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Bellringers and bowlers caught in HSBC crackdown on money laundering

Village bell-ringers and local bowls clubs are having their bank accounts closed by HSBC in a crackdown on money laundering.

Last month, Money Mail revealed how the international bank had shut down the account of a pigeon racing club, and we have since heard from other community groups which have also been hit.

Under action by the bank to prevent money being moved for the use of terrorism or the drug trade, these clubs are facing demands for more personal details and records — and having their accounts closed if they cannot comply. 

Nightmare: The Finchampstead Handbell Ringers had their account closed by HSBC

Meg Hostler, founder of a Berkshire village club, the Finchampstead Handbell Ringers, says she was recovering from a throat infection when HSBC phoned her last year to clarify some account information.

She had only been out of hospital for a few weeks and was unable to speak.

Meg, 73, says she was asked to confirm a few simple details including her name, address and date of birth, and the name of the club’s treasurer. However, she says she could not get the words out.

The following month, she received a letter telling her that the account was to be shut — but it did not explain why.

Meg, who founded the group in 2005, says she struggled to open another account online and, as she and the treasurer were considered vulnerable to Covid, neither could visit a branch.

She says: ‘This whole thing has been a nightmare. We have been unable to pay for insurance on the bells or hall hire since our account was closed.

‘I don’t know why HSBC has done this. The only thing I can think is that we weren’t making it any money, as we never use the overdraft and don’t pay any fees.’

Banks can close accounts for a number of reasons, including if fraud is suspected.

Alan Hartley, treasurer of his local bowls club, was threatened with closure of its account earlier this year, after HSBC demanded extra information from him.

Alan, 67, who lives in Flintshire, North Wales, was first asked to submit basic details about himself, the chairman and the secretary. 

But a few months later he was required to fill in a longer form that needed proof of address, ID and a tax return.

Within weeks, Alan, who has been treasurer of Gladstone Bowling Club for the past 15 years, received a letter saying the account would be closed on May 25 because he had not ‘been in touch’ with the required information.

Crackdown: HSBC says it needs to make sure criminals don’t use its accounts to launder the proceeds of crime, including drugs, human trafficking and terrorist financing

Crackdown: HSBC says it needs to make sure criminals don’t use its accounts to launder the proceeds of crime, including drugs, human trafficking and terrorist financing

He says the details the bank demanded were the sort you might expect it to ask a multinational company. ‘We only have around 80 to 100 members, who pay £25 a year membership,’ he says. ‘Our annual income is usually just £7,000.

‘HSBC cannot seem to tell the difference between the types of account it manages.

‘It feels as if it just wants to get rid of us. We have never had any problems with this account in the past 20 years, but it now feels as if HSBC is trying to make it awkward for small clubs that don’t need to borrow and rely on cash.’

Another reader, David Churm, ran into difficulties last year when he took over as treasurer of the Windmill Place social club in Oxfordshire.

He went to an HSBC branch in Thame to change the signatures and address on the account, which he says was accepted. 

But in November, he received a cheque for the account balance of £1,109.46 and a letter stating that the account was now closed.

David, 73, says that despite HSBC updating the account with his address, it continued to send correspondence to the former treasurer – but as she had just lost her husband to Covid, she had been unable to return the letters.

The retired welder tried several times to open a new account for the club, which arranges social functions such as bingo, quizzes and games of boules, but was told this wasn’t possible because of lockdown.

David says: ‘We are still no farther forward and the cheque is going out of date.

‘We are not money launderers – our typical income is around £60 a week. I feel as if HSBC doesn’t want these community accounts open any more because they are not profitable.’

We are not money launderers – our typical income is around £60 a week. I feel as if HSBC doesn’t want these community accounts open any more because they are not profitable.

Becky O’Connor, head of pensions and savings at the platform Interactive Investor, says the heavy-handed approach from HSBC could be sending the wrong message to community groups.

‘The seemingly random closure of accounts is a frustrating experience and it is maddening when an explanation is not forthcoming,’ she says.

‘For charities and clubs, it’s also worrying. They want to know that they are going to be able to access free banking services because they don’t make a profit, so they can struggle to cover costs without preferential terms.

‘Such organisations are never likely to be big borrowers or have huge balances, so it’s important for them to know that these are not required for them to access the services they need.’

HSBC says it has to make sure criminals aren’t using its accounts to launder the proceeds of crime, including drugs, human trafficking and terrorist financing.

A spokesman says: ‘We are committed to supporting the community groups that continue to play an important role in society and particularly during the pandemic in supporting the most vulnerable in our communities. 

‘We conduct regular “Know Your Customer” reviews with all our customers. 

‘We ask customers to provide information about themselves and their businesses, as part of our efforts to prevent financial crime. 

‘We allow several months for this process to ensure our customers have time to respond and because we may need to speak to customers several times to acquire additional data and to clarify what they’ve told us. 

‘We apologise for the inconvenience this causes, but urge customers to respond to our requests as promptly and comprehensively as possible.’  

a.murray@dailymail.co.uk

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