How to Handle a Dispute with Your Bank

Don’t let your complaints go unanswered or inadequately addressed.

Bank sign
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When money is involved, consumers take things personally. Disputes with your bank are bound to trigger strong emotions. If it's a quibble over, say, a $25 overdraft fee, your stress meter will likely stay at a cool temperature. But sometimes the stakes are higher—in the most serious discrepancies, a great credit score or future chance of employment may hang in the balance.

Whether the issue is miniscule or grave, many bank customers are vocal about their problems. Banks landed at No. 7 on the Better Business Bureau's list of the top 10 industries for consumer complaints and inquiries in 2012. Of course, banks make mistakes from time to time. Still, it can be hard to tell in a dispute who's right and who's wrong: the consumer or the bank? 

It pays to consider the best way to approach your bank. Although disagreements vary—your credit card bill exceeds last month's charges or your checking account looks short—experts cite these general tips: 

Consider your methods of communication. A phone call is quick and direct, but issuing your complaint through social media has its benefits. For one thing, it's public, which means the bank will likely work quickly to remedy the situation. Mark Schwanhausser, a Javelin Strategy & Research analyst who studies platforms consumers use for banking disputes, thinks consumers have the upper hand on Twitter. "Banks have to control their brand and their messages, and now they have to do it at lightning speed," he says. "It's not easy. I think it scares them." 

Typically customers must lodge complaints on a bank's customer-service Twitter handle rather than on the company's general account. For example, if a Bank of America customer wants to report their deposit was posted to the wrong account, he or she should tweet @BoFA_help. The problem is many people don't know the protocol. "There is no receptionist on Twitter saying, 'How may I direct your call?'" Schwanhausser says. For consumers with more complex issues, Schwanhausser says it's wiser to just pick up the phone since the bank will likely reply on Twitter advising they take the conversation offline. 

[Read: How to Complain to Companies (and Get Results).] 

Remain calm but persistent. John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at SmartCredit.com, says many of the calls customer-service agents field are from people who are ticked off, even if it's over something miniscule. Yet yelling and using profanity won't help your case. "The person on the other end of the line did not do anything to you," Ulzheimer says. "They didn't misassign your payment—that was an automated response." 

Bank representatives appreciate customers who raise disputes in an even-toned manner. It may be hard to keep your emotions in check, but those who maintain control have a greater chance of success. Odysseas Papadimitriou, chief executive of credit-card comparison website Cardhub.com, says an agent who sympathizes with you will be more likely to put extra effort into resolving your dispute. As such, aim to make the customer-service rep your ally, not your enemy. 

If you're the type of person who can't tolerate being put on hold for long, call during off-peak hours, suggests Nicole Lapin, a former CNBC anchor and editor-in-chief of the personal finance website Recessionista.com. She recommends calling on Tuesdays or Wednesdays between 1 and 4 p.m. Also keep in mind that since bank disputes are specific, it's common for callers to be transferred several times before reaching the right department. 

Navigate the channels. Once you're routed to the correct department, don't be afraid to take your issue to someone with more authority than a customer-service representative, who may not have the power to resolve your dispute, Ulzheimer says. Politely request to speak to the representative's supervisor or a manager. If you hit a dead end, ask to connect with the "retention department" if the bank has one, so you can speak with someone who cares most about keeping your business, suggests Ruth Susswein of Consumer Action, a nonprofit that advocates for bank customers.