By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Furious expatriates have slammed Royal Bank of Canada's (RBC) closure of their accounts without warning as "utter nonsense", amid fears it could harm the Bahamas' reputation and second homeowner economies.
Tribune Business can reveal that winter residents and second homeowners, together with condo associations and others, have been unable to access funds amounting to thousands of dollars after they never received RBC letters and e-mails requesting they provide new Know Your Customer (KYC) information. RBC subsequently closed their accounts after the verification deadline was missed, yet many beneficial owners only became aware several months later when they were unable to access their funds.
Derek Hare, a world-renowned landscape and marine artist, whose work - including scenes of the Bahamas - has been purchased by royalty in both the UK and Dubai, told Tribune Business he had been unable to either re-open his account or retrieve the funds in it after discovering its closure more than a month ago. Mr Hare, a 30-year RBC customer and UK citizen, who owns a condo in Abaco's Treasure Cay and typically spends two-three months per year in the Bahamas, said he had provided the bank with updated KYC details just two-three years ago.
He added that his efforts to resolve the issue, both with RBC in the Bahamas and its Trinidad-based call centre, had proven fruitless to-date with his inquiries producing no reply.
Mr Hare said expatriate friends in Treasure Cay had been unable to access sums ranging from $10,000 to $15,000 in accounts that were now closed, with the problem also involving Nassau-based residents - some of whom have "been here for generations". He added that condominium associations had also seen their corporate accounts closed by RBC without warning.
Besides the reputational fall-out, Mr Hare expressed concern about the impact the situation would have on Bahamian workers and companies reliant on business generated by second homeowners and winter residents.
"Many condo association or resort accounts, for example, used to pay gardeners, pool cleaners, management etc, not to mention any ongoing maintenance jobs where the individuals are dependent on this regular income, are no longer operational," Mr Hare told Tribune Business.
"This type of situation, where the income for many people is generated largely by non-Bahamians, must be very widespread and the consequences of RBC's actions will affect those Bahamians most likely to suffer considerable hardship as a result of not being able to get paid."
Nathaniel Beneby, RBC's managing director for the Bahamas and northern Caribbean, told Tribune Business the bank was "working through" issues associated with the failure of some clients to provide the requested KYC information by the bank's deadline.
He indicated that the problem related to persons who did not have "significant economic ties" to the Bahamas, such as owning a business or local real estate, but promised that the bank was addressing each case once contacted by the relevant client.
Emphasising that the money in affected accounts was safe, Mr Beneby said: "That has more to do with clients conducting accounts here in the Bahamas who don't have any economic ties to the country.
"It's more around compliance and KYC risk. We did send out a notification to the last known address of those clients, and have been receiving feedback from clients who did not receive their's.
"There were deadlines to provide us with the information we requested. Where the deadlines were not met, we closed the account, and as customers contact us we are working through to regularise the situation," the RBC chief continued.
"We are working through that. In these cases, we are working through with the clients once they contact us. It's more those clients with no ties here at all, no business relationship."
Mr Hare told Tribune Business he had learnt RBC sent out notifications in June to non-Bahamian account holders, listing KYC and customer due diligence information requests that had to be complied with.
"Nobody received the letter they sent," he said. "One person, who has lost $15,000 at the moment, they told him: 'Oh no, we didn't send you a letter; we sent you an e-mail'. He told them: 'I don't turn on a computer'.
"This is really utter nonsense and quite alarming. It's just quite extraordinary this whole thing. I discovered it at the beginning of November, when the monthly statements are posted over to the UK. Three came all at once for August, September and October. October only went till the middle of the month, and when I looked closer it had a very strange thing: It said: 'Debit override'."
Mr Hare said the 'debit override' matched his account balance, which would normally be around $3,000-$4,000, but this time was only around $650 due to certain expenses requiring payment.
"We're about to send over more money for the beginning of the year, rang up RBC and couldn't get through to anybody," he added. "It was just ringing and ringing, or stopped at the answer machine. It was quite something. Nobody was being co-operative."
Mr Hare said that he quickly realised he was not the only RBC customer affected after he began investigating the situation. "It's quite wide. Several of my friends in Treasure Cay have been affected," he told Tribune Business.
"One chap went down to Marsh Harbour and tried to withdraw money and they said: 'No, you can't, the account's closed'. There was $15,000 in there. People in the US transferred $10,000, and they said: 'Sorry, the account's closed'. The people asked for their money to be transferred back, but it hasn't.
"This morning I've learnt from a group of condos that they have a collective bank account; a savings account used for maintenance, such as paying the gardener and pool cleaning. That account has been closed, and there was $20,000 in it," Mr Hare continued.
"Another friend of mine, who has a place in Lyford Cay and been there generations with quite large interests, their account was closed until they got a couple of New York lawyers and it was re-opened. I know people in Nassau have had the same thing happen to them. How many, I don't know. It's not just Abaco."
Mr Hare said he had sent RBC's Trinidad call centre a request to transfer the remaining balance in his account back to him two weeks ago, but no response had been received yet.
He added that while "we still love the Bahamas", the experience with RBC meant he had decided not to have a bank account in this nation any more.
"I'm making other arrangements," Mr Hare said. "I think people will want to deal with other things. People don't trust the banks down there. Certainly, from the point of view of being a financial services centre, which the Bahamas largely depends on, this could be very damaging indeed."
A Bahamas-based financial services provider, who handles the financial affairs of several expatriates impacted by the RBC account closures, warned that the situation would negatively impact perceptions of this nation at a time when it needs all the business it can get.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, they warned: "This will have an impact, I'm sure, because people will wonder whether they should still keep their second home here or go somewhere else more friendly.
"This is not the only place in the Caribbean where there's sun and sand. The problem is they can't even get to see the people to find out what's going on. You leave a message for anyone in the bank and they never call back, even head office.
"These people are going to tell everybody else where they come from about this, and it doesn't help. They help employ a lot of people, like maids and repairmen, on a trickle down basis."