee of $A10 for this investigation.

On Monday evening, November 26, on a whim I checked my answering machine at home as it tends to play up at times. There was a message from the Bulleen branch of the Bank of Melbourne, from a woman named Cathy. She wanted me to call her at 9850 9527 about the draft. I was surprised to get this message as I had by then resigned myself to the fact that the draft had been lost somewhere between Australia and Singapore.

Next morning, November 27, I called this woman. She told me that the draft which I had taken from the bank had been found by someone and sent to Westpac Card Services in Sydney (the Bank of Melbourne trades as Westpac) and they had sent it on to Bulleen as it had been issued there. She asked me whether she could post the draft back to me and I said she could.

I immediately called the bank branch in Doncaster Shoppingtown, where I had filled in the form. I asked them NOT to stop payment of the draft as it had been found, rather surprisingly in New South Wales. The woman who took my call told me that they could not trace my request in their system by using my name; she wanted the number of the draft. I had not taken the counterfoil with me so I said I would provide it the next day.

Wednesday, November 28. I called the Doncaster Shoppingtown branch, gave them the draft number and the woman who took my call said she would check with the bank's investigation unit and then call me before the end of business that day. I gave her my office number and told her I would be there till 5.30pm (I was there till nearly 6pm). Not surprisingly, I did not hear from her.

That evening, the draft came back to me. It had been sent to Westpac Card Services by an Australia Post redistribution centre in Waterloo, New South Wales.

Thursday, November 29. I called the Doncaster Shoppingtown branch around 10am. I asked the woman who took the call about the fate of my request and was put on to another woman, the one who had spoken to me on Wednesday. I told her what had happened and said that the draft could still be used and that there was no need to stop payment. She seemed to have some difficulty understanding what had happened. She said she would call back and let me know.

A few hours later, around 3pm, she called me and said Westpac's correspondent bank in Singapore, the Oversea (sic) Chinese Banking Corporation, had put a stop on the draft and charged a fee of $S30. She informed me that I would have to pay this amount when I brought the draft back to the bank for a refund. By this point, I was annoyed. I asked her why a stop had been put on the draft when people at that very branch had told me that they could NOT do so immediately but only after investigating and then consulting me. She tried to hide behind the fact that someone else had told me this but had no answer when I told her that both of them were speaking for one institution. I asked for, and obtained, the address of the banking ombudsman.

I then called the customer complaints section of the bank. A man took down my complaint, read it back to me and then assured me that I would hear from someone in the section within 48 hours. As it was now around 4pm on a Thursday, I asked him if the 48-hour period also included the weekend. He was adamant - the bank would call and contact me either at home or at work. By this stage, I laughed cynically when I put down the phone. Amazingly, this man was very definitely able to identify me by name, unlike the branch in Doncaster. Does the bank use different computer systems in different states??? In my complaint, I made it plain that I was NOT prepared to pay the $S30 and that I wanted the draft encashed at the same rate as that which I had paid for it.

I gave the bank time till 10am on Tuesday, December 4 - a total of 114 hours, though they had asked for only 48. I called the customer complaints division, and gave the woman who answered the reference number of my complaint. Glory, hallelujah, nothing had been done. I was given the name Dorothy Jane and a number in Sydney - 02-92205878 - to call, and told that if I wanted I could leave a message on this woman's voice mail. I elected to call directly but met the same form of escapism. I left a voice message and then called again a short time later. This time I got on to a man named Gary Bonello who looked at my complaint, hemmed and hawed a lot, apologised many times, consulted the Jane woman, and then gave me the number of the Bulleen branch and the name Cathy as the person who could settle the affair. Like Marco Polo. I had now circled the globe - the Bulleen branch was where the whole thing began. He asked me to call her after half an hour as she was with a client. I was not polite to this man but I did not shout at him - I was fairly sarcastic, though.

I waited for 45 minutes and called the Bulleen branch. The woman whose name I had been given took the phone and said she was still with a customer and offered to call me back. I gave her my number and waited. She called back about an hour later. She thanked me for my patience, apologised profusely and then proceeded to try and stall things all over again. How, she queried, did the draft end up in New South Wales? Had I made an error when I wrote the address? After hearing her out, I was not prepared to listen to bullshit any more so I told her in plain English that mail went to wrong destinations because of the inefficiency of Australia Post; (as mentioned earlier, I have had one letter to Singapore go to Malaysia before being re-routed. I have had a few letters to Kuwait go missing and the same fate befell a few letters to Kenya.) I told this woman that she could stop wasting her time and mine and tell me whether the bank was prepared to settle my complaint on my terms or not. Else, I told her to tell me that the bank was unwilling to settle the issue and that I would seek redress elsewhere.

She told me that I would have to come to the bank for the settlement. I said I would come in on Saturday, December 8.

A few hours later, I received another call from yet another woman at the bank in Sydney. She said I had left a voice mail message on her phone and was calling to find out if she could be of assistance. I told her that the only woman I had left any voice mail message for was the elusive Dorothy Jane. She again inquired whether she could be of help. I told her that things had gone beyond the stage of help and that it was pretty peculiar that while the bank did not give a damn from November 29 when I politely filed a complaint, they got a bit hot under the collar when I started giving them a bit of stick. She again inquired whether she could help me - I told her that I was not going to waste my time telling her the whole story again and that someone who knew the details could call back. I wished her a good day and then cut the line.

Wednesday, December 5. The saga shows no sign of ending. I got a call from the same woman I had spoken to twice at the Doncaster Shoppingtown branch. She told me that she had been following up the case (very diligent of her, no doubt) and that I could come to the branch with the draft and that I would be paid $A209. After hearing her out, I asked her if she was aware that there was a complaint about this matter, that the complaint had been followed up by me and that I had been directed to the Bulleen branch for settling the matter. She was taken aback. I then asked if the bank's right hand knew what its left hand was doing and told her to speak to the Bulleen branch and not to call me again. Half an hour later, the woman from the Bulleen branch was on the line. Blah, blah, blah, everything will be settled on Saturday, I have spoken to Doncaster and told them to send all the paperwork here. (sounds like a huge legal matter now).

Saturday, December 8. I went to the Bulleen branch of the bank at around 10am and asked for the woman whom I had been asked to contact. She was with a customer so I waited. She called me after she had disposed of her customer and gave me amount I had paid for my draft in cash along with an additional $10 which I had paid for the draft. No questions asked. I think by now they had got the point that here was a troublemaker who would not give up.

My next effort will be to take up things with the postal authorities and see why people do not know the difference between Sydney and Singapore. Agreed, they both start with the same letter but still there is some difference...