Puerto Rico Banks Urge Use of Online Services in Effort to Stop Spread of Covid-19
Popular, Oriental and FirstBank offer Relief Programs
SAN JUAN – With the general business disruption in Puerto Rico caused by the threat of the novel coronavirus disease (Covid-19) and emergency curfew/lockdown order issued by Gov. Wanda Vázquez, banks on the island are taking measures to continue offering services and address problems customers may have with mortgage and loan payments amid the crisis.
While most bank branches generally remain open, although many in reduced hours, banking executives are calling on customers to use mobile or online banking services to carry out transactions, instead.
In general, banks are not offering a blanket moratorium on loan payments, as was done in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria, but are pledging to deal with customer issues on a case-by-case basis, Puerto Rico Bankers Association Vice President Zoimé Álvarez Rubio told Caribbean Business.
“We are facing a situation that requires aggressive measures to protect the population against the spread of Covid-19, and we know that the decreed measures could have an impact on the finances of people who will not work either in person or remotely during the term of the executive order,” she said. “Anticipating this, banks have been monitoring the situation closely and have worked with financial regulators to delineate alternatives to be offered.”
Álvarez said banks are offering targeted moratoriums on loans and mortgage payments to cases that merit them. She said that many businesses, including banks, were excluded from the mandated closures and their employees will not be affected economically.
Álvarez said member banks are following U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and commonwealth Health Department guidelines and recommendations to protect employees, clients and visitors from Covid-19. These measures include recurrent employee handwashing, controlling the number of employees that can enter a branch at any one time, canceling work trips by staff and executives, and implementing “strict parameters” for cleaning of offices and equipment, she said.
“The executive order says banks may open, but the banks are implementing their own precautionary measures in terms of security and health and have established formal protocols in order to face this situation,” Álvarez told Caribbean Business. “There are banks with checkpoints that only allow 10 people to enter a branch at any one time and require customers to wait in line outside at distance from each other. Some banks have regular business hours but others have opted to open until 1 p.m. or noon, and afterwards serve customers at drive-through windows.”
Given the gravity of the Covid-19 emergency, Álvarez called on banking customers to avoid going to branches when they can and utilize mobile and online banking as well as telephony based services instead. She said automated teller machines (ATMs) are available if cash is needed.
She said she had not seen heavy customer traffic at banks, and speculated that they were opting for digital services.
“I work at Popular Center on the 18th floor and have been monitoring the situation at the branch on the first floor and I did not see many people there. I went to another bank’s branch in Caparra and the situation was the same there,” she said. “There was more movement at drive-through windows. I have not seen the lines I saw after Hurricane Maria because there is no fear that the money is running out.”
She said people are using digital banking and communications has not broken down.
“Up until now, everything is normal,” she added.
Banco Popular de Puerto Rico, the island’s largest financial institution, urged customers who are “affected economically and need assistance” with mortgage and personal loans, auto loans and leases, and credit cards to call (787) 522-4945 or 1 (833) 221-2203. Commercial clients may call their officer or the Business Banking Center at (787) 753-3939.
Popular Inc. CEO Ignacio Álvarez also urged customers to avoid going to bank branches and use drive-through windows and digital services, instead.
Starting Wednesday, all Banco Popular branches will open until 1 p.m. and the AutoBanco drive-through windows will open until 3 p.m.
Moreover, to encourage customers to carry out fewer transactions at branches, the bank is instituting the following changes:
—Eliminating ATM fees for transactions involving non-Popular accounts.
—Increasing the cash limit for Depósito Fácil Móvil and ATMs from $5,000 to $10,000. Other limits apply for commercial deposits.
—Eliminating fees for Popular customers who use ATMs belonging to other financial institutions.
—Increasing the amount of money in transactions that can be done at AutoBanco drive-through windows to $10,000.
—Eliminating the limit on the amount of transactions that can be done at AutoBanco points.
Álvarez said Popular commercial clients also have tools at their disposal to continue doing business with the bank without having to go to branches, including Mi Banco Comercial, Web Cash ManagerSM, Remote Deposit, Depósito Fácil Móvil, and Depósito Nocturno. Businesses also have access to credit lines of up to $50,000 at 0 percent interest and zero payments in the first three months, he said.
Branches at San Patricio Mall, Mall of San Juan, Peñuelas, Albergue Olímpico, and the University of Puerto Rico will remain closed.
Bank customers are urged to visit the institution’s dedicated site for related updates: www.popular.com/coronavirus.
“At Popular we are prepared to manage the situation and are ready to support our clients. In the next days and weeks we are going to be presented with challenges that we have never faced,” Álvarez said in a press release. “I trust that, by exercising prudence, working together and being supportive, we will overcome this and come out ahead, as we have done in recent years.”
FirstBank is offering an Economic Relief Program for customers who have personal, mortgage, auto and commercial loans and credit lines, FirstBank President and CEO Aurelio Alemán said in a press release. For more details about program requirements, customers can call the FirstLine Solutions Center at (787) 725-2511, seven days a week, from 6 a.m. to 12 a.m., he said, adding that commercial loan and credit line clients must contact their relationship officer.
“Aware of this difficult situation and how it can affect all residents of the island, we have designed an Economic Relief Program for our clients,” Alemán said in a statement. “If you have been affected due to workday cuts and income loss, we will be providing temporary relief from your financial commitments in auto loans and leases, personal loans, credit cards, credit lines of individuals, Money Express personal loans, and commercial loans and credit lines.”
He added: “In the case of mortgage loans, help will be conditioned on the type of loan.”
Alemán said that for other FirstBank information, customers should visit the financial institution’s website, 1firstbank.com.
FirstBank branches will provide service from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. In the case of branches that offer service Saturdays, special hours will be 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. At the moment, they will not be open Sundays. Money Express branches will be offering service Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
FirstBank and Money Express branches will not be open March 23.
FirstMortgage’s centers are closed until March 30. However, personnel are available in the payment and moratorium areas.
Meanwhile, FirstBank Insurance offices are closed; however, they will continue to provide service to policyholders over the phone, calling (787) 292-4380; text, by messaging (787) 488-0201; and via email, writing to email@example.com.
FirstBank offers its clients the following tools and alternatives to carry out transactions without having to visit the bank:
—Check account balances, make payments or transfers, deposit checks and more using Tu Banca Digital (internet and mobile) by accessing 1firstbank.com or downloading the application.
—Access cash at one of the 200 ATMs around the island, and deposit checks and cash at more than 70 that provide Express Deposit.
—Check credit card balance and make payments through Online Services for Credit Cards at www.fbcreditcard.com.
—For information on mortgages, balances and payments, connect or register in Online Mortgage Services, at www.firstbankpr.customercarenet.com.
—Manage business finances 24/7, verify account balances, issue payroll payments, payments to suppliers, make wire transfers through the Smart Cash Management platform. For more information, call (787) 729-8290.
—Auto Bank service at 34 branches.
Customers may also contact a service representative over the phone by calling (787) 725-2511.
Oriental Bank President and CEO José Rafael Fernández said the financial institution was reducing the business hours of its branches, which were being thoroughly cleaned to prevent infection among staff and customers. Still, he called on customers to avoid visiting branches and use available digital technology to carry out banking transactions at any time.
“We encourage our clients to take advantage of the convenience of the use of digital channels that are available to ease the management of accounts through Banca Móvil and Banca Online,” Fernández said in a press release, adding that these platforms allow customers to make payments. “These solutions will give our customers access to their banking accounts without having to be in contact with other people, therefore reducing the possibility of any contagion.”
Oriental Bank Collections & Loss Mitigation Sr. Manager Myriam Arce announced Wednesday that a financial assistance plan will be available for customers who have difficulty making loan payments due to the Covid-19 emergency.
“At Oriental we are aware of the difficulties that many families could be going through in these days of additional expenses and the situation we are facing; that is why we are offering our clients the financial assistance alternative for payment of their loans,” she said in a statement.
Customers with loans that are less than 29 days delinquent during this month will receive an automatic exemption from late fees and will not result in a negative credit report, Arce said, stressing that customers do not have to visit Oriental branches.
“When everything returns to normal, the customer should contact us through the service centers to apply for the financial assistance plan needed and each case will be evaluated individually,” she said.
Loans delinquent more than 30 days will be evaluated according to bank policies and rules, Arce said.
She said that to apply for the assistance program, customers should call the following telephone numbers according to the type of loan they have:
—Personal, mortgage and auto loans: (787) 620-0000, from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
—Mortgage loans acquired from Scotiabank Puerto Rico: (787) 767-8585, from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Personal and auto loans acquired from Scotiabank PR: (787) 729-4939, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Oriental branches, including the former Scotiabank branches that were acquired by Oriental, will be open to the public from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Drive-through windows in these branches, including live tellers, will be operating from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Branches at shopping centers will open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and drive-through windows in these branches will open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Oriental branches will open Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., while the Piñero Avenue and El Señorial service centers will also open until 1 p.m.
“Access to these branches will be controlled and guided by our employees to ensure the safety of our customers,” the banking executive said in a statement. “Every customer visiting a branch will be offered antibacterial liquid. As an additional preventive measure, a cleaning kit and antibacterial liquid will be given to each employee with educational material on how to prevent the virus.”
Customers with original Oriental accounts may call (787) 620-0000 or 1 (800) 981-5554 from 7 a.m to 7 p.m. Those with accounts from Scotiabank can call 24/7 at (787) 766-4999. Customers with corporate and institutional accounts may call (787) 777-2889 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Automated Voice Service can be obtained by calling (787) 622-6800.