Consumer Rights: Phishing scam took my family's financial future

Reader fights for compensation after suffering £20,000 fraud ... The true price of debt management companies


Q. Last year I logged into what I thought was my bank's website to check my account. I thought the bank had made changes to its website as it asked for my PIN and password. As a result of giving that information, about £20,000 was taken from my NatWest account in three large amounts. I was devastated. That's all the money I had.

I went through the bank's complaints procedures and, to cut a long story short, they refused to help on the grounds that I disclosed my PIN and password. So I applied to the Financial Ombudsman Service. Eventually in December the ombudsman wrote saying that NatWest's terms and conditions state that customers must act with "reasonable care" and that there had been many warnings posted on the website regarding phishing emails. I replied that the warnings were about phishing by telephone and email, not phishing through websites. I also said that the amounts taken should have raised suspicion as I warned the bank if I was likely to take out any big sums. The ombudsman's final letter said that in his opinion the transactions that took place were not sufficiently suspicious to raise alarm at the bank.

We have been offered £1,726.65, plus £200 in recognition of the inconvenience caused. I have 14 days to accept or the offer will be withdrawn. How can one momentary error of judgement on my part result in the loss of all that money and how can the bank claim to have done all they could in monitoring my account. They should have picked up what was happening and stopped it before I lost everything!

Name and address withheld

A. This is the kind of story that will send readers rushing to check their accounts. I too find it hard to accept that the bank had refused all responsibility in this and that it claimed that the amounts taken from your account weren't unusual enough to raise suspicion so we've been trying to get a change of heart ever since.

The first thing was to get an extension of the time you had in which to make your decision. The ombudsman gave you an extra two weeks. In the meantime, Lupton Fawcett solicitors in Leeds agreed to look at all the paperwork and felt sure that you had a strong case. They appealed on your behalf to the Financial Ombudsman Service and another adjudicator there looked at the case again. The result of that appeal has now come through. The second ombudsman has made a decision that fairly closely echoes the findings of the first and the amount of your offer hasn't been changed.

The ombudsman says that while the bank's warnings about phishing were about telephone and email phishing, they did say that the bank would never ask its customers for their full PIN and password but only part of a PIN and password. He does not consider the bank to be responsible for a fraudster gaining access to your account. In a statement, NatWest said that while it sympathised with your predicament it felt its handling of your case had been "fair and proportionate".

John Eaton at Lupton Fawcett says the only option now is to take the case to court, and that having the ombudsman's decision in the bank's favour makes it unlikely that NatWest will arrive at a more favourable settlement unless a court reaches a different conclusion. I know you are disappointed with this outcome and I also know that you simply can't afford to take the case to court. This is a warning to all other online bank account holders. Do not under any circumstances put in your PIN and password if asked. It won't be the bank that's doing the asking.

***

Q. I need help to sort out my debts because I've had to agree to take a cut in wages and can't keep up all the repayments. The local Citizens Advice that everyone, including you, says people should turn to for help can't give me an appointment until September. What's wrong with going to one of the debt management companies that advertise instead? I'm too worried to wait.

AM

Merseyside

A. There's nothing wrong in going to a debt management firm for help, but the problem is: which one? There are three times as many of them than there were 10 years ago, and research published last week by the Money Advice Trust (the charity which runs National Debtline, the telephone debt advice service) shows that both people like yourself who use them for help and advice, and the creditors who are owed money, have had mixed experiences of the services they provide.

Some people said they weren't told they'd be paying fees, or how much those fees would be, until late in the process. Others were left feeling they were in a worse financial position than before. Some of these firms claim to provide a free service but it later turns out that it's only the initial conversation that's free. In other cases the firm takes a share of the monthly sum you pay before handing the rest on to the creditors. This means the creditors get less of your money or it takes longer to clear your debt.

Some creditors do have good working relationships with some debt management companies and some customers are happy with the service they get, but you have to decide which company to go with and that can be a bit hit and miss.

Joanna Elson of the Money Advice Trust says: "Fee-charging debt management companies may aspire to give best advice, but their motivation and business model – in aiming to sell products – are different."

Make sure you know exactly what the fees and charges are and how the cost structure works before you sign up. If you can bear to talk to other people about your problems ask where they got help and how good the service was.

You could try the free online and telephone advice services again CCCS (www.cccs.co.uk) and National Debtline 0808 808 4000; alternatively, ask your local Citizens Advice if they could call you at short notice if someone else doesn't turn up; get a self-help pack from them so that you'll have all the information they need when you do get to see them. Contact all your creditors and tell them that you are taking advice.

www.moneyagonyaunt.com

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