NatWest cus­tomers dumped and left un­able to pay bills

Pushed out Bri­tons with for­eign links are hav­ing their ac­counts closed as anti-ter­ror­ism and money laun­der­ing rules bite. Rupert re­ports

The Guardian - - MONEY -

Is NatWest se­cretly con­duct­ing a purge of cus­tomers who have links to coun­tries it doesn’t like the look of ?

A 26-year-old Lon­doner sav­ing up to buy his first home and a 54-year-old woman on dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits are the lat­est peo­ple to have their NatWest bank ac­counts shut down with no ex­pla­na­tion.

The 26-year-old, Joseph (he didn’t want us to use his full name), says he has been “painted as a crim­i­nal” by the bank, adding that in his view this could amount to “an act of dis­crim­i­na­tion be­cause of my eth­nic ori­gin”.

Mean­while, 54-year-old Ros­sana (she also only wanted us to use her first name) is equally an­gry and be­mused. She has been with NatWest – part of 62% tax­payerowned Royal Bank of Scot­land – for more than three decades, but now it is dump­ing her and won’t say why.

So what have Joseph and Ros­sana done to merit be­ing treated like pari­ahs?

It’s worth not­ing that while Joseph was born and raised in the UK – he de­scribes him­self as black British – his par­ents are from Nige­ria.

Mean­while, Ros­sana was born in Egypt, though she has been in the UK since 1977, when she was 13. She also de­scribes her­self as British – “I was nat­u­ralised a long time ago.”

Their ex­pe­ri­ences come just months af­ter Guardian Money re­ported on the case of Sa­muel, a fa­ther of two young chil­dren who was born in Nige­ria and moved to the UK more than a decade ago. NatWest wrote to him in Jan­uary to say it was shut­ting his ac­counts and he would have to take his busi­ness else­where. And in 2015, Money re­ported how an eco­nomics pro­fes­sor who was born in Iran but had lived in the UK for decades had had his NatWest ac­counts shut down.

There have been oth­ers, too: last month the Sun­day Times fea­tured the case of a 49-year-old Lon­doner who had her ac­count shut down by NatWest with­out ex­pla­na­tion. The ar­ti­cle said the woman’s part­ner was born in Libya and lives abroad.

With the bank re­fus­ing to say any­thing about any of th­ese cases, it’s hard to avoid con­clud­ing that NatWest, and some other banks, are dump­ing cus­tomers they view as hav­ing links to coun­tries about which they have con­cerns. This con­tro­ver­sial prac­tice is known in the in­dus­try as “de-risk­ing”.

Joseph says the way he has been treated is “un­eth­i­cal and unac­cept­able,” and adds: “I have no crim­i­nal records, I’ve not acted un­law­fully and I’ve done noth­ing wrong.” To add in­sult to in­jury, NatWest ef­fec­tively froze the money in his ac­counts while it car­ried out “checks”, which Joseph says left him un­able to pay bills and meet other costs.

As is of­ten the case, the first he knew there was a prob­lem was when his debit card was de­clined in a shop. A few days later a let­ter ar­rived stat­ing that “hav­ing car­ried out a re­view of your bank­ing ar­range­ment with us, we have made the de­ci­sion that we can no longer of­fer you bank­ing [ser­vices]”. It gave him 14 days’ no­tice that it was clos­ing his ac­counts. It added that ac­cess to his ac­counts had now been stopped, mean­ing his cards, di­rect deb­its and stand­ing or­ders had been can­celled.

NatWest told him the money in his ac­counts could be trans­ferred to an­other ac­count once all the nec­es­sary checks had been com­pleted – though th­ese checks would take 28 to 60 days.

Joseph grad­u­ated with a first­class uni­ver­sity de­gree and works at an in­vest­ment ad­vi­sory com­pany. He told us he can’t think of any rea­son why the bank is so keen to be shot of him. He has been with NatWest for eight years and says all the money in his ac­counts – sev­eral thou­sand pounds spread across a cur­rent ac­count, a help-to-buy Isa and a sav­ings ac­count – had been earned “work­ing for le­git­i­mate com­pa­nies – noth­ing il­le­gal”.

In a let­ter to the Fi­nan­cial Om­buds­man Ser­vice (FOS), Joseph said: “I have been un­able to pay my bills, ex­penses, di­rect deb­its, not to men­tion main­te­nance costs (food shop­ping, travel and so on).”

In 2016, City reg­u­la­tor the Fi­nan­cial Con­duct Au­thor­ity (FCA) said it had be­come aware that banks were with­draw­ing bank­ing fa­cil­i­ties from cus­tomers – or fail­ing to of­fer them in the first place – in greater num­bers than be­fore. It said there was a per­cep­tion that this was driven by banks’ con­cerns about the money laun­der­ing and ter­ror­ist fi­nanc­ing risks posed by cer­tain types of cus­tomer.

It fol­lows that be­cause coun­tries deemed risky in terms of money laun­der­ing and fi­nanc­ing ter­ror­ism tend to be Asian and African, peo­ple from, or with links to, th­ese re­gions may be par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble.

In 2016, the fi­nan­cial om­buds­man was deal­ing with 20 to 30 com­plaints a week about bank ac­count clo­sures. Now it is run­ning at about 50 a week.

The first Ros­sana knew of any is­sue was when she tried to log into the NatWest app but couldn’t get through. She went to a branch but the staff couldn’t or wouldn’t en­lighten her – though she says the man­ager was hold­ing a piece of pa­per that said “Info sup­pressed”.

The NatWest ac­count re­ceives her dis­abil­ity liv­ing al­lowance pay­ments and had a lit­tle over £2,900 in it. Her main bank ac­count is with HSBC and she has had no prob­lems with that.

A few days later she was able to ac­cess her NatWest ac­count, so she quickly with­drew most of her money. She has now re­ceived a let­ter from the bank say­ing she will need to make al­ter­na­tive bank­ing ar­range­ments within 60 days be­cause “we will no longer pro­vide th­ese fa­cil­i­ties for you”. It adds that “our de­ci­sion is fi­nal and we are not pre­pared to en­ter into any dis­cus­sion in re­la­tion to it”.

Ros­sana says she has no idea why NatWest has taken this ac­tion, adding that there had been noth­ing that could be in­ter­preted as “sus­pi­cious ac­tiv­ity”. She lives in Lon­don and has two grownup sons.

NatWest de­clined to com­ment on the two cases – it would only say: “We don’t take de­ci­sions like this lightly and will never close a cus­tomer’s ac­count with­out good rea­son.” Asked about al­le­ga­tions of dis­crim­i­na­tion, the bank de­clined to pro­vide an on-the-record quote.

‘I have no crim­i­nal records, I’ve not acted un­law­fully and I’ve done noth­ing wrong’ Joseph NatWest cus­tomer

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