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Have a complaint against your bank? You may face an uphill battle, watchdog report suggests

Bank customers who need to escalate their complaints face a number of hurdles, Canada's federal financial consumer watchdog said in a new report.
Bank customers who need to escalate their complaints face a number of hurdles, Canada's federal financial consumer watchdog said in a new report. Adrien Veczan/The Canadian Press

Canadians with complaints against their bank have their work cut out for them if their case happens to be a complicated one.

That’s the main finding of a lengthy government review of the way Canada’s big six banks — RBC, TD, BMO, CIBC, ScotiaBank and National Bank — handle their customer complaints.

More than five million Canadians bring at least one complaint against their bank every year, estimates the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, the federal financial consumer watchdog. Of those, about 75 per cent are resolved at the first point of contact between customers and their financial institution, according to the FCAC.

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But if your bank issue happens to be among the 25 per cent of complaints that must be escalated — good luck.

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At the next level up, you may encounter bank employees who, while charged with handling your escalated complaint, are also required to look for opportunities to sell you the bank’s products and services, according to the report.

Banks don’t make it easy for consumers to advance their complaints, leaving it up to those customers to navigate “a complex system that is slow and cumbersome,” the FCAC said. As a result, a significant portion of consumers simply give up, the agency said.

But even if you manage to reach some kind of resolution, the type of treatment you can expect may depend more on how much you matter to the bank as a customer than the degree of harm that any bank error may have done to you, the report stated.

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“Banks have largely failed to set clear parameters in their [complaint handling procedures] to specify when it is appropriate to consider the business relationship — such as the length of time the consumer has been with the bank, the profitability of the consumer’s business with the bank, and the potential to earn future business,” the report noted.
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The watchdog did find that Canada’s big banks are doing a better job of monitoring escalated complaints after another of its reports in 2018 flagged a growing risk of bank branch and call centre employees misselling financial products to customers.

However, banks “generally fail” to tell customers they can bring their complaints to an ombudsman after 90 days even if the bank is still looking into it, the FCAC said.

Canadians have the right to bring their complaints to an independent complaints body if the issue is not resolved to their satisfaction in a timely manner. Even getting to an ombudsman, however, is no guarantee of a smooth and satisfactory process, the report suggested.

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The most glaring problem is that, in Canada, there are two bodies that handle bank complaints: the Ombudsman for Banking Services and Investments (OBSI) and the ADR Chambers Banking Ombuds Office (ADRBO). While both are funded by the banks, OBSI is a not-for-profit while ADRBO is a private, for-profit entity.

OBSI was the only banking ombudsman until the Harper government changed the rules to introduce the option for the banks to turn to ADRBO.

RBC, TD, ScotiaBank and National Bank, among the big banks, now belong to ADRBO. CIBC and BMO belong to OBSI. Consumers can only bring their complaints to the body chosen by their bank.

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When entities meant to handle consumer complaints compete for banks, “there is a risk they will design their operations to appeal to banks rather than consumers,” the FCAC said, acknowledging a long-standing criticism of the process.

There are also significant differences in the way the two bodies handle customer complaints.

While the report noted OBSI has some work to do to improve, it took, overall, a much dimmer view of ADRBO’s operations. The organization is “not meeting expectations for effectiveness,” the FCAC said.

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While OBSI relies on employees with experience in the financial sector to investigate consumer complaints, ADRBO relies on contracts with retired judges and lawyers who don’t necessarily have experience in the industry, the report said.

The agency noticed “significant inconsistencies” among ADRBO investigations “in terms of the quality and comprehensiveness of their complaint investigation files.”

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Of the 94 files for which ADRBO completed an investigation in 2018, 74 per cent favoured the bank and 12 per cent the complainant, with the rest splitting success between the two parties, according to the organization’s latest annual report.

By contrast, of the 417 files for which OBSI made final recommendations in 2018, almost 30 per cent were resolved in favour of customers, according to the organization’s annual report.

The FCAC made a number of recommendations for how both the ADRBO and OBSI could improve their complaints handling and operations and said it will monitor the organizations’ progress in following suit.

However, the agency stopped short of recommending that Canada return to having a single banking ombudsman, as critics have called on the government to do.