Friday, 22 June 2012

Whose fault?

A few years ago I was listening to a radio phone-in in South Africa. The caller was complaining about the service she got from a bank and felt they’d abused her terribly. This is what she claimed had happened. She’d been to the bank, withdrawn a significant amount of money in cash and then left. She’d walked down the street, round the corner, down another street, round another corner and then got mugged. That’s terribly unfortunate and I can imagine how alarmed, frustrated and angry she was. However she wasn’t just angry with the mugger, she was angry at the bank as well.


After the mugging, instead of calling the cops, she went straight back to the bank and demanded that they give her the money again and when they politely declined, she got angry with them. She genuinely seemed furious that the bank weren’t prepared to take responsibility for her loss and weren’t willing to dig into their coffers and replace her stolen money.

I’m fairly certain that every other listener to the radio show had the same reaction as me. Was it the bank that mugged her? Was it a bank official that crept round the corner and assaulted her and took her cash? Was it a huge conspiracy? Should they have been obliged to replace her money? Was it actually, in any way, the bank’s fault? I certainly didn’t think so.

Of course it wasn’t, but it does seem to be a tendency that some people have, to blame someone, even when there’s nobody actually to blame, or the person who should be blamed, like the mugger, has long since gone.

We’ve heard recently of a number of cases, some in Botswana, others in neighboring countries, of ATM card theft. In theory, if your ATM card is stolen you should be safe because the thief won’t know your PIN. But ATM card thieves are smarter than that. Using a variety of techniques, sometimes using tiny cameras, other times just distracting you and watching you enter your PIN the thief can get your number. Once they have your card, or have been able to make a copy of it, your account is at their mercy.

So what happens once your money has then been stolen from your account? Whose fault was it? Whose job is it to remedy the problem?

Was it actually the bank’s fault? It’s probably not that simple. If the bank was somehow complicit, or perhaps just negligent then you might be able to hold them responsible. If a bank employee was somehow involved in the theft that’s easy, you can probably demand they fix it. If the bank didn’t make it as difficult as possible for crooks to abuse their ATMs then you might again be able to hold them responsible but how are you going to prove that? What fancy argument is your lawyer going to construct to persuade a court that the bank is liable for your loss? It’s going to be almost impossible to prove.

But what if the bank hadn’t actually done anything wrong? What if you’d somehow given away your PIN and the thief had stolen your card? It’s not the bank’s fault, surely? It might not be your fault either. So who pays the price?

You do of course.

Hidden away in your agreement with the bank I bet there’s a clause that says something like"
“Unless you can prove something was our fault then it’s yours.”
In other words any loss made from your bank account that you can’t prove to the bank’s satisfaction was their fault, you’ll end up paying for. You’ll be alone.

You’ll be alone just like you would be if you voluntarily sent a scammer in Senegal P10,000. Yes, of course you were a victim of a crime and no, it wasn’t your fault, just like it wasn’t Western Union’s fault for sending your money to the scammer, nor was it the world’s fault for not educating you about scams. Clearly only the scammer is responsible. Or was he?

OK, perhaps this situation is different. I’m sorry to sound uncaring but this one WAS your fault as well. Even if you don’t know that “advance fee” scams exist, even if you don’t know how they work, even if you do believe that there are people out there in refugee camps with millions of dollars hidden in bank accounts, why the hell do you think they would approach YOU and offer you some of the money, when they don’t even know your name? Why did you go along with this without even asking someone if the story could be believed?

In that sort of case, I’m afraid that such a catastrophic shortage of common sense and a complete lack of skepticism are nobody’s fault but the victim’s. I know it sounds harsh, blaming the victim as well as the crook, but there is an obligation for people to use their brains every so often.

There are, however, times when responsibility IS much clearer. Let’s say, hypothetically, that the providers of electricity and water in a country had failed miserably to plan for shortages that they really should have known were coming. Let’s assume that the same utility companies couldn’t seem to get their billing systems to work properly. Let’s say that when bills did finally arrive they didn’t even add up correctly. Let’s imagine that power cuts and taps that ran dry were repeatedly inconveniencing ordinary people. Let’s assume that both organizations had failed to communicate their problems to their customers, the public? Would that be the customer’s fault?

Certainly not. I think we all know whose fault that would be. I’ll let a recent Mmegi editorial comment summarize my feelings:
"The two bodies have already failed in their core duty of providing power and electricity to the nation. At least they should have redeemed themselves by communicating their failures and associated issues better."
Well said.

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