Lloyds bank staff ‘puts frighteners’ on debtors
LLOYDS Banking Group staff are intimidating victims of the recession who have fallen behind on loan payments, an investigation by The Sunday Times has found.
Workers at Lloyds debt recovery department were secretly tape-recorded saying they would “put the frighteners on” and “f***” customers who owed the bank money.
The bank staff are incentivised by bonuses and some claimed to be representing a solicitors’ firm, while others pressured customers with repeated calls that left them in tears. Customers were told they would not even be able to obtain a Blockbuster video shop card if they failed to pay back their debt.
The employees would appear to be in breach of the Banking Code, which pledges to customers that banks “will be sympathetic and positive” when dealing with people in financial difficulties.
The tactics were witnessed by an undercover reporter who worked at the bank’s debt recovery office in Hove, East Sussex, for more than three weeks.
Andrew Mackinlay, the Labour MP, said he would be raising this newspaper’s findings in the Commons next week when he is due to speak in a adjournment debate on debt collection. “The current rules on the collection of debt are inadequate and need to be reviewed because they are not being enforced properly,” he said. “There need to be severe financial penalties if companies are found to be harassing customers and treating them badly.”
Lloyds said last week that it would investigate the findings. Sally Jones-Evans, director of collections and recoveries, said: “We do not condone behaviour that breaks our policies and procedures. Our first action is always to gather the facts, but we take action where these [inquiries] substantiate improper behaviour.”
Lloyds is 65%-owned by the taxpayer after receiving billions of pounds of government aid. The bank prides itself on customer service and recently ran television adverts claiming: “Every day we are helping millions of customers get where they want to go in life.”
The undercover reporter began her job as trainee telephone debt collector in mid-March. At the induction, her trainer, Martin, suggested his own bank might share some of the blame for the large number of defaulting customers. They had fallen into debt, he said, because of “bad management of money, a change of circumstances or possibly irresponsible lending”.
The reporter was assigned a mentor, Sebastian, who told her about a recent case of an 85-year-old man who had been granted a £10,000 loan by Lloyds and had only a meagre pension to pay it back. “What were the branch thinking?” he said, before adding: “Bank lending – probably one reason why there’s a bloody recession going on right now.”
The trainers emphasised that the job was not just about retrieving money. They stressed that people should be given realistic repayment targets. But would it work in practice?
The first signs were not encouraging. The salary for a telephone collector is just under £16,000 a year but up to £750 a quarter can be earned from bonuses, awarded for meeting performance targets. Points are given for the amount of money retrieved and the number of calls in an hour. It is in the collector’s interest to make quick calls and persuade customers to pledge large repayments.
The collectors were told to ask for a bank debit or credit card payment for the outstanding amount. The trainer made clear that the credit cards could not be from Lloyds, to ensure the debt would be shuffled away from the bank. The customer, on the other hand, could end up paying higher interest.
Support groups such as National Debtline and the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) say it is wrong to shuffle debt in this way. But it appears to be industry practice. Last week the British Bankers’ Association (BBA), which represents the main banks, claimed the customer might have a credit card charging a lower rate of interest.
On the third day of training the reporter and fellow trainees were sent onto the main floor to practise their technique. One of the trainees listened into a call in which a woman was crying on the phone and begging Lloyds to stop calling her.
A collector called Becky was dealing with another distraught woman who said her case was being handled by a debt organisation. She asked Lloyds to approach the organisation. However, after putting down the phone, Becky said she would not deal with anyone else and she would have to keep ringing the woman.
The Banking Code says banks should “liaise with organisations that are giving the customers advice/support”.
The repeat calls were upsetting. Elaine Molloy, a nurse, said she had been called six times a day at work, which she said made her “stressed and upset”. One man said he had been contacted by Lloyds 10 times despite repeatedly telling the callers the person they were seeking was no longer there.
The trainers said a certain amount of pressure could be put on customers. Homeown-ers could be reminded about repossession and others told that they may be credit blacklisted. One line often used by phone operators was: “[You] wouldn’t get a Blockbuster video card, it’s that serious.”
The reporter was training to work in early collections, dealing with people who had defaulted recently. Nearby was late collections, which dealt with people in arrears for five months or more. They used different tactics to get the bank’s money back. Although they are employed by Lloyds, they told customers they were from Sechiari Clark & Mitchell (SCM), the bank’s solicitors. One was overheard saying they would forward details from the conversation to Lloyds.
A spokeswoman for Lloyds said some of the late collection team operated under the SCM name because they were dealing with cases just before legal action was initiated. However, when speaking to our reporter, one phone operative said it was useful to pretend they were not from Lloyds “because we can blame Lloyds for a lot of stuff”.
Last week Nick Pearson, of Baines and Ernst, which helps people organise their finances, said phoning in the name of solicitors was “custom and practice in the industry”.
The early collection department could, if it acts appropriately, put customers on the road to financial recovery. On the other hand, those who fail to keep up their repayments may end up in the recovery department where there are more serious consequences such as court action and credit blacklisting. Because many of the repayment schedules proved unrealistic, customers were more likely to be passed on to recovery, with an impaired record.
This is not helped by the performance target system that is run in the office. Experienced operatives were expected to collect as much as £1,055 an hour.
It gave the operatives an incentive to set monthly repayment plans for higher amounts, which counted towards their target and their bonus. The rush to reach the targets meant that some operatives did not take time to examine customers’ finances to calculate what they could realistically afford.
Martin acknowledged the problem when addressing the new recruits. “It will be tempting because you get bonuses by collecting more money. Some people are stats-driven and do whatever it takes to collect money but that’s what we are trying to get away from,” he said.
The reporter witnessed the results of this system. One woman could barely pay her bills with her benefit payments of £180 a month and yet she had been put on a repayment plan that she could not afford.
The target system made some operatives very pushy. The reporter overheard one operative saying they would “put the frighteners” on a customer who had defaulted on their repayment schedule for the third month running.
One experienced operative explained to the reporter that keeping the phone calls brisk was one of the tricks of the trade. “Short and sharp – the best way to f*** someone, get their money,” he said.
The recipients of his calls were often left bruised. In a five-day period in the run-up to Christmas, five people were reduced to crying down the phone, he said.
Other operatives had clearly worked out their own system for reaching targets. One team leader boasted that he used to collect £7,000 a day before he became a manager. He described how he and a colleague used to block customers’ bank accounts and cards if they looked like they were not going to make the repayments.
“If they’re not going to pay it, then we’ll try and cancel stuff. We used to put blocks on accounts, everything. Loads of times we did that . . . lucky we didn’t get caught.”
One woman regularly collected more than £200,000 a month, according to Sebastian, the mentor. “Some people here tell me that they’ve listened to calls and she was just putting promises [payments] for accounts she wasn’t even agreeing on. I don’t know why they don’t do anything about it,” he said.
Charities and advice groups such as the CAB, the National Debtline and Baines and Ernst say the problem of setting unaffordable repayment plans goes on throughout the industry. “Lloyds are not alone in this,” Pearson said.
Last week Lloyds defended its collection department, saying that it had been scrutinised by an independent body at the end of last year and was found to be complying with the Banking Code.
The review concluded that “customers were treated positively and sympathetically and were not put under pressure to enter unaffordable repayment plans or to increase offers of repayment where they were unable to do so”.
Lloyds also defended its bonus system, saying that money recovered accounted for only a third of the factors making up the award. It said all repayment plans had to be affordable.
Insight: Claire Newell and Jonathan Calvert
‘It’s horrendous, I’ve never been treated so badly’
According to the Banking Code, customers in financial difficulties should approach their bank early. “We will do all we can to help you to overcome your difficulties,” it states.
But that’s exactly what two families say they did with Lloyds Banking Group and they say they were severely let down.
Elaine and Paul Molloy from Cheshire were struggling to pay the mortgage after a temporary rift in their marriage. “When we went into the bank and said we’d got a problem, they said there’s nothing they can do for us until we go five months behind in the mortgage payments,” Paul Molloy said.
Now they are now back together, their debt has grown to arrears of three months, which they can no longer repay and they now fear they will lose their home of 11 years.
Elaine Molloy, a nurse, says she is being harassed by the collection team. She said: “It’s horrendous, I’ve never been treated so badly by the bank and I’ve been with them since I was 17. I get six calls a day [from the collections department]. They were ringing me at work. I get dead stressed out and upset at work when they call, which doesn’t help my job, looking after patients.”
The family of Alan Wells in Swansea suffered a dramatic drop in their income when his overtime was cut because of the economic downtown. Finding himself £900 worse off a month, the construction worker approached Lloyds for help paying back a debt of £350.
“I was told there was nothing they could do for me. They told me it had to be ‘critical’ before they would help me,” he said.
April 12, 2009