Flawed helpline: Scam victims face half-hour waits and hefty fees when they call banks, Which? finds

Some banks are leaving potential fraud victims to wait for more than half an hour to speak to a member of staff and charging them hefty fees to use helplines, a Which? investigation has found. 

Fraud victims, including those defrauded by Authorised Push Payment (APP) scams, where fraudsters trick people into sending them money unwittingly, are told to contact their bank’s fraud team immediately. They are told that every second counts, as money can be recovered in time if banks act quickly before fraudsters are able to move the money on – often ultimately out of the UK. 

However, when Which? tested the fraud helplines of 11 banks and building societies 12 times throughout different times of the day over the course of a week to see how long it took to speak to employees to report fraud, the average time to get through was 10 minutes, 51 seconds. 

Average call waiting times were more than 10 minutes at five major banks and on two occasions it took more than an hour for the call to be answered.

Which? believes banks are failing to prioritise distressed victims. In some cases this is exacerbated by a culture of victim blaming among banks, which leads to many blameless victims being refused reimbursement for their losses.

The best performing bank, First Direct, took just 16 seconds on average to put callers through to a member of staff. First Direct’s quickest response time was an impressive 10 seconds. 

The worst performing bank in the investigation, The Co-operative Bank, took 31 minutes and 40 seconds on average.

The Co-operative Bank told Which? that it has experienced difficulties in employee recruitment and retention, as well as increased levels of sickness due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

HSBC ‘Premier’ service customers – who must have an annual income of at least £75,000 or savings and investments worth £50,000 – had average wait times of two minutes, 26 seconds. But ordinary account holders waited twice as long – four minutes and 54 seconds on average.

HSBC told the consumer champion it added around 300 agents to its UK call centre this year, as well as new bases overseas. Its Premier customers receive ‘prioritised access to call agents for complex banking enquiries’. 

To compound matters, Which? also found that six of 11 banks’ helplines charge a fee, which could lead to hefty phone bills if customers are forced to wait for extended periods of time.

Phone numbers that charge a fee start with 03, which the communications regulator Ofcom says should cost the same as 01/02 geographical numbers, regardless of whether calls are made from a landline or mobile. 

Customers will not pay extra if they are within the limits of the minutes included in their phone tariff, but could face charges of up to 16p a minute plus a 23p set-up fee on a landline, or between 3p and 65p a minute on a mobile. 

Jacqueline John, a retired teacher from North Yorkshire, told Which? how she was hit with an unexpected bill for £19.70 in December 2021 after spending almost two and a half hours on hold while trying to report a series of suspected fraudulent transactions to her bank, Lloyds. Lloyds offers a free 0800 number for fraud inquiries, but the number printed on customer cards can incur charges.

Other banks that charged a fee to call were: First Direct, HSBC, HSBC Premier, NatWest, Metro, TSB and The Co-operative Bank. 

Banks and building societies also use Interactive Voice Responses (IVRs), on their helplines, with the levels of sophistication varying. 

The Co-operative Bank was found to have a particularly convoluted IVR, with a recorded apology about ‘extremely high call volumes’ and a warning about delivery scams during some calls. One researcher involved in the investigation complained about the lack of indication of their queue position. 

Banks can sign up to a ‘159’ pilot scheme, an initiative which encourages consumers to hang up from a phone call that might be a scam, for example one that asks for personal information or money, and to dial 159 to speak to their bank. Of all the firms in the investigation, just four – Metro, HSBC, HSBC Premier and First Direct – have not signed up to the scheme. 

Several businesses have blamed poor levels of customer service on the pandemic. However, for customers to be left waiting for long periods of time on fraud helplines – a place to report crimes and where they are told to go as soon as possible after being defrauded – is particularly shocking. 

Which? believes banks must up their game and ensure they are offering a good service to potentially vulnerable victims of fraud. Those calling to report suspected fraudulent transactions should not be charged for doing so. 

However, even when victims do get through to their bank, they still face a reimbursement lottery depending on who they bank with, and the government has admitted that reimbursement to victims of APP scams remains inconsistent.

Certain banks have routinely blamed customers for falling for what can be highly sophisticated crimes, despite the majority signing up to the Contingent Reimbursement Model (CRM) Code that instructs firms to reimburse victims’ money when they are not at fault. However, that Code – which is currently only voluntary – has not been applied consistently and fairly due to firms interpreting their obligations differently.

Following successful campaigning by Which?, the government recently announced in the Queen’s Speech its intention to enable mandatory reimbursement for all APP victims who are not at fault. Which? welcomes this announcement and believes that the new Financial Services and Markets Bill must be brought forward as quickly as possible to ensure victims are properly protected. 

Once legislation has been brought forward, the Payment Systems Regulator must be ready to ensure firms treat their customers consistently and fairly, with tough enforcement for those that break the rules.

Rocio Concha, Which? Director of Policy and Advocacy, said: 

“The feeling of being scammed is already stressful enough for victims, without having to wait long periods just to get through to your bank. 

“Victims are told to contact their bank immediately because every second counts. Some firms taking longer than half an hour to answer victims’ calls shows the lack of support with which certain banks have treated fraud victims for far too long. 

“Now that the government has announced its intention to enable mandatory reimbursement for bank transfer victims who are not at fault, the regulator must be ready to ensure that firms are treating customers fairly and consistently, and clamping down on those who breach the rules.”


Notes to Editors

  • Which? mystery shoppers called 11 banks and building societies 12 times over the course of a week at different times of the day. Once they got through to an employee, they were asked to end the call.
  • Caroline was a customer of The Co-operative Bank for nearly 30 years, but switched to First Direct recently after a poor experience. 

Caroline said: “When the bank removed its 24/7 phone service it was a retrograde step. One of my bugbears since has been the long waiting times when I try to ring. The hold music and automated message haven’t changed in years, callers aren’t given their queue position so cannot make an informed decision about whether to continue to hold, and there is no option to request a call-back.”

“Having switched to First Direct, I’m very impressed. Staff are so efficient, responsive and helpful, and calls are answered within seconds.”


Which? advice on what to do if you spot a scam

  • Report losses to your bank using the quickest available method. This can be done over the phone, in branch or via an online chat service. Lost or stolen cards can be cancelled via a banking app, if you have one. 
  • Change the passwords for any compromised accounts as soon as possible. Two-factor authentication is another effective way of protecting your personal information. 
  • Report scams to Action Fraud. Contact them by phone on 0300 123 2040; or actionfraud.police.uk), or Police Scotland (call 101) to get a crime reference number. 
  • Know your rights. Unauthorised transactions should be refunded by your bank by the end of the next business day. If you sent money to a scammer, you may be refunded by your bank under the Contingent Reimbursement Model Code. 


Rights of replies 

Which? contacted the four worst-performing banks in the investigation 

A Co-Operative Bank spokesperson said: “We experienced difficulties in recruitment and retention in a buoyant job market which, following increased levels of sickness and public health advice for those with Covid-19 symptoms, or a positive test to stay at home, resulted in increased call wait times.”

It told us recruitment levels are much improved in recent months with the option for colleagues to be home based. Since our investigation, it has also joined the ‘159’ pilot scheme.


A Lloyds spokesperson said: “Gathering information on fraud can be complex and, while we never want anyone to have a long wait, it’s important we spend the right amount of time on every call. We have thousands of specially trained colleagues who are available 24/7 to help customers and have invested more than £100m in our fraud defences.”


“We’re sorry we didn’t help Mrs John faster when she contacted us in December; she didn’t need to be transferred to a different department, and we have refunded the charges she incurred plus made an additional payment, in recognition of her experience.”


A Santander spokesperson said: “We have begun to see a clear shift in the complexity of scams and as the scams become ever more sophisticated, we are spending longer speaking with our customers to support them – whether it’s helping them to identify the fraud or helping them report the crime.”


TSB said it monitors call waiting times closely and said it recorded an average call waiting time of under six minutes in March (only one call was answered this quickly in our investigation). It said only around one in every five customers need assistance with fraud-related matters by phone. It is also the only bank that guarantees to refund all genuine fraud victims. 


About Which?

Which? is the UK’s consumer champion, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. Our research gets to the heart of consumer issues, our advice is impartial, and our rigorous product tests lead to expert recommendations. We’re the independent consumer voice that influences politicians and lawmakers, investigates, holds businesses to account and makes change happen. As an organisation we’re not for profit and all for making consumers more powerful.


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