The consumer advice centers are sounding the alarm because savings banks have paid far too little interest on long-term savings contracts – up to five-digit euro amounts. Nine answers explain which contracts are affected and how you can get more interest.
The Federal Court of Justice (BGH) has specified its case law on additional interest payments for premium savers and made further specifications. The plaintiff consumer advice center (VZ) Sachsen sees the verdict as an important milestone in the effort to allow many savers to pay thousands of euros in lost interest payments. Savings bank customers in particular are likely to benefit, but Volksbanks and Raiffeisenbanks are also affected.
The judgment joins a list of test cases that consumer advocates are conducting against several savings banks and which thousands of customers have joined. So far, the courts have ruled in favor of the consumer; some processes are still running. So that you get your rights, here is an overview of everything important:
The current judgment is important because the BGH declared the premium savings interest calculated by the savings banks to be invalid on the one hand, but also specified a correct calculation method on the other. The Dresden Higher Regional Court, for example, recently avoided the latter; the consumer advice center in Saxony had therefore gone before the BGH.
“Every consumer should be able to calculate their own claims down to the last cent,” said Michael Hummel, legal expert at VZ Sachsen, at the time. A BGH ruling in favor of customers also sends an important signal to the entire industry and could lead to enormous additional claims throughout Germany. VZ has now achieved both goals.
Many banks and savings banks have recruited savers with long-term interest promises. In savings contracts or Riester bank savings plans, however, they used illegal clauses to adjust interest rates. In addition, interest rates were regularly lowered. As a result, customers received too little money when they were paid out because they were credited with too little interest for individual years.
Most bank customers are not even aware of this rip-off. Nationwide, the consumer advice centers have only checked around 5,000 long-term savings contracts. The savers received an average of around 4,000 euros in interest too little. The highest claim for an additional claim is 78,000 euros.
Most affected are long-term savings contracts with variable interest rates, which were mainly concluded in the 1990s and 2000s. The disputed contracts often have an increasing bonus payment and a variable basic interest rate, with which the annual credit is remunerated. The basic interest rate is linked to a reference interest rate that reflects market developments.
They are called, for example: “Bonus plan”, “Premium savings flexible”, “VorsorgePlus”, “Vorsorgesparen”, “Wealth plan” or “Pension plan”. Some savings contracts were also sold with Riester subsidies. On the website of the Baden-Württemberg consumer center you will find a list of around 150 banks that have used illegal clauses.
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In the case of the Sparkasse Vogtland that is now under discussion, the BGH referred the matter back to the Higher Regional Court in Dresden, which is to determine the reference interest rate that is decisive for the precise calculation of the claims with expert help. In order to speed up the procedure, the court can fall back on an expert opinion from another procedure. In addition, the BGH decided that the interest rate adjustments should be made while maintaining the initial relative difference between the contractual interest rate and the reference interest rate (ratio method).
The consumer advice center in Saxony was recently right with its model declaratory action against the Leipziger Sparkasse. The Dresden Higher Regional Court decided that the interest rate of four percent set in 1994 was too low for contracts for “S premium savings flexible”. The model declaratory action, which more than 1000 customers have joined, only affects Sparkasse Leipzig. According to VZ Sachsen, savers lost an average of around 3,100 euros.
One reason why consumer advocates have been dealing intensively with the calculation of interest rates for some time is the wave of cancellations of premium savings contracts by the savings banks. Nationwide, well over 100 of these financial institutions have now terminated such savings contracts, which are attractive for customers but quite expensive for banks. According to a BGH ruling of May 14, 2019, savings banks may terminate savings contracts after the highest bonus level has been reached.
The consumer centers criticize that in many savings contracts it is unclear according to which criteria the interest rate reduction is based and whether this is legal. The clauses say, for example: “The savings deposit is variable, currently with 3 percent interest” or “The savings bank pays an interest-bearing premium in addition to the applicable interest rate at the end of the calendar year.” However, this does not indicate how the interest is paid adjusted to market developments.
In addition, consumer advocates complain that in many contracts it is not transparent how exactly the basic interest rate changes. From their point of view, the interest rate adjustment clauses are therefore illegal in many cases. In addition, there is also a dispute about the correct calculation of interest in Riester savings contracts.
On the other hand, the case law of the BGH is critical of unclearly worded interest rate adjustment clauses and has already declared some variants to be ineffective. Such clauses have repeatedly been prevented by the consumer advice centers in recent years: the Sparkasse Frankfurt/Main issued a cease and desist declaration in September 2017, and the Sparkasse Lörrach-Rheinfelden in October 2017. If a vague clause in the contract is invalid, the contracting parties must create a new, legally valid agree. Such a practice has not been adopted by the savings banks for many contracts.
In addition to illegal clauses, the consumer centers also consider the calculated interest to be too low. At the beginning of the contracts, an interest rate was often set that differed from the market interest rate of the Bundesbank. This distance must be the same over the entire term. It is also necessary for the savings banks to choose a reference rate for long-term savings deposits.
Due to such differences, VZ Sachsen has been randomly analyzing savings contracts of this type since 2019 with the help of commercial law firms. She found that many savings banks had incorrectly adjusted their interest rates for years and that customers received too little interest as a result.
According to samples of around 600 savings contracts, VZ Bayern expects an interest rate deficit of 700 million euros in Bavaria. The Stadtsparkasse Munich alone is said to have paid more than 130 million euros too little.
In the current procedure, savers would have received an average of around 2,500 euros too little, say the consumer advocates. In the case of the Sparkasse Leipzig, it was about an average of 3100 euros per saver.
In view of the 1.2 million contracts nationwide, damage of around three billion euros could have occurred.
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If affected customers want to ask the savings banks how their interest rates have been adjusted in recent years, they often receive information that is difficult to understand and cannot be checked. It is also evident that the financial institutions used different criteria for the calculation. “They claim to have done everything right, which is why customers are not entitled to subsequent interest,” complains Andrea Heyer from the consumer advice center in Saxony.
Joachim Fröhler, press spokesman for Stadtsparkasse München, is also not aware of any guilt: “We calculated the interest on the terminated premium savings contracts correctly according to the existing specifications.” However, the German Savings Banks and Giro Association (DSGV) sees a need for judicial clarification: There are different legal positions between consumer advocates and individual credit institutions regarding premium savings contracts. They are currently undergoing a judicial review.” The DSGV argues that only after a final judgment will it be clear which point of view is legitimate.
If you have a savings contract in which the variable interest rate has become increasingly meagre in recent years, you can have it checked by VZ Bayern or Sachsen. For 85 euros, your interest rate adjustment will be recalculated by a loan expert. To do this, you must submit copies of savings contracts or savings books including all changes. The calculations are summarized in a legal report with an explanation for the customer. This allows you to initially assert your interest claims against the savings bank or another financial institution.
Even if the bank invokes the statute of limitations, you should not be put off. This occurs at the earliest three years after the end of the savings contract. If the bank rejects your claims, you can contact an ombudsman. He will try to settle your dispute with the bank. If that does not lead to an acceptable result either, your only option is to go to court.
Since this abuse was only discovered in 2019, there are only a few cases in which customers have filed a lawsuit. Most of the victims are currently in negotiations with the Sparkasse concerned. However, by no means all financial institutions are willing to compromise. “Some respond to customer demands, others flatly reject them,” Heyer observed. Some have therefore turned on the ombudsman.