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RACHEL RICKARD STRAUS: Banks are making it too easy for scammers

RACHEL RICKARD STRAUS: Have scams become so endemic that banks, Government and regulators have all but given up trying to turn the tide?

The banks are playing into scammers’ hands. I don’t say that lightly, but after seeing a text message from a scammer last week, I’m convinced of the fact.

The message purported to be from NatWest and was entirely realistic. My friend who received it was convinced it was genuine. It appeared at the end of a string of genuine text messages that he had previously received from NatWest. It warned him, in exactly the same language used by banks, that there had been suspicious activity on his account and it needed to verify some recent transactions.

Terrifying, yes. But so far none of this is NatWest’s fault. Sadly scammers can easily get hold of genuine messages from banks and mimic them accurately. Scammers also have technology called smishing that enables them to add their own text messages to existing threads.

But the next bit is where I think NatWest – and indeed most high street banks – need to take some responsibility.

The message continued: ‘Reply Y if you would like to resolve by text, which is quicker and easier. Reply N if you would prefer to speak to the team, this may be subject to a wait time.’

Doubts: Banks, the Government and regulators tell us that tackling fraud is a priority

My friend was poised to reply Y and would have, had I not suggested he phone NatWest to be on the safe side. Had he responded, the scammers would probably have sent more texts designed to draw further information from him. It would not have ended well.

The problem is that the scammers are right. Getting through to an actual person at a bank is often a long and frustrating process. They know how much we loathe having to phone up: the pressing 1 for this and 2 for that, the interminable hold music, the recorded messages in which robotic voices explain just how important our call is to them.

Trying to get hold of a bank staff member in person is just as frustrating. Growing numbers of us can’t just pop down to our local branch because the chances are it has been shut down. NatWest announced last week it is closing a further 40 branches, while its sister bank Royal Bank of Scotland will shutter five. Barclays is closing another 69 this year; HSBC 114; Lloyds Banking Group 37.

Sources told Group Wealth and Personal Finance Editor Jeff Prestridge last week that it may not be long until the number of bank branches remaining is slashed from 5,000 to just 1,000. So when a scammer says you can cut out the bother and answer by text message instead, I’m sure many people wouldn’t think twice.

If banks are going to take away branches, they need to make sure that the replacements they offer work for customers. And that means being easy and painless to get hold of.

I’m deeply worried about how the scam epidemic is being tackled. Banks, the Government and regulators tell us that tackling fraud is a priority. But from the action – and inaction – I saw last week I have my doubts.

We’re told that part of the solution is reporting scams to Action Fraud.

But when my friend eventually got through to the NatWest call centre, Action Fraud wasn’t even mentioned. When my friend asked if there was anywhere he should report details of the scam, he was given a stark answer: ‘No’.

The Government reassures us that the Online Safety Bill contains measures to tackle scams. So where is it?

Years after it was first mooted, it is still making its way through Parliament at a snail’s pace. The Payments Systems Regulator will be able to force banks to publish data on how often they reimburse victims. But last week, it finally announced a timetable for doing so – and it’s half a year away. Have scams become so endemic that banks, Government and regulators have all but given up trying to turn the tide?

Beans does not mean Heinz 

Readers of Wealth & Personal Finance I hear you loud and clear: beans does not mean Heinz. Last week, I asked for recommendations of own-brand baked beans and scores of you kindly responded.

Keith and John rate Asda’s beans; Derek, Duncan and Bernard like Tesco’s. But by far the most popular was Aldi’s – a favourite of many readers including Tony, Ian, Lawrence and David. I look forward to trying them all.