What do you do if money disappears mysteriously from your bank account in China? Read the experience of Shanghaiist reader Stewart Randall, who waged a legal war against ICBC after 15,000 RMB up and went missing from his account and the bank refused to reimburse the money. After seven months, three thousand yuan spent on a lawyer and run-ins with a few utterly inept law enforcement officers, Randall finally saw his money returned. Read about his hard-won victory here.
It may not be a household name in the west, but the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) is the largest bank in the world, both in terms of assets (USD3.1 trillion) and capital (USD58 billion). As a large international bank I would have expected it to follow standard international banking practice, but I found things are different in China, and I hope this article outlining my experience will help others in a similar situation.
It may not be a large amount of money, but on the 30th April 2014 I discovered RMB15,000, about £1500, had been taken from my ICBC current account. My card had not been stolen, and I hadn’t told anyone my PIN number. Within five minutes of discovering my money was missing I called ICBC’s service hotline. Standard practice in the UK would be for the bank to reimburse the money, especially as I had not lost my card. To my surprise the woman on the other end of the line said the bank would never return the money until the police caught the criminal. Otherwise, how could they possibly know whether I was working with the criminal to steal money?
As it was already very late, I waited until the next morning to visit my local police station in Shanghai to explain the situation. I was told not to report the crime and instead go to my bank branch, explain the situation and get my money back. According to the police, this was the bank’s responsibility and just by the fact I still had my card there was no way the bank could argue otherwise.
After visiting my bank branch I found that the money had been taken a day before I discovered it at 10pm on the 29th April 2014. What’s more, the money was taken from a Chinese Construction Bank ATM in Maoming city, in Guangdong province. With proof I wasn’t in Maoming that day (I have never been) and my bank card still in my possession, to my surprise ICBC continued to refuse to return my money. After a few days of heated discussions I gave up and officially reported the crime to the police on the 5th May 2014.
As an economic crime my case was taken to Shanghai Xuhui District’s Economic Crime Investigation Team. According to them, there had been a number of similar cases that week, all the money having been withdrawn in Guangdong province and they would fly to Guangdong to investigate. Although catching the thief was important, I was resigned to the fact that in a country of 1.4 billion people it was somewhat unlikely; I was more interested in asking the police how I could get my money back from the bank. Their answer shocked me.
Firstly they said “I could no longer sue the bank because it was now a criminal case not a civil case”. Secondly they said “the best way to get your money back is to go to your bank branch every single day, with some friends and annoy them until they give you the money”. Was this Chinese law in action?
I met with my local branch bank manager about three times who claimed “banks don’t have any money it belongs to other people”, I went to the Xuhui District ICBC HQ to speak to people who said “the bank will never give you the money until the police catch the thief” and I also spoke the three different people on the phone. Before the third and final phone call, I spoke to a lawyer who was introduced by a friend who informed me not only could I sue, but also that such cases are fairly common and the plaintiff is almost always successful. It’s great to see Chinese police really know their law right?
During the third phone call I let the representative of ICBC Xuhui District Bank HQ know I had spoken with a lawyer, that I would almost certainly win and that the best way would be for them to return my money and avoid a court hearing. Surprisingly she became quite angry, and said there was still no way they would give the money. Enough was enough; I explained I would sue to which she essentially replied “go on then”, and that was that. The following day I arranged to meet with the lawyer.
During the meeting with the lawyer I explained the situation, and provided relevant evidence including, bank card, bank statements, and at least 15 witnesses to me being in Shanghai on the 29th April. I negotiated a lawyer fee of RMB3000, RMB1500 up front and another RMB1500 when I win the case. Apparently the losing party does not cover the winning party’s legal fees in this situation in China, so even if I won I would be down RMB3000.
The first stage of the suing process involved going with the lawyer to the local court on Yishan Road in Shanghai. It is similar to waiting in line at a bank to be honest. We got a ticket and waited for our number to be called. The lawyer explained the situation to the person on the other side of the counter, and I signed a few documents. I was told it would take two to three months for my case to be completed.
After a month or so my lawyer started contacting me for certain bits of evidence such as photocopies of my phone records to prove I had called the bank on the 30th April, information on who would stand as a witness etc. Not long after, I was given a date for my day in court, 5th September 2014, just over four months since my money had been stolen.
On the 5th September 2014 at 9am my court hearing begun. There were three judges, a stenographer, a policeman, two lawyers (one mine), a representative from the bank, two audience members, two witnesses I invited and myself.
The only hard evidence against me from the bank was the fact I had signed a contract with them saying I should look after my card (I still have my card) and that despite having witnesses who swear I was in Shanghai on the 29th April and not in some small village near Maoming in Guangdong province neither witness said they had seen my card that day, so in fact the card could have been anywhere.
After each side presented their evidence the bank made me an offer of half the money, which I refused. To my surprise the judges left the courtroom for ten minutes and then invited me out to chat with them. They asked me what amount of money I would be willing to accept. In my view, accepting anything less than the full amount would mean I was admitting some level of fault, and as I was not suing for any other damages or expenses occurred during the whole legal process I stuck with 100% of the money. The judges suggested it would be easier if I gave way a little, but I stood my ground on this.
We went back into the court room, final statements were made and the verdict given. The bank would have to pay me back 100% of the money within 10 days!
As you may have gathered already, this wasn’t entirely the end of the process. On the 11th September 2014 I contacted my lawyer to ask when I would receive my money. Of course, six days had already passed, so I was expecting it in a maximum of another four days. However, my lawyer informed me there is a 15 day appeal period for the bank.
After this previously unknown to me appeal period was over on 20th September 2014 I had still not heard anything. On the 24th September my lawyer contacted me though to say the court said I should receive the money in around one month. I was of course losing patience with this process, but hoped that I would receive my money sometime late October. In fact, my lawyer even said “You will definitely get the money before the end of October”.
On the 30th October 2014 I contacted my lawyer, who then contacted the court. Apparently it would take another few days. I was told the bank has to go through a “process”. Pretty slow money transfer for the largest bank in the world it seemed.
On the 10th November 2014 I was informed by my lawyer that the bank had finally given the money to the court, and I could go and pick it up, as a check. However, the court would have to process some approval documentation first. On the 20th November I was informed I could pick up my check from a small court on Longhua West Road in Shanghai on the 24th November.
On the 25th November I went to the Longhua West Road Court. Upon arrival, to my surprise, I wasn’t there to pick up my check but just to pick up the approval documentation to take over to the Yishan Road court I had been to previously. The next day I went to the other court to pick up my check with the documentation I was given, but was told the documentation was incorrect, and I would have to go back to the other court and get them to do it again. I complained to the other court about this and after some convincing they decided to express deliver the documentation to me. Two days later, I took this new documentation to the court to collect my check when they noticed the name on the documentation and the check they had prepared didn’t exactly match my passport. Rather than surname, first name then middle name; they had written first name, surname and then middle name. They said I would have to go back to the other court again to get the documentation done all over again. I refused, and said the bank would probably cash the check despite this mistake. To cash these checks in Shanghai, at least in Xuhui District, you have to go to the Agricultural Bank of China branch at Metro City in Xujiahui. On the 28th November 2014 the bank cashed that check, and after seven months, I had finally won!
I now no longer have a bank account with ICBC. Instead I moved to the second largest bank in the world, China Construction Bank. At least my card has a chip in it now; apparently they are harder to copy.
–Print a receipt from the ATM as soon as you find out, or withdraw any remaining money. This will prove where you were and at what time
–Take a dated picture of yourself holding your bank card when you find out as well. This proves you had your bank card on your person that day. You can also find a CCTV camera, show your face and hold your card up
–Call the bank immediately to ask them to temporarily block the account and inform them of the situation
–Print your call record to prove you did this
–Go to your bank branch or login in online and print out your statement showing the money being withdrawn. Ask the bank to also provide the ATM number it was withdrawn from, what bank this ATM belonged to and the location of this ATM
–State the evidence you have and that you would prefer they return the money out of court. If they refuse immediately go to the police station and report the crime. Keep copies of the police reports for evidence
–Find a lawyer and collate any extra evidence he/she may ask for
–Upgrade to a new chip and PIN card. Until very recently most Chinese cards only had a magnetic strip, these are easy to copy but newer chip cards are harder
–Even with a chip card many ATMs don’t have this ability and will just read the magnetic strip. Make sure you use a very visible ATM or one inside the bank. These ATMs are less likely to have little devices on which criminals use to copy cards and record your PIN number
–Turn on text message notification. I didn’t have this with my ICBC card so I didn’t know someone had taken my money until 20 hours later. Having this helps you to collect data instantly showing yourself at home or wherever whilst someone is stealing your money. If you have CCTV footage of you holding your card in Shanghai whilst your money is being withdrawn in Guangdong that is irrefutable evidence which will make your case a nice easy win.