January 30 was like any other day for Bengaluru-based digital marketer Karthik Srinivasan. His first salary of the year was credited into his account and as usual, his inbox had a few emails from HDFC, a bank whose services he has been using for almost two decades now.
But on that day, a particular email caught his attention. The subject line read âDear Karthik Srinivasan, Welcome to HDFC Bank Preferred Banking Programme!â Curious as to why he was being welcomed into something he was already part of, Karthik opened the email to find that he had been enrolled into a âVirtual Relationship Managerâ programme (VRM).
The programme was âinvite-onlyâ and provided him with an HDFC contact who'd be at his service for his or his familyâs banking and investment queries, 24x7, 365 days a year. But Karthikâs initial elation turned into dismay soon, he says, when he realised that the program would charge Rs 100 a quarter and came with an opt-out option instead of an opt-in one.
Karthik says that this implies that if someone missed the âclick hereâ option meant for opting out, the bank would take the customerâs lack of answer as an assent and would automatically enroll them in the VRM programme. They would lose Rs 100 (plus taxes) every quarter for a service they never asked for.
A simple Google search allegedly revealed to Karthik that there were many HDFC customers who were complaining about Rs 400+ being deducted from their accounts each year.
âItâs blatantly unethical and wrong on the part of a bank I know can do much better,â Karthik told TNM. From February 1, he has been running an online campaign, tweeting about the issue every day. He has tagged HDFC several times, reached out to their board of directors and even the RBI bank ombudsman in this regard.
Karthik plans to continue tweeting about it to over 26,000 followers for the rest of the year. The idea behind the campaign? âI want HDFC to at least acknowledge that this is wrong and apologise to its customers, if not roll back the program completely. If not that, I want to make more people aware about what they might be falling prey to at least,â Karthik asserts.
Since Karthik began tagging HDFC and tweeting about the issue, he has received a response from them thrice: once on Twitter, once over email and through several phone calls from their communications team. All three times, Karthik was told the same thing.
Hereâs their Twitter as well as email response:
The bank noted that every time a customerâs account was upgraded for the VRM service, an email was sent to them notifying them about the same. This email also provided customers with the option of opting out.
Karthik, however, finds this problematic and has explained his reasons in a blog post:
âYou enter your favorite, and usual, cloth store. You try out 3-4 clothes and decide that you donât like the fit and decide to try another store. As you walk out, the sales guy calls you back and says that you need to buy them. You ask him why.
He says that the price tags in each of the clothing pieces you tried have a fine print that if you try them, youâd need to buy them too. That your trial amounts to a legal contract between the seller and buyer. This is opt-out. If it was opt-in, before you enter the trial room, a store person would have told you the rules and sought your consent.â
The RBI bank ombudsman hasnât replied to Karthik, even though it has been over a month since he attempted to get in touch with them. The HDFC board of directors took cognizance of his email on March 16 and said that they would revert in four working days. Wednesday marks the fifth working day since the acknowledgement.
Since Karthik started the online campaign, a number of people have allegedly come forward with similar stories â 500+ if Kathikâs latest estimate is to be believed.
In a tweet, Karthik also claims that HDFCâs email open stats have spiked drastically since he started the campaign. However, Karthik hasn't taken up the matter legally.
âFirstly, Iâm not an aggrieved customer. I noticed the opt-out option and took it. Secondly, I am sure that HDFC has a whole legal team backing it, which would have been consulted before rolling out this program. Itâs not about the technicalities for me. I just want HDFC to understand that what theyâre doing is not taking informed consent of their customers. And thatâs wrong,â he explains.
Many media outlets have called Karthikâs efforts a âsatyagrahaâ, a reference to Mahatma Gandhiâs non-violent, ethical struggle during the Indian freedom movement. And though Karthikâs tweets and efforts arenât aggressive and have a similar muted undertone, urging HDFC to think about the ethics of its actions, he says that his activities donât constitute a satyagraha.
âI have neither the time nor the inclination to do something like that or on such a large scale. I will do this till the end of the year and if the bank still doesnât respond, I will go on with my life,â Karthik says.