Banking sector watchdog gets busier

One would have expected that the government’s more energetic role in the out-of-court resolution of disputes with banks would have weakened the role of the Banking Ombudsman, the agency operating under the auspices of the Hellenic Bank Association. However, data concerning the last nine months show that its activity has anything but declined, and not least because its tasks were recently enhanced with those relating to stock market transactions. Complaints by bank customers to the Banking and Investment Services Ombudsman (BISO) – as the agency has been renamed – submitted by telephone or in written form rose by 40 percent and 12 percent respectively in the January-September period, year on year. The trend is not just seen as confirmation of the public’s confidence in this relatively new institution in Greece, but also suggests a growing communication gap as the complexity and penetration of financial services into everyday life increases. Fotis Panayiotopoulos, the head of the Banking Ombudsman since it was founded in 1999, says that the enlargement of its tasks in dealing with both banking and stock market services has been made necessary by the requirement of the integration of financial services which has already gone forward in some countries, most notably in the UK. Ireland also adopted the model about a year ago, while Germany and the Netherlands are studying it. The issue of penalties on early the repayment of variable-rate mortgage loans, which were deemed illegal by the courts in 2003, has attracted more complaints than any other, accounting for 35 percent of all questions by phone and 49 of written submissions, overtaking credit cards as the previously most common area of complaint. But banks’ recent move toward charging interest on credit cards from the day that a transaction is made – rather than from the day that payment becomes due as before – has also caused a steep rise in the number of complaints. Panayiotopoulos says responsibilities are shared and urges bank customers to pay greater attention to the fine print on contracts and the details appearing in banks’ monthly statements. He also says card-holders should be vigilant against the accidental loss of cards or theft of personal data, which are an ever-growing cause of problems.