Ninety minutes of madness at HSBC

You have to wonder what is happening at HSBC these days. It appears to have swung from one extreme of absurdity to another. It used to be the bank of choice for Mexican drug cartels to launder their money. Now Hong Kong couples looking to set up a joint account in Hong Kong are being given the hard word and are being asked to explain the source of their funds. You would have thought HSBC had had plenty of time to sort the bank out, but apparently not. An acquaintance recently left the HSBC branch at Pacific Place feeling he’d been through a Kafkaesque experience tinged with Monty Python characteristics.

He is a UK national who we will call William. He has lived and worked in Hong Kong for ten years. Since he was planning to marry his Hong Kong born and bred girlfriend, William thought it would be a good idea to open a join bank account from which to pay household expenses.

Since he had half a dozen business account with HSBC and a personal account with Hang Seng Bank and his fiancée had had a personal account with HSBC for many years, HSBC seemed to be the logical bank to approach to set up a joint account.

Since he was aware of the difficulties people were encountering with HSBC and to be fair, other big banks around town, he set off with a lingering sense of apprehension. He arrived at the bank well-prepared, or so he thought, with his Hong Kong ID card, UK passport, bank cards for all his accounts with HSBC, and a photocopy of his latest Hang Seng Bank account statement with balances redacted. In addition he had two letters from the UK government sent to him at his Hong Kong address. One from the Department for Works and Pensions, and another from National Savings and Investment, a state-owned savings bank.

Matters at HSBC did not get off to a good start with the Hang Seng Bank statement getting short shrift as a proof of address because the balance had been redacted and the bank wouldn’t open an account using an altered document. This was despite the fact that William also had a cheque book with him for that account so that he could make a deposit in the new joint bank account in the event of it being approved.

None of his other identity documents were apparently good enough to provide proof of address in Hong Kong. So William started to mention the fact he had six business accounts with HSBC, but was cut short by the young woman attending to him who said that the bank didn’t allow business accounts to be used as proof of identity for opening a personal account.

So William produced the two letters from the British government departments. The teller studied the letters for a moment and then pronounced that they were not acceptable.When he enquired why not, the woman said the letters were addressed to W.R. Smith and you are not W.R. Smith. “Yes I am, said William pointing to his Hong Kong ID Card and passport. “No you are not replied the woman . “You are William Richard Smith.”

By this time William was feeling more than a little testy and pointed out to the woman from HSBC that she had lost sight of the point of the process and that she was perfectly aware who he was, and demanded to speak to someone more senior.

An older more experienced woman duly appeared. She studied the documentation and said the bank would do the preparatory work for the account immediately and activate it when he brought in the original Hang Seng Bank Account statement. William agreed to this and the woman went off.

Then the original assistant asked him what kind of bank account he wanted. William said he didn’t need a premiere account for running household expenses and a regular account would do. “How much money are you going to deposit,” she demanded. When he asked what the minimum amount was she just repeated her question. So after a few more of these exchanges he told her HK$10,000.

Then he was asked what the money was for. When he replied it was for household expenses,  she asked, “What kind of transactions will you be doing.” Slightly taken aback by this line of questioning he repeated his previous answer several times. Then he felt the discourse take a Monty Pythonesque shift and he heard himself saying to the woman, “Well I often go to the Gage Street market and buy a lot cucumbers, spinach and lettuce.” The woman remained expressionless and asked what other transactions there would be. By this time William had his head in hands in disbelief and was beginning to get seriously angry. At this point his tormentor changed tack and asked where the money was coming from.

He told her it would be coming from his Hang Seng Bank Account, from his savings, and from income generated by the companies whose accounts she could see on the screen she was looking at. “But we need to know where the money is coming from.” If only she had been the one dealing with those Mexican drug cartels, HSBC would have escaped that particular mess. William insisted that she could see perfectly well from the information she had in front of her where the money came from and as a red mist was beginning to descend he suggested she find someone senior again.

The woman returned a few minutes later to announce with barely suppressed triumph that the joint account could not after all be opened as there was an error with one of his business accounts. This was despite having said earlier that business accounts and personal account were not linked for the purpose of identification. She refused to mention the account or to say why.

But William said told he knew what the problem was and produced a letter which had been sent him by HSBC announcing it was closing one of the business accounts which had been dormant for over a year and had run up an unauthorised overdraft for the princely sum of HK$56. The bank said that “after a thorough review” which hadn’t included speaking to William, it had decided to close the account and charge him HK$500 for doing so. The woman looked at him impassively and said nothing.

At this point he felt that the absurdity, pettiness, and mean spiritedness he had endured for the past 90 minutes was not worth it and left. The next day he want to hang Seng Bank with his fiancée’s HKID card and a letter showing her address, and opened a joint bank account within half an hour. As they say, you couldn’t make it up.

11 thoughts on “Ninety minutes of madness at HSBC

  1. Kingsley Smith

    Two HSBC stories:

    I had to send some money to Indonesia. Coincidentally, I passed a Western Union branch on the way to HSBC and they had the exchange rate posted – HK$ = Rp1200 (figures are approx). At the HSBC counter, I realised that their exchange rate was Rp1000. I queried this, and the clerk told me that exchange rates do vary. “Are you telling me that, in the five minutes it took me to walk here from Worldwide House, the rupiah has lost 20% of its value?” “Yes.”

    I had had numerous problems in using all my HSBC cards – ATM (both systems) and credit – when overseas, in Indonesia and in Hong Kong. Wouldn’t work, swallowed by the machines, etc. My wife and I were going on an extended holiday in Europe – away for a month, and visiting Italy, Germany, Austria, France and the UK. I spent hours with HSBC – phone and emails – trying to ensure that I would have no problem accessing money with my cards. Needless to say, they didn’t work at any bank in Europe, except at the HSBC branch on the Champs Elysee. However, mercifully, my local Indonesia Mandiri bank card worked perfectly!

  2. Mark Hooper

    This story is truly bizarre, but not at all uncommon it seems. I have had similar experiences dealing with HSBC. Not quite as punitive, but nonetheless humiliating and unnecessary. HSBC (and I just presume the other banks in town) have all lost the thread. And, as I complained in the SCMP in a letter that was published, HSBC has such poor management that they are incapable of properly training their staff to so they can do the job efficiently. This is down to HSBC’s management. People incapable of thinking clearly do things like this. Maybe we need to hear from HSBC senior management to better understand these processes. Clearly, as my experiences go back for the past year (since returning to HKG) and continue until today, and the experience cited in this story is contemporary, they must be fully up to speed on how to explain their application of Kafka and Python as they conduct the people’s business.

  3. rpasea

    I gave up on HSBC a long time ago….worse bank ever and I wonder why they still have a HK banking license as they were found guilty of money laundering. Doesn’t HK government lock up individuals for this offence?

  4. captam

    My same sex partner and I managed to convert an existing HSBC savings account into a joint account sitting at a comfortable table within a very ‘reasonable’ one and half hours ( but no coffee) . Both of us had long-existing accounts with HSBC but we still had to sign multiple forms, which were kindly filled-in manually for us by a very pleasant and polite lady, as well as photo-copying our separate proof of address and ID cards ( yes again) , because who knows, their own computerized bank statements and personal information might have been hacked into and altered by a drug cartel. We were also required to update all our personal information………… . She stopped short when getting to which side of the bed we sleep on.

    At the end of the afternoon’s outing, we left happily knowing that joint access to the account would be activated in a “few working days”. No charge at all.

    But I thought to myself that 90 minutes time of a quite senior customer services staff member with overhead must have cost the bank several hundred dollars. The office space utilized alone would cost this. Not exactly a good deal for HSBC shareholders. Lucky I sold my shares years in 2006 when they about $146

  5. C Khan

    I am the chairman of the incorporated owners committee of our building which operates an account with HSBC. I have recently spent several hours doing battle with various incomprehensible halfwits at HSBC with respect to the operation of this account. The upshot of which is that HSBC seem to think they are going to require proofs of address ,ID documentation and source of funds for all of the owners of all the flats in this development.

    Whilst nationalising the banks and deporting all of the staff who work for them to some Syrian refugee camp is probably a bad idea, you can see how such ideas could get traction given the way in which banks carry on

  6. John (not his real name) Smith

    HSBC are now in the process of wrecking lives and businesses around the world. I have been informed that because I have connections to a UK registered charity (funnily enough it is also a charity that HSBC themselves have funded and on which excutives of HSBC have sat and continue to sit as Trustees) that my minimum deposit will be increased to £100,000 and I need to undergo a rigorous annual audit.

    The misery continues for this family too…

    I have nothing but the deepest contempt for HSBC

  7. David Webb

    Hilarious – especially given that Hang Seng Bank is majority-owned by HSBC. The world’s banks and other financial intermediaries are now spending billions of dollars annually on this paperwork for very little societal benefit. It doesn’t materially impact drugs, guns or corruption, but we all pay the cost.

  8. RSG

    I’ve had precisely no problems with banking since switching from HSBC to Citi a few years back. The customer service is better, online banking is more user-friendly, and I generally don’t have to wait long at the branches (I am a regular customer, not “gold”). They also allow you to very easily move money from Citi HK out to Citi accounts in other countries with no fee, even if you are not “gold” (or Premier in the case of HSBC).

    That being said, my (Mainland) wife recently opened an account at Hang Seng with nothing more than an HKID and a phone bill.

  9. W john Charman

    I’m experiencing the same kind of nonsense with HSBC Expat in Jersey. As a long suffering client and shareholder of the bank it’s about time its senior management and board are shaken up and/or changed. Since the retirement of Willy Purvis and John Gray ( real bankers) HSBC has gone from being one of the world’s best banks to one of its worst.

  10. Rick Adkinson

    The above link does NOT work, I’d love to know more.

    knowledgeable HSBC Premier Relationship Manager supported by a team of wealth and transactional specialists”. What a lie! I wrote to Ms. Diane Cesar, the Head of Retail banking and we are completely ignored. I am starting a blog – so other disgruntled customers can post their terrible experiences with HSBC.

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