Bank's gateway to fraud

MARTIN WRIGHT got a nasty shock the day he noticed pounds 9,080 was missing from his small business bank account. His July statement from Barclays listed an unauthorised withdrawal made early the previous month, and he had been driven sharply into the red. Inquiries showed that the money had been sent to a private individual in Malaysia by telegraphic transfer. It emerged that fraud had taken place, and the matter is now in the hands of the police.

Someone had forged the signature of Mr Wright's company cashier on a telegraphic transfer form obtained from the bank. Barclays had not challenged the transaction and the form was duly accepted and the money sent, even though the business had never made this type of payment in its 25 years of trading. "I couldn't believe it. No one checked back with me. Sending this sort of money to a private address in Malaysia looks incredibly suspicious. I've been told this size of transfer falls below the level at which Barclays automatically checks back with the customer. So they just didn't bother,'' Mr Wright said.

"On top of everything else, the lady who signs our cheques never had authority for telegraphic transfers."

As part of centralisation, Mr Wright's account was recently transferred to the Broadgate head office branch, which may explain its lack of familiarity with the account and inability to spot the problem.

What most alarmed Mr Wright, however, was the apparent ease with which the crime was committed. Any customer can get hold of a form, fill it in, and hand it over or send it in, to make payment. All that seems to be necessary is the number of the customer's account, the sort code, and a signature that bears a passing resemblance to an authorised one on the account.

"It's almost like handing out blank cheques,'' Mr Wright said. "They don't even have a numbering system, to record whom the forms go out to. I find their attitude complacent in the extreme.''

When the Independent on Sunday contacted the bank, an official issued an apology to Mr Wright. The bank has reimbursed him and paid for the overdraft the fraud caused.

Barclays said that despite this error, it believed its standards of security were adequate, and said its "failure rate'' was only one in 100,000. When errors were spotted, they were fully rectified. ''It would be too costly to check back on all the telegraphic transfer orders we receive. We receive 1.2 million transaction orders a year,'' a spokewoman said.

Midland Bank, on the other hand, said it usually phoned customers to confirm all transactions coming in by post. A TT order of pounds 9,000 that was not handed over the counter would definitely be verified by branches. Its head office Poultry branch makes 8 to 15 such calls a day.

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