A Whitby, Ontario woman found out this month that without warning her bank had frozen her account. In the process, it prevented her from accessing child support and child tax benefit payments directed to her 15-year-old daughter.
“I can’t tell you how awful that was,” said Sarah Bolt, a 29-year customer of BMO Bank of Montreal and a former teller with the bank.
“It was a rough day,” she said.
Bolt receives an accumulated monthly child-support benefit between $1,445 and $1,665 from her daughter’s father, funds processed through Ontario’s Family Responsibility Office (FRO) and through the Child Tax Benefit (CCTB).
Bolt, who is currently unemployed and actively looking for work, admits having difficulty paying an outstanding BMO MasterCard bill. That debt, which sat at about $5,000 last August, has ballooned to more than $6,400 with accrued interest.
She says BMO collectors refused to accept reduced monthly payments, she says she could pay, until finding a new job.
In early August of this year, Bolt says she discovered her account had been frozen. She says a hold had been placed on future deposits amounting to $6,406 with an end date of January 4, 2017. It was clear BMO was attempting to recover its money through her account.
Bank agreements typically allow for the collection of debts from funds in an account under a provision called the right of offset. The Financial Consumer Agency of Canada describes the bank’s rights this way:
“When accepting a credit card, a client enters into a contract with a financial institution. This contract may give the institution the right to “offset” the credit card debt (take funds from one account to settle a debt in another account with the same financial institution) from the client’s bank account when the credit card bill is overdue.”
“If your bank withdrew funds from your account without your consent to pay overdue credit card bills, you should look at your contract to see if it includes a “right-to-offset” clause.”
But when Bolt’s account was frozen, she started researching her rights. She contacted the Canada Revenue Agency and the Family Responsibility Office. In doing so, she says she was assured BMO was improperly seizing funds intended for her daughter, who is a minor.
“Any money that goes toward child support, whether it’s money from the government for the child is legally not allowed (to be taken),” Bolt says she was told on several occasions by government representatives.
Bolt contacted Global News, which in turn asked BMO to explain its decision to freeze the account. Two weeks later, BMO restored Bolt’s access to her account and paid back some, but not all of the money that had been taken.
BMO declined a request for a television interview, issuing a statement instead.
A spokesperson told Global News by email: “We have communicated with Ms. Bolt and would like to continue to work with her to come to an arrangement that is reasonable given the circumstances. We are confident that the bank acted appropriately in this matter.”
BMO just released third-quarter profit figures showing a profit of $1.25 billion, an increase of 4 per cent from last year.
Bolt says the decision to freeze her account had devastating consequences.
“I got an eviction notice the next day,” Bolt said, explaining that without access to funds she could not pay her full rent. She is asking her landlord to allow her to stay in her home.
Bolt credits Global News for coming to her aid. But she’s still skeptical of BMO’s approach to her case.
“Now there’s no hold, but how do you trust that?” she said.
“The one big thing I learned is that you should have a bank account that has nothing to do with your creditors at all so this doesn’t happen.”