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ICICI: Indian woman alleges ‘bank manager stole $1.9m from account’

An Indian woman has accused a manager at one of the country’s largest banks of defrauding her by siphoning off 160m rupees ($1.9m; £1.5m) from her account.

Shveta Sharma says she had transferred money to the ICICI Bank from her US account, expecting it to be invested in fixed deposits.

But she alleges that a bank official created “fake accounts, forged her signature, took out debit cards and cheque books in her name” to withdraw money from her accounts.

“He gave me fake statements, created a fake email ID in my name and manipulated my mobile number in the bank records so I won’t get any withdrawal notifications,” she told the BBC.

A spokesman for the bank admitted to the BBC that “indeed the fraud had happened” but said that the ICICI “is a bank of repute which holds trillions of rupees in deposits from millions of customers”.

“Whoever is involved will be punished,” he added.

Ms Sharma and her husband, who returned to India in 2016 after living for decades in the US and Hong Kong, met a banker through a friend.

As the interest rate on bank deposits in the US was negligible, he advised Ms Sharma to move her money to India where fixed deposits were offering an interest of 5.5% to 6%.

She opened an NRE account meant for non-resident Indians on his advice after visiting the ICICI’s branch in old Gurugram near the capital, Delhi, and in 2019, began transferring money into it from her US account.

“Over a period of four years from September 2019 to December 2023, we deposited our entire life savings of around 135m rupees in the bank,” she said, adding that “with interest, the sum would have grown to more than 160m rupees”.

She said she never suspected anything was amiss because the branch manager “would give me proper receipts for all the deposits on bank’s stationery, regularly send me email statements from his ICICI account and sometimes even come over with folders of documents”.

The fraud came to light in early January when a new employee at the bank offered to get Ms Sharma better returns on her money.

It was then that she discovered that all her fixed deposits had vanished. There was also an overdraft of 25m rupees taken on one of the deposits.

ICICI bank
Image caption,ICICI is India’s second largest bank

“My husband and I were shocked. I suffer from an autoimmune disorder and I was so traumatised that I couldn’t get up from bed for an entire week,” she told me. “Your life is being ruined right in front of your eyes and you can’t do anything about it.”

Ms Sharma says she has shared all the information with the bank and held several meetings with top officials.

“At our first meeting on 16 January, we met the bank’s regional and zonal heads and the head of the bank’s internal vigilance who had flown in from Mumbai. They told us they accepted that it had been their fault, that this branch manager had cheated us.

“They assured us that we will get all our money back. But first, they said, they needed my help in identifying fraudulent transactions.”

Ms Sharma and her team of accountants spent days going through the statements for the past four years. Her accountants then sat with the vigilance team to mark the transactions which they were “100% sure” were fraudulent.

“It was shocking to actually discover how the money had been siphoned from my account and where it had been spent.”

Ms Sharma says despite the bank’s assurances that the issue would be resolved within two weeks, more than six weeks later, she’s still waiting to see any of her money back.

In the meantime, she has sent letters to the CEO and deputy CEO of ICICI and lodged complaints with the Reserve Bank of India – the country’s central bank – and the Economic Offences Wing (EOW) of the Delhi police, which deals with financial crimes.

In a statement sent to the BBC, the bank said they have offered to deposit 92.7m rupees into her account with a lien, pending the outcome of the investigation.

But Ms Sharma has rejected the offer: “It’s a lot less than the 160m rupees they owe me and the lien would effectively mean the account would be frozen until the case is closed by the police, which could take years.”

“Why am I being punished for no fault of mine? My life has turned upside-down. I can’t sleep. I have daily nightmares,” she added.

Indian rupees
Image caption,Shveta Sharma says she has lost 160 million rupees

Srikanth L, who runs a fintech watchdog called Cashless Consumer, says such cases are not very common and banks use audits and checks to ensure such things don’t happen.

But if your bank manager decides to defraud you, he says, there’s little you can do.

“Since he was the bank manager, she had some implicit trust in him. But customers must be more vigilant. They must monitor the outflow of money from their account at all times.

“The lack of double checks on a customer’s part can lead to this kind of fraud,” he adds.

This is the second time just this month that ICICI bank has been in the news for the wrong reason.

Earlier this month, police in Rajasthan state said a branch manager and his aides had duped depositors of billions of rupees for years to meet targets set up by the bank.

Police said they withdrew money from customer accounts and used it to open new current and savings accounts and set up fixed deposits.

The ICICI spokesperson said in that case, the bank acted swiftly and took action against the manager involved. He added that none of the customers had lost any money.

In Ms Sharma’s case, he said it was “bewildering” that she remained “unaware of these transactions and balances in her account over the past three years, and only recently noticed a discrepancy in her account balance”.

The bank “has consistently sent transaction details to her registered mobile number and email”, he said, adding that their “records indicate notifications regarding changes to contact details were sent to her mobile number and email address registered with the bank”.

The accused branch manager “has been suspended, pending investigation”, he said, adding “we have also been defrauded”.

“We have also lodged a complaint with the EOW and we have to wait until the police investigation is complete. She will get all her money back, along with the interest, once her allegation is proven to be true. But unfortunately, she has to wait.”

The BBC was unable to contact the manager for comment.

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