Consumers fight back at Spanish banks’ charges

1st September 2008, Comments 0 comments

Bank of Spain reports an increasing number of complaints from dissatisfied bank users who oppose to commissions, charges and fees imposed by their banks.

1 September 2008

MADRID -- Small fees, commissions for services and other charges have become a common fact of life in Spain, so much so that most consumers simply shrug off those mysterious couple of euros extra on their bank or credit card statement with at most a sigh and a frown.

However, an increasingly number of people is fighting back against increasingly abusive practices that help banks boost their bottom line at the expense of customers' wallets.

Recent reports by the Bank of Spain show an increasing number of complaints from disgruntled bank users, while the number of people joining consumer groups to fight collectively for their rights is increasing.

"People are becoming more aware that in the 21st century you have to do more than just moan about the abuses from the comfort of your armchair," says Fernando Moner, the vice president of the Spanish Consumer Confederation (CECU).

He points to cases such as a man in Valencia who took the operator of the AP-7 toll road to court because he was charged for a stretch that was under construction work, or the clients of a branch of Santander who went to court after the bank refused to return money stolen by thieves who had rigged one of its ATM machines.

There is also the case of José D Gómez, a Madrid lawyer and businessman, who sued Bankinter for having charged him EUR 26.13 for two credit card purchases made in the United States. Gómez first complained to the bank which refused to repay the charges on grounds that it had the right to modify the terms and conditions of his credit card.  It did, but it had to inform him first - something that the bank could not prove it had done.

Gómez then took the case to the Bank of Spain, which, six months later, ruled in Gómez's favour that Bankinter had "not followed good financial practices." The Bank of Spain, however, can only issue recommendations, so Gómez followed the regulator's advice and took the bank to court.

Earlier in 2008, one and a half years after the abusive charges were made, Gómez won his case in court and the judge ordered Bankinter to repay the EUR 26.13 plus interest. Gómez readily admits that the taxi he used to take him to the court in the Madrid suburb of Alcobendas cost him more, but he had made his point.

Few disgruntled consumers, however, would go to such lengths to reclaim a few euros, given the time and expense involved.

Instead, Moner urges consumers to band together to make their voices heard. He notes that few banks take individual complaints seriously.

"They have 400 lawyers on their payroll and they laugh at individuals. But they should be made to respect consumers. Only that way will they think twice before charging abusive commissions," Moner argues.

Indeed, consumers, particularly in highly competitive sectors such as banking, have influence when they act together and vote with their feet. Switching banks is becoming more common and sends a strong message to lenders who impose abusive charges. In addition, the Bank of Spain says more people are turning to it to complain and seek advice.

According to Marisa García, the head of the central bank's complaints department, the number of complaints increased by 10 percent in the first half of 2008 as compared to 2007. Around a quarter were related to loans, another quarter to savings products and 15 percent involved credit cards, García says.

[El Pais / Miguel Angel Noceda / Expatica]

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