x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

As my cheque bounced, so did my heart

Earlier this week, I got "that" phone call. It is now one of the most dreaded messages anyone can receive: "Ma'am, your cheque has bounced."

Earlier this week, I got "that" phone call. It is now one of the most dreaded messages anyone can receive: "Ma'am, your cheque has bounced." I actually heard my heart give a loud thud. With all the horror stories about people being dragged to jail for a single bounced cheque, I really can't explain my feelings after my landlord's office called me. "What? It couldn't be, I have sufficient funds in my account," I heard myself explaining in one breath, already on the defensive.

Not listening to me, the accountant told me to show up at the office "immediately" with next month's rent "in cash" or the landlord would escalate the matter with the "proper authorities". There was no room for negotiation, for excuses or anything else. The accusatory tone was unmistakable and, with it, I could feel the humiliation and stress building. There are plenty of stories about the cutthroat actions of lenders since the economic crisis.

"If you have the money, good, if not, goodbye," is pretty much the way of the world these days. Perhaps it has always been like that but people used to give you more breathing space because their own finances were better off. I headed straight to my bank to find out what had happened with my postdated cheque after a quick online perusal of my account revealed that, indeed, the cheque went through, the money was debited and then redeposited after the cheque was returned.

Unless it has happened to you personally, I don't think anyone realises how quickly the service at a bank changes and their attitude becomes more passively hostile at the mention of a "bounced cheque". It was a true eye-opener for me. After a long wait, I went to the designated counter with a heavy feeling in my chest. I explained to the customer service officer my problem, and how the cheque bounced even though I had sufficient funds.

"You sure you had enough money?" he asked me. I said yes, and told him to open the account and look for himself. After a few minutes of browsing my account, his stern features actually broke into a smile. "Oh, it was bounced based on incompatible signatures. OK then, no problem," he said beaming. And just like that, I was out of the red and a "valued customer" at the bank after almost losing the privilege. What a change of manner and service that piece of information caused.

It seems if you are in a jam and short of some funds, you will be treated like a criminal. I know I felt like one until the banking officer smiled. Actually it turned out that my signature was fine, but because bank tellers make the judgment, sometimes "mistakes are made" I was told. But what a costly mistake this was, in terms of nerves and reputation - for everybody involved. "Everyone now hates the banks," the now-friendly customer service representative confided to me.

I was not impressed with the change of attitude, and told him so. He simply laughed it off and said: "A bounced cheque is a very black spot on your financial record these days." I guess I should consider myself lucky that the experience will not stain my so-called record, even though I did nothing wrong. I did receive a much friendlier reception at my landlord's office. "Oh, just a signature problem? No problem, no problem," said the head accountant at the office. He even said I could bring in cash at "my own convenience" after initially having told me to bring in the full amount immediately.

Honestly, the whole experience left me shaken. It is not enough that you feel horrible and ashamed like you did something wrong, but the added social stigma of being looked down upon and treated like a criminal makes an already uncomfortable situation even worse. I can't even imagine how hard it must be for people who are supporting a family to lose a job and sink into debt. The creditors are merciless, and no one is your friend in financial "services" when you are down on your luck.

As an act of charity, people are actually paying off others' debts to keep them out of jail. It is uncommon, of course, but what a great way to help people out. In the end, everything worked out well, but now I am going to be extra vigilant with my financial transactions, so that there is no risk of anything - a cheque or my peace of mind - "bouncing" again. rghazal@thenational.ae