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ABU DHABI // When KB Muralee was offered his credit card, he was told it would be free for life.
Seven years after using it once, he had an accumulated debt of Dh60,000.
"I used the Standard Chartered credit card for some purchases in India amounting to Dh12,000. Of that, I paid back Dh10,000 on time and later deposited the remaining Dh2,000. My card's credit limit was Dh15,000."
A Dh288 late fee for the outstanding amount of Dh2,000 was combined with annual fees, insurance and interest charges to create the mammoth debt.
"I didn't even want the card, but they insisted that it was free and then said I had to purchase insurance on it," said Mr Muralee, who is the honorary president of Kerala Social Centre in Abu Dhabi.
After The National approached the bank for comment, Mr Muralee said he was contacted almost immediately with a settlement deal.
"They called and said, 'OK, pay Dh2,000 and end the matter'."
In another call, he was asked to pay just Dh500.
In an official statement, Standard Chartered explained: "Upon receiving the complaint, Standard Chartered's customer care unit contacted the customer and launched an investigation.
"Apparently, the customer had made a purchase on his card in 2005 and has not settled his outstanding balance since then.
"Despite the bank sending him his statement on a regular basis, the customer has ignored settling his credit card which has led to the automatic compilation of late-payment fees and interest on his outstanding balance.
"The bank has contacted the customer and has settled the issue with him."
Mr Muralee said he refused to pay a single fils on either his credit-card charges or on the settlement, because he believed the charges are baseless.
"I knew it could land me behind bars but I was not afraid of it because it's entirely the bank's fault," he said.
"It's been mental torture to me, as the bank kept sending me statements throughout these years that I couldn't get them to resolve.
"It's very hard for a layman to understand their schemes, paybacks, late fees and hidden charges that they add on without explanation. These banks play like hunters and they wait and watch when you are going to get trapped."
Other consumers could find themselves in the same situation as Mr Muralee if they don't read the fine print.
The websites of several local banks use the term "free for life" to refer to credit card products, including Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank, Mashreq Bank, RAK Bank and Lloyd's TSB.
Standard Chartered is more cautious in its use of the term, but the bank does refer to a "free for life" credit card that is available with certain products, including their Home Suite Package.
"There is absolutely no such thing as a 'free' credit card," said an independent financial adviser from Dubai who did not wished to be identified.
"The banks might say they're giving you six months free, but that's as long as you pay back what you owe them before the due date every month.
"The thing is, they do cover themselves: there's that little asterisk next to 'free', which means you should be checking the fine print," he said.
"But let's get real: in today's financial climate? Nothing is for free.
The Central Bank of the UAE regulates banks, exchange houses, and finance and investment companies. You can contact the consumer protection unit of the Central Bank to report problems on 02 691 5290/5453, or email your complaint to firstname.lastname@example.org or log it online at www.centralbank.ae