How inflexible bank rules raised an identity crisis: Vincent Duggleby finds out that not just anybody can transfer money from one of his Abbey National accounts to another

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The Independent Online
Closing a bank or building society account and transferring the proceeds to another account, held in the same name with the same institution, ought to be a perfectly routine transaction. A couple of signatures, some entries on the computer - it should all be done within a few minutes.

Unfortunately, with Abbey National it may not be not quite as simple as that. I recently wanted to close an obsolete Sterling Asset account and transfer the balance to an existing Instant Saver Account.

I had been meaning to do it ever since Abbey National had sent a helpful letter in September, reminding me that Sterling Asset had been superseded by its Investment Account, and inviting a transfer, waiving the usual 90-day notice.

I preferred to move the money to my Instant Saver account, but since I had no need for a substantial withdrawal in the next three months, the notice period was not a problem. It was more important to have the old account closed and the interest credited before the end of the tax year on 5 April, so I signed the form for the money to be transferred in three months' time.

'Do you have evidence of identity?' said the cashier. I had not thought of that. I had assumed the two passbooks would be sufficient, even though I realise banks and building societies have to be extremely careful about whom they are dealing with.

'I'm sorry,' said the cashier. 'Any transfers over pounds 5,000 must be verified by another type of identification. A driving licence will do.'

Although I could have gone home to fetch my driving licence, the branch would have been shut by the time I got back and I would have missed the end-of-tax year deadline. In vain I asked what a driving licence was supposed to prove, when the transaction did not involve a third party, there was no withdrawal by cash or by cheque, both accounts had been open in my name for more than three years and a glance at the passbooks showed they had been regularly used at that very branch. Apparently customer recognition does not count, even if you are recognisable.

'I'm afraid the auditors insist on proof of identity,' said the cashier. 'We get a lot of fraud with transfers.' It seemed pointless to suggest that a thief would probably have withdrawn as much cash as he could from the instant access account rather than argue about transferring money which he could not get at for three months. At this point the manager arrived.

A long discussion ensued behind the counter. At last the manager agreed that while instructions for a transfer could not take place without proof of identity, three months' notice of withdrawal could be given instead.

It is not only Abbey National that has tightened up procedures. All the financial institutions now insist on proper identification for opening new accounts or withdrawing large sums of money, but there are limits.

Opening a business account with Barclays recently, I found the bank was not happy with a signed set of audited accounts, half a dozen statements from another bank and the fact that only a few months earlier I had operated an executor's account with that particular branch. It was my driving licence (or passport) they wanted to see.

All this reminded me of a friend whose elderly mother sent her passbook by post to close her building society monthly income account last year. It 'disappeared' on the way, and the first thing she knew about it was that virtually all of her pounds 16,000 savings had been taken.

The subsequent investigation (after which the society agreed to pay full compensation) showed that the money had been withdrawn by a single cheque made payable to a bogus third party. The account had never previously been used, except at a local branch near her home in Devon, and then only for small deposits and withdrawals.

Yet the cashier involved had apparently not thought it strange that a young woman should request a pounds 15,000 cheque in Solihull - no doubt on production of a driving licence]