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Show ties to Island or account could be frozen, HSBC customer told

Customer shock: HSBC Bermuda's Harbourview building on Front Street

A British resident of Bermuda and long-time customer of HSBC Bermuda was told by a bank employee that if she could not produce evidence of her ties to the Island, her account could be frozen.

The 39-year-old woman, who had gone into the bank to close an account, said she was shocked by the customer representative’s comment, and added that in eight years as a customer she’d never been asked for such documentation when dealing with the bank.

HSBC Bermuda said it was the bank’s policy not to bank with anyone who could not show a legitimate tie to Bermuda, but under normal circumstances accounts would not be frozen if the customer could not produce the requested documentation immediately.

The customer, who is a guest worker and has a Bermudian child, said she had gone into HSBC’s Harbourview branch to close a savings account.

“The customer service representative who dealt with me started off our conversation by asking me where my last name came from,” said the woman, who asked not be named. “I told her I was British. The lady then asked me, with no explanation as to why she was asking, what my tie to the Island was. I said I was a work permit holder and had a Bermudian child. She didn’t seem to understand the last bit and asked me to repeat it, which I did, a few times. She said that wasn’t a valid tie to the Island.

“At this point, I still had no idea why I was being quizzed about my ties to the Island so I asked her to explain what was going on. She said new laws in the US and UK meant that all non-Bermudian customers would have to prove their ties to the Island or their accounts could be frozen.

“This shocked me as my family has a number of accounts with HSBC.”

She added that she’d been a customer of HSBC in Britain since childhood and in Bermuda since 2006.

“This requirement to show my work permit was news to me,” the woman said. “She said that was because it was a new requirement.

“I asked for specifics – the name of the legislation, etc – but she couldn’t provide it. I asked her to write down an explanation for me and she did, though it made nothing clearer. The note said that HSBC Bank Bermuda ‘requires all non-Bermudian persons to present valid documentation proving a “tie” to the Island, due to international financial institutional laws passed in UK and USA.’

The note added that “a tie to the Island comes in from of work permit, property holder, residency letter from Immigration”.

“I think the lady could tell I was getting a bit annoyed by now. I asked if I needed to produce my work permit that day and she said no, that I could close the account without it, but that I would need to bring it in. She said she was telling me purely so I didn’t get a shock and so I didn’t have my assets frozen – an alarming thought! I told her she had given me a shock anyway.

“It strikes me that there is surely a better way for HSBC to go about telling its non-Bermudian customers that they are going to have to produce their work permit or other documentation in order to keep their accounts. Has any staff training taken place on this? I am still unclear as to when I have to bring my work permit into the bank or whether there is a deadline.

“All in all, it was a really unpleasant experience and I felt quite offended. She tried to end things on a good note and I took down her name and number but I think a letter in the post advising me of any new requirements would have been far preferable to this method.”

HSBC said the customer’s conversation with its employee was not the result of any recent legislative changes in Bermuda or elsewhere.

“Rather it is HSBC Bermuda’s policy not to bank with anyone who does not demonstrate a legitimate connection to Bermuda,” an HSBC spokesperson said.

“While all customer scenarios are reviewed on a case by case basis, in general, a legitimate tie for non-Bermudians to Bermuda could include but is not limited to, owning property, studying here, residency in Bermuda, being here on a work permit , etc.”

The bank added that “in the normal course of business, we would not freeze a customer’s accounts due to them not being able to provide us immediately with the supporting, acceptable, certified documentation”.

“We work with our customers, providing them with a reasonable period of time in which to provide us with any missing documentation to support their tie to Bermuda,” the spokesperson added.

“In the event that they subsequently cannot provide us with the requisite documentation, we then try to assist them in opening accounts with HSBC in other jurisdictions or assist them in transferring their fund balances to a financial institution of their choice.

“Our staff are trained on an ongoing basis to deliver the right messages to our customers. Our compliance with legislation that applies to all banking institutions in Bermuda, is for the protection of not only the Bank, but also our customers, our employees, our shareholders and the wider Bermuda community.”