Twin Nightmares for Citibank Indonesia

In Jakarta, Citibank’s public relations staff must have put the banking giant‘s corporate slogan – “Citi never sleeps” – to good use over the past week as twin scandals involving an alleged beating death and a sexy swindler rocked the company.

First, a “relationship manager” employed by the bank for the last 15 years, variously known as Malinda Dee, Melinda Dee, Inong Malinda or just MD, was nabbed on March 25 after allegations came to light that she used her connections with her customers to steal about $2 million.

Pictures of the middle-aged woman, with long-hair, ample curves and heavy makeup, soon seemed to be everywhere, showing her in come-hither poses and skin tight skirts with a stable of luxury cars and an arm-candy husband, a minor 22-year old TV actor named Andhika Gumilang.

But Dee’s alleged over-the-top stealing is one thing, leaving a customer dead inside a branch office after a run-in with debt collectors is quite something else.

On Tuesday, Irzen Okta, 50, the secretary general of a minor political party, the National Unifying Party (PPB), went into a private room at a Citibank office on a crowded main street in Jakarta and never came out alive.

Police said the room where Irzen met with two contract debt collectors and a Citibank employee to discuss his credit card debt ‑ the bank said he owed, with interest, more than $10,000; the victim put the figure at about $7,000 – was splattered with blood but it was unclear if the brain hemorrhage that took his life was the result of a beating or just fear, stress and intimidation.

“The autopsy results so far have not shown any sign of beating with a blunt object,” a senior police officer told the media on Friday. “The cause of death, according to the autopsy, was a ruptured blood vessel in the brain.”

The police have arrested the two debt collectors and a Citi employee as suspects in the case and they are trying to figure out how Irzen’s blood ended up on the walls and curtains of the conference room.

The incident highlights the tough tactics of debt collectors in Indonesia. Credit firms, banks and others routinely hire thugs to go after deadbeats, leaving many people frightened of facing the agents if they get behind in their bills. Reacting to Irzen’s demise, lawmaker Harry Azhar Azis, urged Bank Indonesia (BI) to issue regulations to reign in violent debt collectors.

On Friday, the central bank summoned Citibank and other banks and told them to go easy on roughing up their customers, but a BI official told reporters there were no regulations that could compel banks to restrain their attack dogs.

The official, Muliaman Hadad, warned banks that they could be subject to “reputation and operational risks” from heavy-handed debt collectors, according to the Jakarta Post.

While the dead politician may not have been worked over with brass knuckles, police said the three debt collectors he faced were both rough and intimidating. After Irzen arrived at the bank asking to discuss his debt, he was taken to a small room where the suspects “pounded on the table, kicked a chair and tapped on the victim’s shoulders,” a police officer said, according to the Jakarta Globe. In another account, in the Jakarta Post, police said the victim was beaten and humiliated.

Most accounts agree that Irzen complained of a severe headache and was then further ridiculed, eventually falling to the floor, foaming at the mouth. One of the debt collectors, Aries Lukman, laughed at the man’s suffering, police said.

He died a short time later.

The politician’s death competed for headlines during the week with Dee’s antics. Her husband, who is a hunky pitchman for cigarettes of no particular renown before his wife’s alleged theft came to light, denied being aware of any misdeeds as he made the rounds of local gossip TV shows. Police seized from Dee two luxury apartments, two Ferraris, a Mercedes Benz and a Hummer in the course of investigations that began after some of Dee’s Citi clients complained that their savings had disappeared into her designer purse.

Given the woman’s looks, age and taste for the good life, Dee, who is variously reported to be 45 and 50, set off a storm of tabloid titillation, with many even respectable news outlets speculating on whether some of the ill-gotten wealth might not also have been spent on augmenting her impressive upper silhouette. On Friday, the National Police headquarters looked like a luxury car showroom as her fleet of flashy rides was on display in the parking lot.

Beleaguered Citibank officials said as little as they could about their twin PR nightmares during the week. “It is our commitment to protect the interest of our customers, including swiftly repaying all customers who suffered losses in the fraudulent transaction, fairly and timely,” said Citi’s Indonesia country corporate affairs head, Ditta Amahorseya, in a statement in response to Dee’s embezzlement.

After the bank’s contract employees were arrested on suspicion of murder in the Irzen case Thursday, Ditta issued a statement saying the bank had a strict code of conduct with regards to debt collection. “As representatives of the bank, all our contract staff are required to adhere to [the code] during all interactions with customers,” she said.

“We are cooperating fully with the police in their investigations to determine if agency staff adhered to the code of conduct.”