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'I was beginning to lose hope': Woman battles bank for 2 years for information on her own account

An Edmonton woman is speaking out about a two-year battle with her bank to access information about her account after she noticed a questionable transaction.

Banking complaints system surrounded by secrecy, says consumer advocate

Rhonda McMillan fought for two years to get a document she believes shows unauthorized activity on her account. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

An Edmonton woman who spent two years battling her bank for information about her own account is defying a confidentiality agreement to go public about what happened, in a bid to shed light on a highly secretive system she says is stacked against the customer.

"Numerous phone calls, numerous emails. I documented everything," Rhonda McMillan told Go Public during an interview at her home where she showed us boxes of paperwork — the result of her long fight with CIBC for a document she believed would confirm unauthorized activity on her account.

In 2016, McMillan noticed $691 had been moved from an account belonging to her and her husband to an account she had with her son which was closed a month earlier.

McMillan says the bank slip she fought two years to get appears to show that a CIBC manager and another employee signed their own names authorizing the transfer of the money, reopening the account without her knowledge or permission.

"It wasn't our signatures and it shook us," says McMillan.

She has no idea why the bank would do that, and may never know. After waiting months and months to get the document she wanted, she says the bank told her too much time had passed to get answers. 

Two years after money was transferred from her account, Rhonda McMillan still doesn't know why the transaction occurred without her authorization. These are just some of the documents she has chronicling her fight with CIBC. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

But it's not only the unauthorized transaction itself that concerns McMillan — it's how hard she had to fight to get basic information about activity on her own account and get answers to what happened and why.

"I was beginning to lose hope. I'm pretty persistent, but I was getting worn down," she says.

Secretive complaint system

The banking complaints system is surrounded by secrecy and dominated by the banks, says Wanda Morris, a consumer advocate with CARP.

"We're at a crisis," says Morris, who would like to see a major overhaul of the system. 

In order to get the document she was looking for, McMillan initially filed a complaint with CIBC's ombudsman. 

The bank and its ombuds service told her she had to sign a confidentiality agreement, promising not to tell anyone what the document revealed, and not to disclose anything about the investigation or any settlement to anyone.

If they want to come after me … then bring it on.- Rhonda McMillan

McMillan  says she reluctantly agreed to sign the gag order, but contacted Go Public anyway, after receiving a copy of the bank slip for the transaction she says was carried out without her knowledge.

"If they want to come after me … then bring it on," McMillan told Go Public in an email.

Both the bank's internal ombudsman and the national independent ombuds service, OBSI, required Rhonda McMillan to sign confidentiality agreements. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Go Public asked CIBC specific questions about the case, but the bank didn't offer an explanation. In a statement, a spokesperson wrote that CIBC "strongly disputes the nature of the allegations."

"As the matter is going through a dispute resolution process, we are unable to comment further," CIBC spokesperson Tom Wallis wrote.

'No wrongdoing,' but settlement offered

McMillan didn't lose any money but the bank did offer a financial settlement.

"They just would say there's no wrongdoing — we're not admitting to any wrongdoing, but here's our settlement," McMillan said.

Unhappy with the results of the investigation by the bank's ombudsman, McMillan escalated her case to the national independent Ombudsman for Banking Services and Investments (OBSI), and was again asked to sign another non-disclosure agreement. 

That investigation resulted in another settlement offer, but again, no explanation for why the money transfer was carried out without her knowledge. 

Lack of transparency

Canada's banking complaints system needs to be more transparent, says Morris. 

Consumer advocate Wanda Morris of CARP says the current complaints system for banks is tilted in favour of financial institutions. (Rosa Marchitelli/CBC)

She says the system allows banks to choose which dispute resolution service will handle their customer complaints. ​

OBSI is a non-profit, independent consumer dispute service started by the federal government in 1996. It now only investigates two of Canada's big banks — BMO and CIBC.

The three other big banks — Scotiabank, RBC and TD — jumped ship from OBSI and moved to ADR Chambers Banking Ombuds Office, a private company.

"We have a situation where essentially banks get to choose their referee," says Morris. "And they're consistently choosing the referee that investigates fewer complaints, that finds fewer of those complaints in favour of customers, and has less transparency about their findings."

Neither OBSI nor ADR Chambers publicly releases the results of their investigations, the names of the banks involved or the amount of compensation handed out.

Sarah Bradley is the Ombudsman at OBSI, one of two external dispute resolution services used by banks in Canada. Banks are allowed to decide which service they use. (Gary Morton/CBC)

All banking consumer dispute services require non-disclosure agreements. Sarah Bradley, ombudsman at OBSI, says without the agreements, banks would be more cautious about taking part in investigations.

She wants to see one, non-profit, public service dispute resolution service that handles all banking complaints and is mandatory for all banks.

"The government of Canada should look at this issue very carefully. And it's our view that the best interests of Canadian consumers would be served by having one ombudsman," Bradley says.

Proposed legislation

Last week, the federal government introduced Bill C-86 (the Budget Implementation Act 2), which it says will improve consumer protection and make the banking complaints process more transparent.

If passed, it would:

  • Require banks to keep a record of all complaints and make the information available to the commissioner of the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (but not public).

  • Publicly identify banks that commit serious breaches of their legal obligations.

  • Prohibit banks from using misleading terms regarding their complaints-handling procedures, including terms that suggest independence. That includes the use of the term ombudsman.

  • National dispute resolution services (OBSI and ADR Chambers) would have to publish on their website a summary of their final recommendations and the reasons for them.

The proposed legislation doesn't include a plan for one independent dispute resolution service. 

"We expect all approved external complaint bodies to maintain a strong reputation for being operated in a manner consistent with the standards of good character and integrity, and to ensure that complaints are addressed in an impartial and independent manner," Pierre-Olivier Herbert, press secretary for Bill Morneau, wrote in an email to Go Public.

Moved money to credit union

McMillan says the OBSI investigation is now over and she's waiting to receive a financial settlement from the bank.

She's now moved all of her family's money out of CIBC to a credit union.  She started the process while trying to get the bank to hand over her account record — transferring money out little by little — while CIBC played what she calls "the procrastination game" with the document she wanted.

With files from Ana Komnenic

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