Desjardins has been in turmoil since June 20, when it announced that an employee stole personal information from 2.9 million individual and corporate members.
John Kenney / Montreal Gazette
Last month, I received a letter from Le Mouvement des Caisses Desjardins informing me that I was one of the 2.7 million Quebecers (2.9 million including business clients) whose personal information had been stolen, allegedly by a rogue employee who was fired, but has not yet been arrested and charged with a crime.Meanwhile, as Stephen Colbert might quip, the identity of the alleged identity thief is handled as if it’s a state secret.The following week, my stepson received the same letter. Nice way to start adult life.Desjardins advises to register with Equifax, whose services it has retained to protect customers from fraudulent transactions. Considering Equifax’s own abysmal record in keeping their customers’ information safe — they were fined US $700 million just last week for that reason — it’s hard not to be cynical about Desjardins’s “I feel reassured” ad campaign currently running in French and in English.And the promised deal with TransUnion, Equifax’s competitor, has not yet materialized.I won’t detail the hoops I had to jump through to register with Equifax. The site was bug-ridden, so I had to phone. Customer representatives located in faraway lands had no understanding of what had happened and did not care about Desjardins clients’ anxiety.I dealt with them in English — with accent-related misunderstandings on both sides — but given the predominance of Desjardins in small-town and rural Quebec, the fact that Equifax, a company present in some 20 countries around the world, including Russia, Saudi Arabia, Cambodia and Brazil, did not have linguistic resources to accommodate the influx of new French-speaking customers was bewildering.I received an email from them this week: the French header was incomprehensible. I hesitated to open it, thinking it was fraudulent. It was not.Dealing with Equifax became such a nightmare that Desjardins had to enlist its own customer service department, 1-800-caisses, to help out. People want to trust Desjardins, less so Equifax.Desjardins is not just a financial institution in Quebec but a piece of history, its green logo tattooed on the French Canadian soul. A co-operative founded in 1900 by Alphonse and Dorimène Desjardins in Lévis, across the river from Quebec City, in their cookie-cutter cute Queen Anne/Gothic Renewal family cottage, it aimed to make saving and borrowing money available to all, then a revolutionary idea.Today, Desjardins has almost $300 billion in assets, with branches in Canada, the United States and in several developing countries.Had this massive identity theft hit one of Canada’s charter banks, people would have been angry, thinking “what else do you expect from banks?” But since it happened to Desjardins, there is more hurt than anger. It felt personal, almost treasonous. That one of its employees was able to download nearly three million files containing confidential information was a shock on emotional and sociological levels. Never mind technological and financial.Fighting my own long-held prejudice against an institution I thought parochial, technologically backward with a brand image stuck in the 1960s and smelling of church wax — not to mention Desjardins’s network of pseudo modernist and post-modernist buildings (a Caisse in Quebec City is an imitation of the Guggenheim) — I became a Desjardins customer when I moved to the country. To my surprise, I liked their brand of personalized service.Truth is, in recent years, Desjardins has begun to act more like a chartered bank than an idealistic co-operative, its CEOs earning millions like other head bankers while closing branches and removing ATMs.Beyond the sentimental link between Quebec and Desjardins, a very serious crime has been committed and despite the institution’s transparency and its willingness to protect victims, no one has been arrested yet and we don’t know the full extent of the what identity fraud will result, except that part of the information stolen is now in the hands of foreign criminals.And no, I won’t change financial institutions. It could happen to any of firstname.lastname@example.org