Swedish banking giant quits Baltics – says it’s not worth the cost

Swedish banking giant Handelsbanken is closing down its Baltic operations, but denied the decisionhad anything to do with recent money laundering scandals tied to two other Scandinavian banks.

Swedish banking giant quits Baltics – says it's not worth the cost
Handelsbanken's office in Stockholm. Photo: Alexander Larsson Vierth/TT

Handelsbanken said on Thursday it was leaving the Baltics due to unsatisfactory performance.

“We have come to the conclusion that profitability is too low, while costs are too high. Despite efficiency-enhancing measures in the past few years, the operations in the three Baltic States have not shown satisfactory profits,” Richard Johnson, head of Handelsbanken International, told AFP.

He went on to say that circumstances had also changed drastically since the bank established its presence in the region a decade earlier, and that local offices were no longer necessary.

“Rapid technological advances, which have resulted in new players on the market, and new opportunities, mean that we can now help many of our customers directly from the home markets,” Johnson said.

The bank would therefore start to wind down its business in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania during 2020.

READ ALSO: What you need to set up a bank account in Sweden

Johnson also stated that the bank's decision had nothing to do with the recent scandals surrounding allegations of extensive money laundering at two other Scandinavian banks tied to Baltic operations.

Denmark's largest bank Danske Bank is currently the target of criminal probes in several countries over some 200 billion euros ($226 billion) in transfers that passed through its Estonian branch between 2007 and 2015, involving some 15,000 foreign clients, many Russian.

Swedish competitor Swedbank has also been embroiled in a scandal since February when an investigative news show on public broadcaster SVT claimed to have seen documents showing that at least 40 billion kronor ($4.3 billion) of suspicious transactions had been channelled to Baltic countries from Swedbank accounts.

Many of the transactions took place between 2007 and 2015, and some of the money may have first transited Danske Bank.

Handelsbanken has largely remained clear of the money laundering scandals and its operations in the Baltic States have only represented a fraction of some of its Nordic competitors.

For instance, according to the Estonian Banking Assocation, Handelsbanken's market share in Estonia in 2017 was only one percent, compared to Swedbank's 40 percent.

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How to avoid falling victim to tax scams in Sweden

Sweden's tax agency, Skatteverket, warns of an increase in scams when it's time for Swedish tax-payers to declare their taxes.

How to avoid falling victim to tax scams in Sweden

Anyone who earned more than 22,208 kronor last year received their tax returns digitally last week, marking the start of tax season.

That also means an expected peak in tax-related scams, Skatteverket warns.

Most of the scams are so-called phishing scams, meaning attempts to steal the victims’ personal information. Fraudsters may for example email a person, pretending to represent Skatteverket, and ask them for, among other things, their banking details.

“We’re seeing these in all channels. They use fake emails, SMS, letters and in some cases even phone calls. It is particularly common in tax declaration times – just when we’re about to send out the tax returns, the e-service opens and it’s possible to declare – but above all when it’s time for tax rebates,” Jan Janowski, a Skatteverket expert, told Swedish news agency TT.

A scam email might for example state that you’re entitled to a tax rebate and that you should click a link to receive it. Don’t click any links, open any attachments or reply to the message. Skatteverket advises that you immediately delete the email or text message.

Another common scam is that you receive a text message claiming to be from Skatteverket, telling you that you owe them money and you need to log in to calculate the amount. The website you’re urged to log in via does not belong to Skatteverket. Don’t click the link.

The agency stresses that it never asks people for their banking details. The exception is that you may be asked for your bank account information if you log into Skatteverket’s website to declare your taxes, but that always first requires you to log into the site.

To receive your tax rebate, you need to inform Skatteverket of your bank account number. You do this not by clicking a link in an email or SMS, but by logging into their website using a digital ID, for example BankID, and submitting your details. Only do this on your own initiative. If someone calls you and asks you to log in with your BankID during the phone call, don’t do it. That’s another common scam.

Skatteverket will also never call you to ask for your bank account or credit card number.

It will be possible to declare your taxes from March 19th. You’ll receive any tax rebate you’re owed by mid-April or early June, depending on when you submit your tax return. These are the dates when fraudsters are likely to attempt the most scams.