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Fraud victims left hanging on the telephone, Which? finds

Some victims are forced to wait more than half an hour to report a bank scam

If you need to speak to your bank about fraud, every second wasted on the phone is agony, yet a new Which? Money investigation found that the worst bank typically takes over half an hour to answer the phone. So, if you need immediate support, how quickly can you expect to speak to a real person? 

Over the course of 144 phone calls, we tested how long it takes to get through to a person to report fraud at 11 of the largest UK banks and building societies. 

Our investigation found that not only could long call waiting times add to victims’ stress but also lead to unwelcome phone bills. 

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Hanging on the telephone 

More than two years into the pandemic and businesses are still having to cope with increased staff sickness and new working conditions, but fraud victims can’t afford to be left hanging.

We asked researchers to each make 12 calls to their banks – in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings of different days of the week. They pretended they were reporting fraud and recorded how long it took to get through to a person, including any time spent navigating automated menus. 

The average call waiting time across all 11 banks was 10 minutes 51 seconds. But customers of The Co-operative Bank were made to wait almost three times as long: 31 minutes 40 seconds on average. In one case, it took more than an hour to speak to someone. 

In contrast, First Direct customers got through to their banks almost immediately, with calls answered in around 16 seconds on average – the shortest wait lasted just 10 seconds. 

HSBC ‘Premier’ customers (who must have an annual income of at least £75,000, or savings and investments worth at least £50,000) benefit from a speedier service. Calls to the Premier helpline were answered in around 2 minutes and 26 seconds – half the time it took to get through to someone when we tested its standard phone number. 

The bank told Which? that while Premier customers receive ‘prioritised access to call agents for complex banking enquiries’, it added around 300 agents to its UK call centre this year, as well as new bases overseas.

Fraud should always be reported as soon as possible, but our data suggests afternoon calls typically take longer to be answered. The average waiting time in the morning (8am-12pm) was 9 minutes 59 seconds; evening calls (6pm-10pm) took 9 minutes 1 second; and afternoon calls (12pm-6pm) reached 13 minutes 7 seconds on average.

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How banks fared in the Which? call waiting test

All banks listed operate 24/7 fraud phone lines, except for TSB (Monday-Sunday, 8am-9pm). Waiting times are based on a snapshot mystery shopping exercise in March 2022. We've included the phone number listed on each bank's website for reporting fraud. Dedicated fraud lines are indicated by *. Banks may list a different phone number for lost/stolen cards. 

Average waiting time (mins/seconds)Min. waiting timeMax. waiting timePart of ‘159’ fraud scheme?  Phone number to report fraud
First Direct00:1600:1000:49No0345 610 0100
Nationwide1:5600:5003:21Yes0800 055 6622*
HSBC Premier2:2602:0302:56No0345 770 7070
HSBC4:5402:1011:22No0345 740 4404
Starling 7:2601:0512:36Yes0800 023 4617
NatWest7:2601:5634:26Yes0345 788 8444
Metro 8:5202:2629:31No0345 080 8500

Banks should offer 24/7 support for fraud victims

Scammers don’t keep to a schedule, so banks should make it easy for customers to report fraud at any time and on any day. TSB is the only bank we tested that doesn’t advertise a round-the-clock helpline. 

However, TSB added significantly to its fraud reporting tools during the pandemic by introducing online forms for reporting fraud. This is particularly useful for people who might feel too embarrassed to discuss their experiences over the phone. 

This means staff who work 9pm-8am, outside of its telephone opening hours, can secure accounts within 15 minutes of these forms being completed.

HSBC told us that while its telephone service is generally available from 8am-8pm, customers can call outside these hours to report fraud. When prompted by the Interactive Voice Response (IVR), you can state the call is related to fraud to be routed to an agent who can secure your account. 

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The cost of being kept waiting

We think it should be free to report fraud, yet six of the 11 banks we tested charge customers to use their helpline. These numbers start ‘03’ (see table above), which Ofcom says should cost the same as 01/02 geographical numbers – irrespective of whether the call is from a mobile or a landline. 

You won’t pay if you are within the limits of the minutes included in your phone tariff, but otherwise you could face charges of up to 16p a minute, plus a 23p set-up fee on a landline, or between 3p and 65p a minute on a mobile. 

Lloyds offers a free 0800 number for fraud queries, which is advertised on its website – but the number shown on the back of your card could attract charges. This led to Jacqueline John, a retired teacher from North Yorkshire, being hit with a £19.70 bill in December 2021.

‘I found three transactions which I did not recognise, so I rang Lloyds to report it and had to wait about 25 minutes for an answer,’ says Jacqueline. ‘The conversation was very helpful, but I was put through to the fraud department for a follow-up. 

'It was two hours before my call was answered. It was stressful, especially as I was using a cordless phone and the battery was running down. If the bank keeps people waiting so long, it should allow us to use freephone numbers for these essential calls.’ 

Lloyds told us the first call handler should have refunded the fraudulent transactions and cancelled her card in the same call, which would have incurred much lower charges. 

Lloyds said: ‘We’re sorry we didn’t help Mrs John faster when she contacted us; she didn’t need to be transferred to a different department, and we’ve refunded the charges she incurred, plus made an additional payment, in recognition of her experience.’

‘Long waits tested my loyalty too far' 

After nearly 30 years with The Co-operative Bank, Caroline, from Reigate, switched to First Direct after repeatedly struggling to get through on the phone. 

'The first major blip I had was last summer. I rang the bank at 8am and was due to start work at 9am. In all, the call took nearly 45 minutes. 

'I had another poor experience more recently when I tried to transfer funds. My initial £1 test payment was received, so I tried to move the larger sum, but hours later it had failed to arrive. I tried to ring the bank, but the call waiting time was given as over an hour. I chose to hang up, go out and send a secure message later. 

'Once I got home, I found two missed calls from an unknown number, which my phone network had flagged as a possible scam. The voicemail was from The Co-operative Bank.

'Why on earth would a reputable bank ring a customer from an unknown number? Surely this would seem to a vigilant customer like the sort of behaviour they’d been warned to distrust. Having switched to First Direct, I’m very impressed. Staff are so efficient, responsive and helpful, and calls are answered within seconds.'

Malcolm, from Swansea, also faced long waits to speak to The Co-operative Bank, having recently waited for more than half an hour to speak to its fraud department.

'In December, I received a text asking me to call the fraud department. I did so, and got the usual message about the bank being 'particularly busy at the moment'. After about 20 minutes, I gave up. When I had another text from the bank, I thought I'd better try again. This time the message said the wait would be more than half an hour. To be fair, when I spoke to them, they were very helpful. 

'Over the next few days I telephoned them two or three times – the shortest wait was just over 20 minutes, the others about 30. The main concerns had been sorted out, but after that I used the online secure messaging service about some minor issues. Attempted fraud needs dealing with quickly, so if I have any further cause to contact the bank about suspicious activity on the account, I will telephone, despite the wait. For any other matters I will use online messaging.'

The banks with the longest call waiting times respond 

We shared our findings with the four banks that had the longest wait times in our investigation.

  • The Co-operative Bank said it has ‘experienced difficulties in recruitment and retention in a buoyant job market which, following increased levels of sickness and public health advice for those with Covid-19 symptoms, or a positive test to stay at home, resulted in increased call wait times’. It told us recruitment levels are much improved in recent months with the option for colleagues to be based at home. Since our investigation, it has also joined the ‘159’ pilot scheme (see our table above for a full list of participating banks). 
  • Lloyds told us it hired 40% more people into its fraud telephone team in the past two years. It said calls to its fraud line were answered within seven minutes on average in March (only two out of our 12 calls were answered this quickly). Lloyds said: ‘Gathering information on fraud can be complex and, while we never want anyone to have a long wait, it’s important we spend the right amount of time on every call. We have thousands of specially trained colleagues who are available 24/7 to help customers and have invested more than £100m in our fraud defences.’ 
  • Santander said the average call waiting time to its fraud team was 7 minutes 25 seconds in 2021 (only four calls were answered this quickly in our investigation). The bank is recruiting more colleagues, and will have 400 more to support customers by the end of the year. Santander said: ‘We have begun to see a clear shift in the complexity of scams, and as the scams become ever more sophisticated, we are spending longer speaking with our customers to support them – whether it’s helping them to identify the fraud or helping them report the crime.’ 
  • TSB also monitors call waiting times closely and said it recorded an average call waiting time of under six minutes in March (only one call out of 12 was answered this quickly in our investigation). It said only around one in every five customers need assistance with fraud-related matters by phone. It’s also the only bank that guarantees to refund all genuine fraud victims.

key information

What to do after spotting fraud

  • Report losses to your bank using the quickest available method – whether phone, in branch, or via an online chat service. 
  • You may be able to call '159' to connect you to your bank if you think you’re being scammed – for example, if you get a call asking you to transfer money. Its main purpose is to prevent impersonation fraud, but you can also call it if you’re victim of a fraud. 
  • You can cancel lost or stolen cards yourself via online banking or your banking app. 
  • Change the passwords for any compromised accounts and set up two-factor authentication wherever possible. 
  • Report scams to Action Fraud (0300 123 2040; actionfraud.police.uk), or Police Scotland (call 101) to get a crime reference number. 
  • Know your rights: unauthorised transactions should be refunded by your bank by the end of the next business day. If you sent money to a scammer, you may be refunded by your bank under the Contingent Reimbursement Model Code
  • If your bank refuses to reimburse you, send it a subject access request (SAR) for copies of data related to your fraud case, eg recordings of telephone conversations. 
  • You can then escalate your case to the Financial Ombudsman Service.
  • If the fraud involved your personal details, consider signing up for Cifas Protective Registration, which costs £25 for two years.