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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

The Debt Panel: Illegal fitness trainer weighed down by heavy debts has no job or visa

The Abu Dhabi resident cannot repay his Dh78,000 liabilities and now relies on personal training sessions to survive

Illustration by Alex Belman
Illustration by Alex Belman

I have a really serious financial problem. I have not had a visa since my job in the fitness industry was terminated three years ago. I was fired because I worked in sales and did not hit my target. I have a loan and credit card that I have been unable to repay since losing my job. As a result, I am stuck in the UAE and miss my two children, who live in the Philippines. I cannot get a job, despite trying very hard. When I had the credit card initially, I owed Dh2,500 but now it has escalated to Dh33,000 due to interest and charges. My loan of Dh25,000 is now Dh40,000 for the same reason. My wife lives here too so she covers most of our bills and I do a few personal training sessions, but I do not earn enough to repay my debts. My wife has debts of her own so I cannot ask her to repay mine. On top of all this I owe Dh5,000 on a mobile phone bill. If I had a job, I am sure I could pay back the money but I cannot find one. What should I do? Do I need to take my creditors to court to secure lower payments or will the court let me pay the base loan only and not include the interest? DQ, Abu Dhabi

Debt Panellist 1: Philip King, head of retail banking at Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank

Your situation demonstrates the severe and spiralling cost of missing multiple card and personal finance repayments. As harsh as it may seem, not repaying your debt obligations is the worst thing you can do, particularly for cards. Banks are going to penalise you if you don’t meet the terms of your contract, irrespective of your personal circumstances. In addition, they will not give you more money if you’re not in a position to repay. Finding any employment must be your priority. At this stage, you should not be selective and turn down jobs; you should accept any employment that provides a source of income.

I’m afraid taking your creditors to court is not an option. Not only would this cost you money, but you don’t have a strong legal case. When you take finance from a bank, you are liable and responsible for paying the instalments on timely basis, even if you are not employed. There is no legal recourse to halt repayment instalments if you lose your job. This is something that you have to agree with your bank. While you should have immediately talked to your bank to explain your situation as soon as you became unemployed, it is still worth having a discussion to explore how you could defer the repayment schedule with a penalty-free payment holiday until you find employment.

If possible, ask a close relative for an interest-free loan or sell assets to raise funds to eat into your debt. However, the only long-term solution is to find employment that allows you to make regular commitments to repaying your debt starting with your card debt.

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Debt panellist 2: Keren Bobker, an independent financial adviser with Holborn Assets

As I understand it you have not made repayments for a very long time, so I assume the bank has registered a police case and that you have a travel ban. Total debts are now Dh73,000, which although a significant amount, and a cause for concern, is far from large for a bank compared to many other debts; this is probably why they have not pursued a case through the courts and you are not in prison.

As you have not made the payments that were due, not only will the payments and interest that are outstanding have been added to the debts, but that interest will be subject to interest and in many cases, banks will levy additional fees for non or late payment. This will be detailed in the agreements you signed when taking out the loan and credit card.

There is also an outstanding bill for a mobile phone and for this I expect the telecoms company would take action, especially as they have become tougher on late payments and bad debts in recent months.

From a legal perspective you have broken the terms of your agreement, and while I sympathise with your position, a bank is really only concerned with recovering the money that it has lent and is well within its rights to seek repayment. Taking a bank to court is a tricky matter but I know of one case of a borrower going to court to make a complaint banks where interest has been charged on interest in what was claimed to be an unfair manner. Engaging a lawyer to act on your behalf would be very expensive so you would have to represent yourself. Be very clear on the details and make sure you present a strong argument. However, while some cases are solved by the courts, this is by no means a guarantee that other cases would be upheld.

Whatever the outcome, you still need to repay the money borrowed in order to have the travel ban lifted so I would suggest redoubling your efforts to find employment. You may have to look at other areas and must be aware that undertaking any work without a proper licence, even running a few personal training sessions, is illegal and subject to fines and complications under UAE law.

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Debt Panellist 3: Ambareen Musa, founder and chief executive of Souqalmal.com

Unfortunately no legal recourse can help you get rid of your debt obligations. On the contrary, the banks could initiate legal proceedings against you for non-payment of your loans and outstanding credit card balance. Considering that you have no income currently, it is mathematically unlikely that you will be able to repay your debts without any assistance. In this scenario your best bet is to try and negotiate with the banks.

You have witnessed first hand how credit card debt can spiral out of control - In your case it has multiplied 13 times over. And if you don't put a stop to the interest drain, it will become all the more unmanageable. So that is where you must start. If the credit card provider is open to negotiation, they are most likely going to recommend one of these two options: a lump-sum settlement or a restructured repayment plan based upon your financial situation.

If there are any savings or assets you can liquidate then you must go with the former option. From a purely financial point of view, this will be the most affordable way to get rid of the debt since the bank is likely to settle for a lower amount to get you to make an up-front payment. However, if this isn't feasible, then go with the second option and try to negotiate a new repayment plan that freezes your current debt balance and converts it into a loan. Aim for an extended tenure and maybe a penalty-free payment holiday until you are able to secure a new job.

As for your loan, you will again have to negotiate with the bank to relax the repayment terms. Consider asking for a waiver or part-waiver of the interest that has accumulated so far. Maybe consider offering an up-front payment of the principal if you can tap into any savings. This will demonstrate your willingness to get rid of your debt and could actually get you an interest waiver.

Remember, negotiations take a long time and can end up being quite frustrating. You have the option of negotiating with the lenders yourself or enlisting the services of a debt management and counselling company.

The Debt Panel is a weekly column to help readers tackle their debts more effectively. If you have a question for the panel, write to pf@thenational.ae