Stores let muggers play their cards: A robbery victim was shocked at how easily thieves went on a spree in her name

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The Independent Online
NICHOLA ANDREWS was mugged on her own front doorstep in north London at the beginning of January. Her Access card, bank cash card, cheque book, a store card and her driving licence were stolen.

The ease with which someone has used her cards for a huge spending spree reveals gaping holes in the current system of combating fraud.

Nichola reported the mugging to the police. She also immediately cancelled her credit card and store card, and notified her bank. So she did have to suffer the pounds 50 penalty if someone had used the cards to obtain money or goods.

She thought that was the end of the matter. With the cards cancelled and the bank on warning, no one would be able to use her cards and her account.

How wrong she was. Fraudsters have wreaked financial havoc all over London. They have opened numerous in- store credit accounts in her name using the cards and the driving licence as identification.

Nichola says: 'They have got hundreds of pounds worth of instant credit and bought a hi-fi system, electrical items and children's wear. They seem to have gone to every big-name store and high street shop.

'Whoever opened the accounts very kindly decided that I needed payment protection insurance to cover my repayments. As a result I am now being deluged with insurance policies.'

Nichola is horrified at the ease with which the accounts were opened. If just one of the shops had rung Access or telephoned her bank, they would have been told that the cards were stolen.

Shops make great play of getting authority from the credit card companies if you want to use the card to buy goods. However, if you want in-store credit they are seemingly quite happy to accept the cards at face value as a form of identification.

You can have credit, together with a payment protection plan, in the blink of an eye.

When it comes to repayment of the credit, however, things are not so easy. Nichola has had to spend hours writing letters and on the telephone to convince some of the shops that the accounts were not opened by her.

All the stores had to do, as she frequently told them, was to make one phone call to the police to verify her story.

Instead she was subjected to a great deal of aggravation. Nichola was particularly concerned at the menacing tone of the correspondence from Time Retail Finance, which deals with the credit arrangements for the retailer Comet, among others.

She says: 'Not only were the letters overtly threatening but worse still they were utterly misleading. I knew I was not liable for the account. But if these letters had been sent to someone more vulnerable, particularly an elderly person, they would have been totally distraught and could easily have thought they were responsible for repayment.'

Nichola has now received an apology from Kingfisher, the parent company of Comet, and from Time.

Steve Fairbank, a spokesman for Time, said: 'The vast majority of people like Miss Andrews are genuine and have had their cards stolen. Our job is to sift out the element trying to defraud us, whilst identifying the innocent parties and handling them with sympathy.

'We now appreciate that the process currently in place is inappropriate and can cause upset, which is not our intention. We are instigating a review and changing the procedures.'

The banks also need to tighten up their procedures. Nichola had notified her bank of the theft but it still subsequently paid out on direct debit mandates signed by the fraudsters.

If your cards are stolen, instruct your bank not to make any payments without referring to you first. Ultimately, the only safe route may be to close your account and re-open it with a new number.

The banks will no doubt throw up their hands in horror at the administrative inconvenience. But if they cannot be relied on to monitor outgoing payments on a frozen account, what choice does a customer have?

The Credit Industry Fraud Avoidance Scheme (Cifas) was set up to allow credit providers to swap information about fraudsters. Basic details of the fraud are registered with the credit reference agencies, who supply it to credit companies on request. The intention is to ring alarm bells if more credit is requested.

It is essentially a system for the credit industry. However, a spokeswoman for Cifas says: 'The public can request that their details be put in the system. It is a service that we keep very low-key as we are a very small organisation in terms of resources.'

However, it is the credit providers that have to be first in line against fraud. It is no use passing the buck to the innocent customer.

(Photograph omitted)

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