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29 Sep 2021

Can the new 159 anti-fraud hotline stop impersonation scams?

Which? says action is also needed to prevent scams and ensure victims are treated fairly

A new fraud hotline will let you check whether a call from your bank is genuine, as the industry battles against unprecedented levels of authorised fraud.

Stop Scams UK and the Global Cyber Alliance have launched the '159' pilot scheme with backing from major banks and technology firms, including BT and Google.

The hotline is designed to disrupt impersonation scammers who pose as banks or other firms to trick customers into sending them money - known as bank transfer or authorised push payment (APP) scams.

The latest industry figures show that although purchase scams account for 49% of all APP cases, fraud involving impersonation of banks or the police spiked by 129% in the first half of 2021.

A dedicated phone number for anti-fraud checks could be effective, says Which?. But will banks use this to justify even lower reimbursement rates?

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How will 'Call 159' work?

Described as a 'powerful new tool that puts power in the hands of ordinary people', 159 offers a practical way to check whether a caller is a fraudster.

Remember that 159 will never call you. But you can 'Call 159' if:

  • Someone contacts you saying they're from your bank - even if they are not suspicious.
  • You receive a call asking you to transfer money or make a payment - even if it seems genuine.
  • You receive a call about a financial matter and it seems suspicious.

It will run as a pilot scheme for at least one year. Calls to 159 are charged at the national rate call, usually part of the included minutes in most phone tariffs.

The banks participating in the 159 pilot are: Barclays; Lloyds (including Halifax and Bank of Scotland); NatWest (including Royal Bank of Scotland and Ulster Bank); Santander; and Starling Bank.

If you don't bank with one of these brands and you call the service, you will be advised how to contact your bank directly. TSB helped to develop the 159 scheme and plans to implement the number from January 2022.

You can call 159 from your phone if your contract is with one of the following companies: BT, including EE and Plusnet; Gamma; O2, including Giffgaff; TalkTalk; Three; Virgin Media; and Sky.

More banks and telecoms firms are expected to join as the pilot progresses. If the pilot is successful, Stop Scams UK will ask Ofcom to make 159 a universal number offered by all telephone providers, similar to 101, 111 or 999.

New Nationwide Scam Checker service

While Nationwide isn't participating in the 159 pilot, it has developed its own Scam Checker service, encouraging members to check a payment they are worried about either in branch or by calling a 24/7 freephone number (0800 030 4057).

Staff who are trained to spot the signs of fraud will then talk with members about the nature of the payment and discuss if there are any concerns with proceeding.

Nationwide said that it will fully refund members if they fall victim to an APP scam after being given the go-ahead to make the payment, under its new 'Scam Protection Promise'. But if members are warned against making a payment and either proceed with the payment, or fail to share requested important information, this refund promise will not apply.

Nationwide said its data shows that speaking to members before they make a payment could help to identify and stop up to two thirds of attempted scams each year.

Will the new services stop scammers in their tracks?

Both 'Call 159' and the Nationwide Scam Checker service have the potential to significantly reduce impersonation scams.

Having a specific phone line for anti-fraud checks could make a real difference, assuming customers can use it to speak to their banks quickly.

However, Which? knows that fraudsters are highly skilled at manipulating their victims, and many people will not know they have been scammed until it's too late.

Fraud intelligence shows that criminal tactics are sophisticated and multilayered, often involving fake adverts on social media and search engines or tools and tricks such as number spoofing (to change the caller ID that shows on your phone) and remote access software (legitimate tools that they misuse to hijack victims' devices).

Scammers are also master manipulators who coach victims through each step and often convince them to withhold information from the authorities.

Are providers shifting responsibility to customers?

Nationwide and all of the banks currently signed up for 'Call 159' are also signatories of the Contingent Reimbursement Model (CRM) Code. This means they should already be identifying risky payments and providing effective warnings to prevent APP scams.

Which? has repeatedly warned that banks have been too quick to point the finger at victims or use ineffective warnings to shift responsibility on to customers and avoid having to cover fraud losses.

Reimbursement rates continue to be very low for APP fraud.

Overall, losses to APP fraud increased by 71% during the first half of 2021, exceeding the amount of money stolen through card fraud for the first time. Only £121.7m (42%) of the £355.3m stolen by scammers was returned to victims, a fall from the 46% reimbursed in the second half of 2020.

Gareth Shaw, head of Which? Money, said: '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.

'The payments regulator must introduce mandatory and more robust requirements for all payment providers, to ensure that customers are protected and treated consistently when they fall victim to a bank transfer scam. They must work quickly with the government to get the powers they need to deliver this.'

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