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Pricewatch: Banks are back and roaming charges haven’t gone away

One reader says her bank branch is like a ghost town without even a manager; another experiences the exorbitant cost of roaming charges outside the EU

Last week we wrote a piece about banks and how they have repeatedly let us down and steadily distanced themselves from their customers and the communities they used to serve as they embrace a more digital – and considerably cheaper (for them) – way of doing business.

The piece provoked a big response and not everyone was on the same page.

First up, the negative.

“I wish to object to the depiction in today’s Pricewatch column of how the banks behaved during the financial crisis of 2008,” wrote a reader called Daragh Solan. “You described that era as ‘when the banks effectively stole our money and the money of generations of Irish people to come’. The use of the term ‘stole’ is emotive, populist and technically incorrect,” he said.


He pointed out that “stealing is a criminal offence and, to the best of my knowledge, no banker has been accused of stealing in relation to that era. Were the banks and bankers guilty of bad decisions? Yes. Were they naive in getting caught up in the irrational exuberance of that time? Yes. Were there failures of management and management systems? Undoubtedly, yes. But I believe that there is no evidence that banks/bankers deliberately set out to ‘steal’ money from Irish people. The use of the term ‘stole’ is offensive to the many people [including myself] who worked in banks at that time, many of whom had no involvement in the decisions which led to the financial crash. Correction and apology required.”

We are not sure either a correction or an apology is required and maintain that what happened over the course of the crash cannot simply be explained away as naivety or irrational exuberance or failures of management systems. However, we do also accept that a great many people – the vast majority in fact – who worked in and continue to work in Irish banks were utterly blameless and were as let down as the rest of us by those who were culpable for the reckless decisions which led to the entire country being saddled with enormous debts for generations to come.

We also heard from Albert Allison. “As a former banker, reading through your article on the state of Irish banks, I thought you were hitting the banks hard,” his mail started.

“As I finished reading your article I felt you had described the current position 100 per cent,” he continued as he bemoaned how “the service and attitude of our banks has deteriorated over the years”.

He described the demise and exit of Ulster Bank as “sad” and said it “was at one stage the leader in customer service and its customers were generally offered a reliable and friendly service”.

“Not any more as all banks now have a policy of putting untrained and under-resourced personnel on their shop floors to inadequately provide a service to customers. I pity the older generation who once upon a time relied on a ‘human’ presence in their banking transactions who must now cope with ‘machines’ provided by uncaring bank management. The AIB debacle is a case in point.”

He concluded by saying that our article doesn’t refer to the “trauma that Ulster Bank customers are having [and] will have in transferring their accounts, however straightforward, to another institution, and frankly I feel the regulator has had little input or real interest to date. And as D-Day approaches, sparks may fly, further inconveniencing the much stressed customer!”

On the day our banking article appeared, Finola Wiltshire “had reason to enter my local branch of Permanent TSB. As usual the bank was a ghost town with no human presence from banking staff. One customer was at the automated flashing light ATM and another young woman sat in a corner booth at the ‘free’ helpline call booth,” she wrote.

“A bell on an unattended podium was the only connection to the inner world behind the screens and frosted glass. After several minutes a woman [in TSB uniform] appeared and asked could she help. Privacy about one’s private finances is not taken into consideration in this open air consultation,” said Wiltshire.

There should be a sign in this bank that reads – BANG your head against the wall HERE!!

“I requested an appointment with the manager or a financial adviser. I was informed there was no manager in my branch, the woman I knew had been redeployed. Currently this branch had no manager and no one who could be addressed as acting manager.”

“What is your problem?” our reader was asked.

“Not wanting to announce my personal financial affairs to the queue that had formed behind me, I asked to speak to a bank official in private. My request was denied as all officials were busy. I could make an appointment. As there seemed to be no other option open to me, I agreed to make an appointment.

“The bank official disappeared into the inner sanctum. She returned after several minutes with my bank card and a yellow Post-it with a date for an appointment – nine days later. Foolishly I had anticipated an appointment the next day or a few days hence. As I turned to leave, having expressed my dissatisfaction, the young woman in the corner booth who had been on the helpline phone, rose from her seat and announced to the queue: ‘There should be a sign in this bank that reads – BANG your head against the wall HERE!!’

“Obviously I was not the only customer having problems with banking services.”

We also heard from a reader called Joanne who has a specific complaint about a bank which is leaving the Irish market. “I have been with Ulster Bank since I was a small child as my dad was a bank manager there. I am in the process of closing my credit card account, my current account and a savings account. We have just finished switching mortgage too from Ulster Bank to Avant Money. My current account closed yesterday and I was beyond shocked that Ulster Bank charged me €6 to close my account! Say there are 500,000 people in Ireland closing current accounts with Ulster Bank, then Ulster Bank makes €3 million from leaving the Irish market – surely that is wrong considering they are the ones forcing people to move bank accounts.”

She says that “€6 is no bother for me but I am sure for others it will add to the stress of closing their account plus the fact that Ulster Bank are making money out of this is surely wrong”.

Roaming charges

For many years in times past, we frequently found ourselves highlighting the sometimes scandalous roaming charges that Irish mobile phone operators would impose on people who had the temerity to use their devices in other countries.

Anyone making a four-minute mobile phone call to Ireland from Italy in the early part of this century would have been billed about a fiver while it would have been double that for anyone calling home from Malta. Even receiving calls cost a fortune and anyone answering their phone in Rome and talking for a few minutes could expect a charge of €4 while doing the same thing in Malta would have cost €8.

Data charges were even more scandalous as one German woman who downloaded an episode of a once popular television programme called Lost while on holidays in France only to be hit with a phone bill of €46,000 would probably acknowledge.

But things have changed in recent years thanks to the mandarins in the EU who ably put manners on the mobile phone operators and stopped them gouging us.

The key part of that sentence is EU and roaming charges are still very much a feature of our world when we travel further afield as readers have found to their considerable cost.

My daughter racked up a bill of close to €1,500 in just two days including one 2½-minute period which cost her €344

“We recently visited our daughter in Australia who we hadn’t seen for over three years,” writes a reader called Dermot. “My wife, son and I brought our phones with us for use in emergencies only. Our daughter was travelling with us and she had an Australian phone for regular local use, etc.”

Despite making what he says were minimal calls, the family were hit with a bill for €3,433 when they came home. He made contact with his Irish operator and was told it “is being referred to a higher authority and will be responded to by August 12th. Meanwhile, our bank account has been debited by the €3,433 and is now seriously overdrawn.”

We also heard from a reader called John whose daughter was charged roaming at up to €150 per minute while in Canada where she is working for the summer and racked up a bill of close to €1,500 in just two days including one 2½-minute period which cost her €344.

He says that when he engaged with his Irish operator “they have agreed to reduce these charges by 80 per cent on a goodwill basis. So, we are largely sorted – but we then thought about whether we can do anything to prevent others from getting caught out by these charges.”

He notes that the “Welcome to Canada” text did express the cost as €8.19 per MB but points out that “MB now has no real meaning relative to data usage. My daughter used 42MB over 2½ minutes. I downloaded a film from Netflix recently which was 504MB. The download [home wifi] took a few seconds, maybe a minute. This would have been €4,128 on these rates. Should the ‘Welcome to [country]’ text say something like: “You will be charged €8.19 per MB. Please note that you may incur charges of up to €150 per minute or €9,000 per hour with high usage.”

He also said there was an option to buy data in advance at 1 per cent of the rates but said the option was “not obvious to consumers. My daughter used 0.283GB of data over the two-day period. There is an option available in a nine-page detailed pricing plan to purchase 1GB of data for €10 – 99 per cent cheaper. The option is not obvious and is available only by clicking various pages and eventually finding a link.”

He wonders if consumers are making Informed decisions. “We believe that nobody would incur these charges if the speed at which they can be incurred were known in advance relative to the alternatives available to them. Therefore, we believe the way that the charges are presented leads to consumers making decisions that do not suit them. Three Ireland has stated the roaming charges are available on the website and by engaging with its customer service team. However, I think it is far too easy for consumers to fall into a deep charges hole.”