A HSBC customer has spoken of his three month ordeal to have his bank account released after the lender shut it down without warning - leaving him unable to pay his staff.
Agustin Larocca, 37, opened an account with HSBC in 2015 to run his small business selling vape products.
However, in July 2017, he says he woke up to discover his business debit card had ceased to function.
In a panic, Larocca says he went into his local branch, where he was told his account had been "frozen".
He claims staff told him they were unable to provide a reason for their decision - along with any advice on how to release his funds.
"This left me distressed and in limbo," Larocca explained in a letter seen by Mirror Money and addressed to HSBC, the Financial Ombudsman and several MPs.
"I had no access to my cash flow to run my business."
After several more visits to his branch, Larocca was informed that he should contact HSBC's commercial banking division to arrange a meeting to discuss the reasons for their decision.
Larocca says he tried this, however on every occasion, hit a wall.
The bank later said it had written to him on several occasions - and had left him calls in January 2017 to discuss his account.
Have you had your bank account frozen without warning? Get in touch: email@example.com
Larocca claims he has, to date, never received these letters.
"I had around £76,000 in my account at the time," Larocca explained.
"It was frozen on July 13 and released in mid-September.
"After spending large amounts of time and effort with HSBC's customer services and safeguard department, and not receiving a solution, I made the decision to contact HSBC's CEO. He actually assisted me further to solve the issue."
Mirror Money got in touch with HSBC - who, after three years, have now agreed to pay Agustin £1,000 in compensation.
"As part of our efforts to stop financial crime we are conducting detailed ‘KYC’ reviews in which we ask customers to provide information about themselves and their businesses," a HSBC statement said.
"We allow several months for this process because we may need to speak to customers several times to acquire additional data and to clarify what they have told us.
"We apologise for the inconvenience this causes, but urge customers to respond to our requests as promptly and comprehensively as possible.
"If we do not receive all the information we need we may be forced to restrict or suspend certain services like foreign currency payments or, as a last resort, to close their account. We want to work with customers to ensure we don’t have to do this."
But Agustin's case is not a one off.
"Hundreds of cases of frozen bank accounts"
Mirror Money has heard from dozens of customers and businesses who have also had their bank accounts frozen without warning, some for months, others for years, with no explanation.
Solicitor John Binns specialises in anti-money laundering cases at BCL law firm - and he says he's seen a spike in customers who have been accused of this in recent years.
Binns says he currently has number of clients who are subject to account blockages and are struggling to deal with the harsh measures that banks are increasingly adopting.
"We've not kept count but can safely say we've had hundreds of queries on this in the last couple of years, from businesses and from individuals," he said.
If a customer makes an unusually large transfer, or acts out of the ordinary, for instance, it may show up as a red flag on the bank's database.
And banks are, by law, obliged to escalate their suspicions to the National Crime Agency (NCA).
Once referred, they're under no obligation to explain why under money-laundering laws.
" The main reason for these blockages is the statutory obligations of the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA)," John explains.
"This makes it an offence for banks to deal with funds that they have a suspicion about.
"Unfortunately, once it's referred to the NCA, there are real limits on what you as the customer can do. The bank will often tell you nothing for fear of committing 'tipping off' offences, so you may be completely in the dark about why they have become suspicious.
"Although you can try to engage with them, it may not help and you must cautiously assume everything you give them will be shared with the NCA, police, HMRC, or any other state agencies that may be interested."
John says you can submit a Data Subject Access Report (DSAR), but this will take a month to process and the bank may hold back data if they think it could prejudice an investigation.
"You can also complain to the Financial Ombudsman, although that is unlikely to yield quick results," he says.
"If the bank has asked the NCA for consent, then a statutory time period kicks in – first seven working days, then another 31 calendar days if they refuse. After that time, the bank is legally allowed to do what it’s asked for consent to do.
"If the authorities want to freeze your funds after that, they will need a court order. We’re accustomed to dealing with orders like that and any other fall-out, such as a criminal enquiry."
However John says he's increasingly seeing cases where the banks aren't asking for consent.
"Instead they are just sitting on the funds indefinitely. That’s a very different kind of problem."
What to do if your account is frozen without warning
The first thing to do is to recognise that the bank has its obligations and is not acting maliciously towards you.
"If you can work out what their problem is and give them a clear, safe and simple answer, then this may do the trick – but bear in mind that it’s rarely easy to allay suspicions once the bank has formed them," John explains.
"It may be worth putting in a DSAR and/or a complaint, and if you can afford it, to instruct lawyers. As financial crime experts, we can help you see things from the bank’s perspective and prepare you for what might come next, which could include court orders or criminal enquiries. Often a blocked account is the first sign that something more sinister is in the pipeline."
However, be prepared for a lengthy wait.
"Unfortunately, unless the bank has asked the NCA for consent there’s no particular timetable or easy route to get your money back: you can threaten to sue, but to follow through on that could be an expensive process," John explains.
"Even where they have asked for consent, the statutory timescales – seven working days plus 31 calendar days – are quite long from the customer’s point of view.
"If you haven’t already, it may be worth formally instructing a transfer to another account – they won’t do it straight away, but it may prompt the bank to request consent if they haven’t already."
If the bank can’t be persuaded and the statutory timescales have passed, you may be able to sue them – but even that won’t have guaranteed results, John says.
"The courts have tended to sympathise with the banks' position in having to comply with POCA, and you may have to put some effort into proving that your funds are legitimate. It’s a very unfortunate, very unfair side-effect of a system that is designed to disrupt criminal activity, but has cast its net far too widely."