Cash in hand wherever you may be

The universal money dispenser is coming - but we won't all be able to get something for nothing, says Steve Lodge

Customers of the Royal Bank of Scotland will become the first to be able to make free withdrawals from Britain's entire network of 21,000 cashpoints, it was announced last week.

The move, which will give RBS customers free access to any bank or building society cashpoint from next summer, is the latest in a series of deals that should eventually allow any card to be used in any machine. France and Austria are said to already offer universal access.

Cashpoint users over here already have a considerable amount of free access to other banks' machines, according to an exclusive survey by the Independent on Sunday. Top of the cashpoint league now is the TSB, whose 4.5 million customers have free access to cashpoints run by Lloyds, Natwest, Midland and Clydesdale banks, as well as to machines on the Link network - whose main members include Halifax, Abbey National, Woolwich, and Alliance & Leicester.

The new arrangement gives TSB customers free access to 17,000 of the 21,000 cashpoints up and down the country.

First Direct and Midland customers have access to what must be the next most extensive network - 11,500 machines run by TSB, NatWest, Halifax, Abbey National, RBS, Clydesdale, Northern Bank and Bank of Ireland, as well as Midland.

At the moment, of the high-street names, Barclays and the NatWest offer the least access. But both sets of customers have free access to more than 7,000 cashpoints, with their main ties being respectively to Lloyds, and Midland and TSB banks, according to the Independent on Sunday's survey.

Even Co-op customers should not feel short-changed simply because they only have free access to Link machines. That access means the use of more than 9,000 cashpoints run by the Halifax, Abbey and others.

Some of these tie-ups may come as a surprise. Banks have not always been very good at informing customers that they can use other cashpoints.

For instance, customers of First Direct, which has no branches or machines of its own, have long relied on using Midland branches to make withdrawals and deposits. The potential for freely using NatWest machines to withdraw cash is also relatively well-known. But far fewer of First Direct's customers may be aware that they can also use the fairly extensive cashpoint networks of the TSB, Halifax and Abbey, to get cash.

Cashpoint machines themselves do not always make it clear about the kind of access they offer, and announcements of tie-ups, in banks' literature, may have been missed. Some customers may even be holding back from using other banks' cash machines because they fear they will be charged for the service. Cashpoints do not warn about charges, but neither do they necessarily tell you when a withdrawal is free. However, as our table shows, there are relatively few charges.

Presently, only Woolwich charges customers as a matter of course for using other compatible machines - those in the Link network. Elsewhere, while many machines carry the Cirrus and Visa logos (with Plus also a variation on Visa) you should not end up paying the listed charges if the machine is also part of one of the sharing arrangements listed as free.

NatWest is unusual in planning to charge its customers 60p a time for using Link machines when a recently announced sharing deal comes on stream in the spring. Thecharge reflects the fact that NatWest will be charged a fee by the Link machine operator each time one of its customers withdraws some cash.

Many banks do not pass on such costs to their customers. For example, most Link members are not thought to have any plans for charging their customers for using NatWest machines.

"It's swings and roundabouts," said a spokeswoman for the RBS, which only charges its customers if they become overdrawn. "The bank pays but then earns a fee when customers of other banks use our machines. First and foremost it's about service. Our priority is the channel of distribution."

The RBS deal for free access to any machine in the country - which will also give free access to RBS machines for Link cardholders - is just the latest in a number to be announced recently. More deals are expected.

Not all the deals are finely balanced across the board. As our table shows, despite the merger of Lloyds and TSB, Lloyds customers only have free access to 9,000 cashpoints, compared with the TSB's 17,000, and there are number of anomalies between their respective coverages. This might be expected to change.

The Link network predicts that "most cards will be usable in most cash machines by late 1998 or early 1999".

As well as sharing arrangements, access to cashpoints should also be improved with the increasing number of machines popping up away from bank branches. Barclays - which, with 3,100 cashpoints, claims to have the most machines of any bank - says it opened 150 new machines this year and will do the same next year.

Supermarkets, airports, motorway service stations and even London Underground stations are all proving increasingly popular sites.

Happier than ever with plastic

Fifty pounds is the limit to your liability if your cashpoint card is stolen or otherwise used without your permission, unless the bank can prove fraud or gross negligence. The Banking Ombudsman said last week that this pounds 50 limit, which applies to any series of withdrawals (rather than each withdrawal) and which is part of the Code of Banking Practice, has resulted in a steep fall in complaints to his free arbitration service in what was previously a contentious area.

But while the number of disputes concerning cashpoints has fallen, the Ombudsman reported an increase in complaints about banks in general, with some of the worst cases of maladministration being attributed to branch closures and other rationalisation.

On cashpoint cards the Ombudsman says writing down your pin number or keeping the pin notification is not in itself evidence of gross negligence. This is the case even though it is often a condition of card issuers that the notification is destroyed. Given that people may have more than one pin number it is not unreasonable that they should write numbers down or otherwise keep a record, but this written record should not be kept with the card, should be disguised, and certainly should not be written on the card, he says.

Disclosing your pin number to someone else may well be more reckless, says the Ombudsman. But as with keeping a record of your number the bank has to prove a link between doing this and the disputed withdrawals.

Fraud loss on plastic cards generally was up 16 per cent in the first six months of the year, Barclays reported this week. Card experts warn of thieves "shouldering" their victims, that is, recording their pin number as it is being used, although the copying of cards is said to be becoming harder. Meanwhile Royal Bank of Scotland says it has prevented pounds 1m in fraud by putting photos on plastic cards. The Ombudsman is on 0345 660902.

Where can you use your cashpoint card?

Bank Free machines (other than own) Pay-to-use machines

Abbey National Midland, Link network Savings account holders pay 60p

Alliance & Leicester Link network Savings account holders pay 50p

Barclays Lloyds, RBS, Bank of Scotland Visa machines 1.5% charge, pounds 1.50 min

Co-op Link network Visa machines 2% charge, pounds 2 min

First Direct Midland, TSB, NatWest, RBS, Halifax, Abbey National, Machines carrying Cirrus logo - 2% Clydesdale, National Bank, Bank of Ireland charge, minimum pounds 1

Halifax Midland, Link network Savings account holders pay 60p

Lloyds TSB, Barclays, Bank of Scotland, RBS Visa machines 1.5% charge

Midland As First Direct As First Direct

NatWest Midland, TSB, Clydesdale Link machine (from March), 60p charge

Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) Barclays, Lloyds, Midland, Bank of Scotland, 35p per withdrawal if overdrawn Link Network (next summer)

TSB Lloyds, Natwest, Midland, Clydesdale, Link network Visa machines 1.5% charge

Woolwich Woolwich 50p to use other Link machines

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