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Witness accounts - bank accounts Swiss expats feel ‘messed around’ by banks

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Mobile phone with application for money transfer

Swiss citizens abroad have repeatedly criticised Swiss banks for allegedly discriminatory business policies

(Keystone)

Accounts are either closed or suddenly subjected to an additional bank charge of almost CHF500 ($518) a year. For Swiss living abroad, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep an account at home.

Claude Ruchti* is extremely disappointed. The 55-year-old Swiss ex-banker lives in southern Burgundy, France.

He owns several properties in Switzerland, which he lets. For many years, he has had several accounts at the BSU Clientis Bank Uster. A little while ago, he tried to withdraw cash at the counter.

“They informed me that the bank was going to close all my accounts apart from the rent deposits. The reason: domicile abroad,” Ruchti protested and even handed over his tax documents.

“I have declared everything honestly.” Nothing helped. An hour later, Ruchti left the branch with more than CHF50,000 in cash. “I don’t understand why a Swiss person who owns property and land in Switzerland would be chased out onto the street like a dog,” he says.

Deeply disappointed

Another disappointed customer is Jan Hunziker*. Three years ago, he emigrated to Brazil.

He wanted to keep his account at the renowned Zurich Cantonal Bank (ZKB). “Then the ZKB suddenly demanded my wife and I pay an additional charge of CHF960 for our accounts.” Hunziker had to close the accounts. “As a former employee of the ZKB, I am deeply disappointed.”

Christine Amstutz is also increasingly finding the charges a problem.

She has lived more than 30 years in Canada and has an account at the Bern Cantonal Bank. From her “few hundred francs’ pension” she has recently had to start paying an additional charge of CHF20.

“I find it unfair that this charge is the same for everyone, regardless of whether someone receives thousands or just a couple of hundred francs a month.” She would be more willing to accept a proportional share.

Anita Wagner, who also lives in Canada, reports that her account at the Nidwalden Cantonal Bank has been closed without reason after a 40-year business relationship.

“It’s now even more expensive for us to travel to Switzerland because we are also hit by the strong franc.” When she wanted to buy her mother’s apartment after her death, no bank would give Wagner a mortgage.

Acquaintances of hers in Canada who are originally from Germany, England or Sweden all have an account in their home country. “I feel messed around by Swiss banks and let down by the state,” Wagner says.

But it is not just those who have emigrated to far-flung countries who are struggling with restrictions and fees.

Marianne Senften, who has lived in Germany for more than ten years, pays the local SLM bank in the Münsingen near Bern an additional annual fee of CHF240. “I think it’s a disgrace that you have to pay high fees for every tiny service, like transferring money.”

Wretched treatment

“Swiss expatriates are treated wretchedly by our banks,” says Roland Rino Büchel, a parliamentarian for Swiss People’s Party and leading member of the Swiss Abroad Council.

There are hundreds of examples, he says. “Some have just had their accounts shut down. Others are forced to close their accounts because of unbelievably high charges.”

Büchel has been at the forefront to defend the rights of Swiss expatriates for years and understands their displeasure.

He blames it on a “frenzy of banking regulation” in recent years. The banks have additional expenditures because they have to process various declarations for customers abroad.

“It goes without saying that this additional expenditure has to be covered. But nearly CHF500 a year is crazy,” Büchel says.

Survey 

swissinfo.ch surveyed the eight biggest Swiss banks and the state-owned PostFinance to ask about their conditions for Swiss expatriates.

All the institutions surveyed reported that expatriate Swiss can “in principle” open an account with them. Swiss expatriates living in the United States or in one of the so-called embargo countries are generally excluded.

Customers must prove that tax has been paid on the money on the account. The ZKB also requires a minimum deposit of CHF100,000 as a condition for opening an account.

In answer to the question of how the fees are justified, they all gave the same reason: enormous additional expenditure.

Bank Cler (formerly Bank Coop) summarised it as follows: “Fulfilling legal and regulatory demands is causing considerable additional expenditure. In order to compensate for this additional expenditure (particularly in customer support and monitoring), we introduced a fee for customers domiciled abroad.”

Paperwork

Financial institutions have no qualms about what they ask in their time-consuming questionnaires, as is apparent in the example of Irene Naumann (67). She has travelled between Indonesia and Switzerland for a few years.

When in Bali, she withdraws money from her post office account. For her next Bali sojourn she has booked a holiday apartment. The advance payment of CHF7,700 was transferred from her post office account to Bali.

Recently Naumann received a letter from the “compliance services” at PostFinance. It contained questions such as “in April, May and June 2017 you withdrew cash in Indonesia on several occasions. What is your connection to Indonesia?” PostFinance also wanted to know what she had used the money for.

Naumann was in addition asked about the transfer for the holiday apartment. “On June 21, 2017, you transferred €7,000 to Gerhard R.* with the description ‘advance rent for apartment.’ Who is Gerhard R., how did you meet him, and what is your relationship to him?” The letter stated that if she wanted to keep her account, she would have to answer the questions. Which she did.

“What remains is a very bitter aftertaste, a lot of anxiety, and lost trust,” says Neumann, who has since emigrated to Indonesia full-time.

The higher the risk…

PostFinance, the financial services unit of Swiss Post, argues that the company is obliged to identify the type of business relationship and its purpose. “The scope of information that has to be gathered on a new or existing business relationship is dependent on the risk posed by the other party,” a company spokesman says.

Indonesia represents a much greater risk than, for example, Germany because of features such as its ranking on corruption indexes and the level of legal security.

Despite all this, Büchel is confident.

"There is some political rethinking going on.” In 2012, Büchel failed with his proposal that PostFinance should be compelled to take on Swiss expatriates as customers.

But now, five years later, the foreign policy committee of the House of Representatives unanimously came out in favour of an almost identical motion.

A separate proposal was submitted to the other parliamentary chamber, the Senate demanding that “all Swiss expatriates should be able to open an account at a systemically relevant Swiss bank and to maintain it under acceptable conditions.”

The motion was signed by 35 senators from all the parties. 

“I don’t know what would have to happen for this motion to fail given its support,” says Büchel.

*Real names are known to the editors


Adapted from German by Cathy Hickley , swissinfo.ch

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