I hate talking about money, but I’m gonna. This is Wonga Week and not just because according to a UNITE union survey amongst it’s members, the last week is when public sector workers on pay-freeze salaries are most likely to have made use of subprime lending services. Of those surveyed 12% depend on the fast cash high interest repayment loan to get through the last two weeks of the month. The anecdotes quoted in the report paint a picture of how normalised this mechanism now is for so many, the loans are mainly used to cover housing and food costs-the bare essentials. Wonga.com is one such easy cash service and on a personal level this is the week that Wonga brought down my house of cards.
I hate talking about money and even admitting publically that I sometimes come up short is breaking a zillion rules of personal conduct, I’m really breathing deeply as I write this. I first used Wonga.com two years ago when an unexpected bill had to be settled. I applied online, selected the amount I wanted, picked my repayment date, understood that the £200 I was borrowing would be collected from my account with £116 interest added, provided my financial details, agreed to the Terms & Conditions and gave it not much more thought as 15mins later the loan was credited to my designated bank account. I had a short term fix to a temporary problem and I’d kept the wolves at bay.
I’ve used it since, more frequently recently. I borrow what I can repay and return the money on time if not earlier. I’ve never missed a repayment. I receive a text message three days before each repayment date to remind me and if I so choose I can extend the loan by repaying just the interest. Repayments are automated, actioned as a sales transaction on the debit card attached to the designated account the loan was paid in to. Wonga tell customers that they will attempt collection until the loan is repaid if funds are not made available in the designated account and punitive fees will be levied on to the debt. I’ve never missed a repayment.
If you’re a Natwest customer you may have wondered whether the computer system failure that began on Wednesday 20th June is a precursor to the day Skynet will assert it’s dominion over all humans. In spite of what you know about your bank balance or expected credits and debits, none of that matters. As computer screens, phone Apps or tablet windows stubbornly refuse to reveal your sumtotals to you, you are locked out of your account. You think you have it. You don’t. The money’s there but it’s not.
Thursday 21st brings no relief, the previous night’s #Natwest feed resonates with distress and frustration on Twitter. For me they have a day to get it sorted before it crashes in to my life. News reports on Friday confirm that Natwest don’t have it sorted, going in to a bank branch on Friday I can see they are still blind but are being as helpful as they can be, facilitating discretionary payments based on the scheduled payments history of customers’ bank accounts.
I have no idea of knowing what’s happening but I know full well what’s scheduled to happen, on Saturday I have a loan repayment to make, I tweet Wonga CEO Errol Damelin, I want to know in the light of the crisis how will Wonga manage repayments? His reply acknowledges the “Natwest Failure” and promises to waive any fees incurred as a result. Somewhat reassured I go back to being locked out of the power to control my finances and blankly read Natwest.com customer service team emails, by now Natwest CEO Stephen Hester is attaching his name to the apologies. He’ll probably forgo another bonus this year. This is a clusterfrack of epic proportions but more for me than for him.
Back at the bank again on Saturday I identify two unknown transactions on one an account, one that is not connected to my Wonga loan. I point this out to a teller who can do nothing to either investigate or report it. The two transactions have pretty much emptied that bank account leaving me feeling quite dumbstruck. I have to wait until Monday before the Natwest Fraud team can begin an investigation. When I speak with them, they tell me that Wonga.com have made two collections from my bank account. Wonga have gone, not to my designated loan account but to one entirely separate and accessed funds that neither I nor Natwest could ‘see’ on Friday. Wonga have neither asked for authorisation to do so nor notified me of their intention to do this.
No reply this time to my tweet to the CEO, so I email Errol Damelin and his customer service team. I’m emotional, in fact I’m pretty stunned by the degree of aggression and ruthlessness they’ve displayed. This isn’t their money, it’s mine and my control over it has been further eroded. A Wonga individual emails me back, the money will be returned and I have a promise to be contacted by phone to discuss my concerns. Generic customer service team emails from Wonga acknowledge the Natwest Failure and attempt to convey reassurance regarding loans and fees and since then I’ve received a text message every day telling me my repayment is late, yesterday I was issued with a Default Notice.