Pick up to fraud victims: Call for big banks to run scam hotlines

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Money Mail is today calling on major banks to bring back dedicated helplines for fraud victims.

Last month, we revealed how High Street giants had sounded the alarm over a looming scam epidemic as crooks seek to cash in on cost-of-living fears.

But we have discovered that HSBC quietly scrapped its fraud hotline during the pandemic.

On hold: An investigation earlier this year revealed some banks are leaving fraud victims waiting more than half an hour to speak to someone

Others, including Co-operative Bank, Lloyds, First Direct, Metro Bank and Santander, also fail to offer a specific number for scam victims.

Customers are instead directed to general helplines, which have seen wait times soar in recent years. They then face further delays before getting through to the fraud department.

Santander will not even allow victims to report a scam to staff in its branches. They are told to call its general customer service helpline instead.

Even when banks do offer a dedicated number, it is often buried under endless options and drop-down menus on their websites and difficult for panicked customers to find.

Money Mail understands that many banks are now instead relying on a little-known emergency hotline launched in September 2021.

Under the scheme, customers who fear they are at risk of fraud can dial 159 to be connected to their bank.

But few people know this number exists because most major firms do not advertise it prominently on their websites or in branches. And despite its purpose, those who do call the helpline often aren’t even put through to their own bank’s fraud department.

Our findings come after banking trade body UK Finance revealed a record £1.3 billion was stolen by scammers last year.

So-called push payments or ‘authorised’ fraud, where victims are groomed and manipulated into divulging personal details and transferring money, were the biggest driver of losses.

But customers caught out by these types of scams routinely struggle to get their money back, with only 42 per cent of stolen cash returned.

It’s why it is so vital victims are able to alert their bank to suspicious transactions as quickly as possible.

Any delay reduces the already small chances of firms being able to claw back lost cash.

Consumer expert Martyn James says: ‘Banks have to invest in their frontline fraud services as an absolute priority. Fraud and scams are endemic at the moment, and a failure to do so will mean that banks could arguably be liable if they fail to transfer you through in time to actually prevent fraud taking place.’

Emergency 159: Banks are now relying on a little-known emergency hotline where customers who fear they are at risk of fraud can dial 159 to be connected to their bank

Emergency 159: Banks are now relying on a little-known emergency hotline where customers who fear they are at risk of fraud can dial 159 to be connected to their bank

Jane Hawkes, a customer service champion, adds: ‘If someone suspects they have been a victim of fraud they need to be able to report it in the quickest, most efficient and secure way possible.

‘It is a failure on the part of a bank if they do not offer a dedicated helpline. There is absolutely no excuse.’

One Money Mail reader says she was forced to wait for almost an hour before she could report a scam to Santander.

She had spotted a £250 transaction she didn’t recognise, which had pushed her into her overdraft. But after calling its customer service helpline, it took around 30 minutes for someone to answer.

She was then put on hold again for over 20 minutes before she was transferred to the correct team. ‘Having to go through the usual customer services line just doesn’t work when you’re in that mindset. Banks need a dedicated hotline,’ she says.

HSBC customer Susan Martin, from Norwich, was kept on hold for 30 minutes after receiving a fraud alert.

The 59-year-old and her husband David, 62, called the number on the back of their card immediately, but gave up when they were left hanging on the line.

Susan says: ‘It’s unacceptable. The bank should call us or at least pick up the phone to fraud victims. It’s massively inconvenient.’

Scrapped: HSBC closed its fraud hotline during the pandemic. Other banks, including Co-op, Lloyds, First Direct, Metro and Santander also fail to offer a specific number for scam victims

Scrapped: HSBC closed its fraud hotline during the pandemic. Other banks, including Co-op, Lloyds, First Direct, Metro and Santander also fail to offer a specific number for scam victims

And their experiences are far from unique. An investigation by consumer group Which? earlier this year revealed some banks are leaving fraud victims waiting more than half an hour to speak to someone. 

Money Mail’s Pick Up or Pay Up campaign has also repeatedly named and shamed banks as among the worst offenders for long call wait times.

We are asking for a new law to force businesses to pick up their phones within ten minutes or face hefty fines.

Which? also found customers may even be charged a fee to ring bank helplines. If a number starts with 03, calls could cost up to 16p a minute when using a landline, or up to 65p a minute from a mobile, the consumer group warns.

It can be difficult for customers to find the correct telephone number, as there is a muddling array of options.

Barclays, for example, offers a range of helplines for different services on its website but customers are first required to answer multiple questions.

If you click ‘contact us’ and then ‘security and fraud’ and select the debit card option you will be directed to its dedicated fraud hotline that is open 24/7, including holidays. 

Yet if you choose the option ‘online banking’ you will be presented with the bank’s digital helpdesk number, which is only open until 5pm on weekdays and closed at weekends.

Most banks that do not offer a dedicated line for fraud victims typically still have an emergency phone number that customers can call at any time of day.

But TSB’s fraud line is only open from 8am until 9pm — and a message on its website warns ‘you may have to wait’ because it can be busy. Outside of these hours customers can only report scams online or via its mobile app.

The new 159 emergency fraud hotline was supposed to be the equivalent of the NHS’s 111.

When customers call, an automated voice asks them to select from a menu the bank they want to contact.

But in many cases, instead of being put through to the firm’s fraud department they will simply be connected to its general customer service line. 

Phone only: Santander will not even allow victims to report a scam to staff in its branches. They are told to call its general customer service helpline instead

Phone only: Santander will not even allow victims to report a scam to staff in its branches. They are told to call its general customer service helpline instead

This means they face further delays as they will have to explain to staff why they are calling and wait to be put through to the correct team.

It also means the 159 service may not be available 24/7, because when victims can be put through depends on bank opening hours.

Co-Operative Bank says customers who ring this number will be transferred to its fraud team — which they are not able to reach direct. Yet few will know this option exists as banks do not prominently advertise the new 159 number.

The hotline is available to 90 per cent of current bank account holders in the UK and has handled almost 170,000 calls since launching in September last year.

But because it is still in a pilot phase, there have been no major marketing campaigns to raise awareness.

Simon Miller, director of policy and communications at Stop Scams UK, which helped to develop the 159 scheme, says: ‘The real benefit of 159 is that it’s not about reporting fraud, it’s about interrupting that scam journey. 

‘It ultimately doesn’t matter if it’s redirected to the fraud department or just to customer services, because the moment you dial 159, you’re no longer speaking to a potential scammer.

‘As we evolve and develop the scheme, we’d like to see a really consistent service across each one of our banking members.’

Barclays says a dedicated team is available 24 hours a day, and online banking support is available out of office hours via its website. First Direct, Lloyds and Metro Bank say customers can call and be put through to a specialist fraud department.

An HSBC spokesman says the bank ‘simplified and improved’ its processes for fraud reporting and people can use the numbers on the back of their cards. 

He adds: ‘Customers are not always comfortable calling numbers they don’t recognise so a fraud hotline may not always be the ideal route for some.’

A Santander spokesman says: ‘Our customer service number enables customers to report fraud to us 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

In September so far, our general banking line has had an average wait time of less than three minutes and the wait time to speak to a fraud specialist is less than 14 minutes.

‘Alongside our 24/7 customer service lines, we have comprehensive fraud detection and prevention systems in place to protect customers throughout the payment process.’

TSB says the average call-waiting time for its fraud team was under eight minutes in the first half of this year. Customers can contact its lost and stolen card line 24/7 and are protected by its fraud refund guarantee.

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