Societies play down mail theft problem: Savers using postal accounts have been assured that new measures will prevent stealing, writes Maria Scott

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ANN FISHER nearly had pounds 8,500 stolen from her Halifax Building Society account after a thief intercepted her passbook in the post. Her experience will unnerve the thousands of people who have flocked to open high-paying specialist postal accounts.

Miss Fisher is working in Norway and in June she posted a cheque for pounds 1,500, along with her passbook, to her account with the Halifax in London.

She became uneasy when there was no sign of the book after a month. She telephoned her branch and learned that her passbook had apparently been intercepted en route from Norway. It had arrived with her cheque, but also with a letter asking the Halifax to transfer pounds 8,500 from her account to another one.

'For some reason the building society was suspicious,' said Miss Fisher.

It was not the first time this had happened. On a previous occasion money had actually been transferred out of an investor's account.

'I was told that to pay money into the account, I should not send the passbook - I could have the book updated on the occasions when I was in the UK,' said Miss Fisher.

'To pay a cheque into my account, all that was necessary was to write my account number on the back. If I wished to send a covering letter, I should print my name rather than signing it. When I need to withdraw money, I should send the passbook separately from my letter of instruction.'

The Halifax confirmed that passbooks had recently been stolen en route to London branches and the society was stepping up security measures. A spokeswoman was unable to give any details on the extent of the problem.

If anyone had lost money as a result of this, they would have been compensated, she said.

The society seems a little confused, however, on the best way for investors to safeguard themselves. Advice from the society's spokeswoman differed from that given to Miss Fisher. The spokeswoman said: 'Sending a passbook separately from a letter would not really help, because once a thief has access to the passbook, they really have everything they need.

'You need to send your passbook to make a withdrawal, but you should send it by registered post.'

Alternatively, people could arrange withdrawals by electronic transfers.

Other large banks and building societies have differing views on how to safeguard postal transactions.

A spokeswoman for the Abbey National said: 'Branches are told to tell customers that there is no need to send their passbook with a deposit. We recommend that the cheque is made payable to the Abbey National with the account number and the name of the person on the cheque.'

The Nationwide at first said it usually advised customers to send passbooks by registered post. It then withdrew this statement.

Societies running accounts where all transactions are conducted by post insist they are safe. The systems, they say, were set up to deter thieves.

Understandably, the societies are unwilling to give full details of their security systems. However, there are typical rules and procedures. These include crossing cheques sent to customers 'account payee only', so the institution is liable when money ends up in the wrong account, and never issuing cheques from a postal account to a third party.

Cheltenham & Gloucester's London Share Account was the first postal account on the market and originally operated with passbooks. The society eliminated the passbooks at the end of last year but denies this was a result of worries about security.

A spokeswoman said the deposit and withdrawal procedure is arranged so that the investor's signature is never required on documents which also contain the address.

She said she thought problems arose where passbooks used for conventional accounts were sent through the post; these carried a great deal more information than those used for postal accounts.

Inevitably there would be the occasional problem with postal accounts. 'But generally we have not had problems which would cause us to totally re- think the system.'

Northern Rock's postal accounts operate with passbooks but do not carry signatures. However, Ivor Fox, assistant general manager, admitted that there had been some attempts by thieves to withdraw money from accounts. These had all been detected because of the society's checking procedures.

(Photograph omitted)

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