If the movie Bonnie and Clyde with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway is on TV again this Christmas, it might act as a reminder that the days when bank robbers used guns and getaway cars have been consigned to history.
Nowadays, thieves are armed with broadband, not bullets. They don’t need a getaway car because they don’t even need to be in the same country to clean out the coffers.
Online banking is convenient, and often the best interest rates are available on internet accounts only – but it’s also a bonanza for fraudsters. The banks are improving the situation for their customers, but it’s too little, too late.
They are desperate to get us all to migrate online, but for their benefit, not ours.
It’s much, much cheaper for them to have us banking on the internet, instead of doing annoying things like coming into a branch or writing cheques.
I’m no Luddite. Technology advances. Cash machines are a definite improvement on quill pens. The problem is that the consumer protection regime has not evolved to keep pace.
That has left customers vulnerable both to clever fraudsters and to their own minor errors that can have major consequences.
If my personal experience is anything to go by, the system is absolutely infested with cynical cyber-criminals, and you don’t have to be particularly gullible to be taken in.
I recently received an email, apparently from Amazon, saying there was a problem with a payment and asking me to click a link and re-enter my details.
As I had just made an order, and the email looked totally convincing, it almost had me fooled. Fortunately, I’m a bit of a detail freak so I checked the order number on the email against my Amazon account: it didn’t match. A narrow escape.
My mum was targeted by criminals impersonating HMRC and asking for her online bank details. Luckily, she contacted me first and didn’t divulge them.
Then my husband had a large sum siphoned out of his online account shortly after he opened it. Thanks to the excellent response from TSB, it was refunded promptly, but not everyone is so lucky because you don’t automatically have the right to a refund in the case of online banking fraud.
The bank can refuse if you were grossly negligent, and that is open to interpretation.
A scammer might have been very convincing indeed – but the bank can still argue you were grossly negligent if you were taken in and gave them your details. Even if you get your money back, you’re still likely to face a period of stress.
Apart from fraud, millions of pounds also goes AWOL as a result of errors when people accidentally enter the wrong sort code or account number to transfer money. At present, there is no check against a recipient’s name.
Keying in one wrong digit is an easy mistake to make, particularly for people who aren’t that used to computers, but it might not be straightforward to put right, as many have found to their cost. Some unfortunate people have lost very large sums.
If you’re thinking the banks aren’t doing enough to help their customers, I’d agree with you.
In the case of mistaken transfers, there is normally a UK bank on the other end of the error, with one of their account-holders receiving the cash. So you might wonder why the banks don’t act between themselves to help their customers retrieve lost or stolen funds.
They have been reluctant to do so, leaving customers to turn sleuth and hunt down missing money by themselves.
Banks cite their duty to protect the privacy of their account holders, but that shouldn’t act as a blanket excuse for not investigating fraud and disputes.
As for errors, there are plans afoot to protect customers, by introducing a check of the sort code and account number against the name of the recipient, though that is still some years away.
If you’re wondering why they haven’t introduced this basic, common sense protection already, well, so am I.
As one of a dwindling band of online banking refuseniks, I’ve become used to the tone that creeps into the voices of staff in the branch, or on the phone. You know the one, that faint tinge of patronising kindness people use with the dim-witted.
I’m not a technophobe: I love my gadgets and devices and I’m as addicted to social media as a nerdy teen. But until the banks improve the protection for customers, I’m giving online banking a wide berth.
Ruth Sunderland is City Features Editor of the Daily Mail