A new telephone hotline, connecting people directly with their bank if they fear they are being scammed, has been launched.
By calling the new 159 number, people can break the fraudsters’ “spell” by stopping scams as they happen.
It is hoped that it will eventually become a universal number, like dialling 999 to contact the emergency services, with people able to use it from all phones and for all banks.
The pilot scheme, which will run for at least a year, is a collaboration between banks, telecoms firms and technology companies.
It is being spearheaded by anti-fraud coalition Stop Scams UK.
More than seven in 10 (70%) UK primary current account customers will be covered in the first phase, with more banks and telecoms firms expected to join as the pilot progresses.
If the pilot is successful, Stop Scams UK said it will ask Ofcom to make 159 a universal number offered by all telephone providers, similar to 101, 111 or 999.
If someone is contacted by a person claiming to be from their bank and they are unsure if they are genuine, they can hang up and call the trusted number 159 to check.
A genuine bank or authority figure such as someone claiming to be from the police would be happy for someone to do this.
Scams have exploded during the coronavirus pandemic as fraudsters have bombarded people with bogus messages and adverts, pretending to be from banks, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the police and delivery companies among others.
Last week, trade association UK Finance said fraud has reached a level where it poses a national security threat.
TSB helped develop the 159 scheme and plans to implement the number from January 2022.
More than 80% of UK mobiles and landlines will be able to use 159 at the outset and the coalition is working to grow this reach to 100% during the pilot.
Calling 159 will cost the same as a national rate call – usually part of the included minutes in most phone tariffs – according to the Stop Scams UK website – stopscamsuk.org.uk/159
Stop Scams UK highlighted the case of David Bale from Peterborough, who was contacted by fraudsters who had stolen his personal information and used it to trick him into transferring £6,000 of savings to them.
He said: “All the time the fraudsters were on the phone to me I felt something wasn’t quite right, but it was like being sucked into a whirlpool – they put me under so much pressure and I had no idea how to get out.
“Had I been able to call 159 things could have been totally different, quite early on in the call I would have rung off and called 159 for a quick check with my bank. 159 would have given me a simple, easy-to-remember way to escape. I think this is going to make a huge difference to people who get caught up in fraud scams in future, to break free from the fraudsters they simply need to stop, hang up and call 159.”
Last year, criminal gangs stole more than £470 million from people and small businesses by pretending to be a bank or other service provider, encouraging them to make a payment or transfer money.
In the first half of 2021, losses to APP (authorised push payment) fraud – where people were tricked into transferring money to criminals – increased by 71% on the same period last year.
Ruth Evans, chair of Stop Scams UK, said: “Criminals rely on forcing people into heat-of-the-moment decisions, and calling 159 is a simple, practical tool to break their spell. 159 is the result of an unprecedented collaboration between major banks and telecoms firms who are working with Stop Scams UK to put a stop to fraud.”
Andy Bates, chief sustainability officer, Global Cyber Alliance, said: “159 is a powerful new tool that puts power in the hands of ordinary people, giving them a way to get out of a pressurised phone call and speak directly with their bank. 159 is just one of the ways the industry is working with banks, telecoms and technology firms to take the fight to the fraudsters.”
Gareth Elliott, head of policy and communications for Mobile UK, said: “It is important that all mobile customers remain vigilant, and dialling 159 provides yet another opportunity to prevent mobile network customers falling victim.”
Many banks have signed up to a voluntary code to refund blameless victims of bank transfer scams, but there have been concerns that some banks may not be interpreting it consistently and may be relying too heavily on generic scam warnings in some cases.
The Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS), which resolves consumers’ gripes, recently said that banks and other financial institutions need to do more to clear up customers’ scam complaints before they reach it.
TSB operates its own fraud refund guarantee, which according to the bank has resulted in 98% of its fraud cases being refunded.
Nationwide Building Society launched its own “scam checker service” this week.
Nationwide members who are unsure about making a payment can call its freephone helpline – 0800 030 4057.
Gareth Shaw, head of Which? Money, said: “This should be part of a range of solutions as no one solution on its own will be enough to tackle phone-enabled scams. That’s why we also need action to prevent scams at source and to ensure victims are treated fairly after they have been targeted.”