How I finally beat the bank.

I finally beat the bank that took all my money!

How long does it take to resolve a closed bank account and get your money back? Five months, if you bank with HSBC.

In November of last year, my online checking account was closed suddenly without warning. I wrote about the struggle with the bank back in March. And I wasn’t alone: The Wall Street Journal has reported HSBC sold 195 retail branches in the United States in 2012. As a result, HSBC began closing customers’ accounts — often without notice.

It would be another six weeks before I got my money back, and it didn’t come easy. Along the way, I learned a lot about customer service and online-only bank accounts, businesses, and branches of government that protect consumers — and how far up the chain you need to go to get results.

Here’s how I finally won…

Step 1: Aim high up the ladder

In my experience, businesses are usually willing to resolve a customer’s complaint or issue if you keep escalating it until you reach a supervisor or manager willing to help you.

Unfortunately, of the 27 times I called HSBC’s customer service online, I spoke to three supervisors — none who were willing or able to help beyond reading a script and hanging up when I started asking questions.

Finally, I located an email address for HSBC’s press and communications department. I emailed the department to let them know that I had uncovered several customers with similar issues, and I was having an issue myself.

In response, I was asked:

You raise some serious issues and I wonder if you could provide names and addresses of the HSBC customers you’ve been in contact with so that we can investigate and respond appropriately.

When I refused, I received a second response:

HSBC is committed to serving the needs of commercial customers consistent with our global strategy. In the U.S. as elsewhere, that means focusing on clients who conduct cross-border business or who intend to do so in the near future.

As is standard practice across the banking industry, HSBC does reserve the right to exit banking relationships according to the “Rules for Deposit Accounts” which form part of the account opening process.     

For privacy reasons we do not comment on individual customer matters.

Unfortunately, communication ended there, and I wasn’t able to get an answer for myself or anyone else with a similar problem. But I wasn’t at a loss.

Step 2: The Better Business Bureau

My next step was contacting the BBB. While the BBB only acts as the middleman, you can file a complaint online, and it’s a good place to start. Filing a complaint was quick and painless, but getting a response was not. It wasn’t the BBB’s fault, it was HSBC’s.

This is how the complaint process went:

  • March 11: Filed a complaint online.
  • March 12: Received confirmation of my complaint.
  • March 13: Received a letter in the mail from an HSBC customer relations officer, who wrote, “Once we have completed a thorough review of the issues raised, we will respond to you immediately. If a resolution is not forthcoming within 10 business days, we will update you accordingly.”
  • March 19: HSBC notified the BBB they would look into my complaint within 30 business days.
  • April 10: The BBB followed up to see if HSBC had responded to me personally. I hadn’t received anything else from the bank.
  • April 11: The BBB closed my complaint, stating, “Your BBB has tried to present your complaint to HSBC Bank USA, N.A. in an attempt to resolve this matter to your mutual satisfaction.  Unfortunately, despite our efforts, we have received no response to your complaint. We attempted to contact HSBC Bank USA, N.A. through written correspondence twice on your behalf, but we must now close this matter in our files. This does not minimize the importance of your concerns, nor is it any reflection on the validity of your dispute.”

In the end, I filed two complaints with the BBB — one with my local office and one with the office where HSBC is located. The BBB wasn’t able to resolve my issue, but it was a start.

Step 3: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

For banking matters, you can file a claim with the Federal Reserve. Claims are investigated by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. You can file free online.

In my experience, the CFPB was helpful, but in a roundabout way. When I filed my claim, I received an immediate response confirming the submission. The next day, I received a response from the CFPB with a claim number and this statement:

We received your submission from the Federal Reserve and will review it as soon as possible to determine if it involves a Federal consumer financial law within our authority.

Depending on what we find, we will:

  • Send your complaint to the company for a response; or
  • Send your complaint to the appropriate regulator or help you get in touch with your state and local consumer protection office if your complaint is not within our authority; or
  • Let you know if we need more information to continue our work.

I didn’t hear from the CFPB again while I was resolving my banking nightmare, but I still say it’s a step worth doing. If nothing else, it showed the bank I was serious.

Step 4: Dealing with the company

Finally, I received a second letter from HSBC. It said the bank would look into my claim and follow up within 30 days. This letter also had a phone number on it.

I called for three days without a response. On the third day, I left a message and immediately got a call back. Margaret, the customer relations officer working my claim, told me she hadn’t been able to determine why my account was shut down in the first place. It looked like some sort of clerical error. She apologized profusely and agreed to overnight me a check for the full balance.

The check arrived the next morning.

After five months of work, I finally had my money back and apology from the bank. I deposited the check and won’t be looking back, but I did learn a few things.

For one, I shouldn’t have waited so long to seek help.

For another, while the BBB and the CFPB weren’t able to help me directly, they got the attention of HSBC, which led to a resolution.

So if this ever happens to you, know that you can also beat the bank. Act quickly and use the free tools at your disposal to get a resolution. File complaints and keep at it. Someday soon, an extremely frazzled employee will call you with a big apology.

Posted in: Budgeting & Saving, News
Tagged with: , ,