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12 Jun 2019

More than seven million people blocked from card payments by IT glitches

Could you pay without your debit or credit card?

Banking IT glitches and outages have prevented more than seven million people from making payments on their credit or debit cards in the past year, new Which? research has found.

One year on from the large-scale Visa failure, which left people across the UK and Europe blocked from card payments, new Which? research has found that millions are affected each year by payment glitches.

In a survey of more than 2,000 people, one in seven told us they had experienced a glitch that made it impossible to use their card over the course of 2018. Even worse, one in twenty people had it happen more than once.

If your card doesn't work, you may need to turn to cash - which isn't as easy to get your hands on as it used to be. We've previously found that ATMs are vanishing from our high streets, even as bank branches close at an alarming rate.

Which? explains how many people are affected by payment failures and why it's important to protect our cash.

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Millions hit by payment failures

Of the roughly seven million people unable to make a payment at some point last year, half weren't able to pay for goods and services at the point of sale, our survey found - leaving them stuck at the register, or struggling to pay their bills.

Worryingly, one in ten people affected by an outage suffered a financial penalty, such as a late payment fee. The same proportion said their credit score was damaged because they failed to pay a bill on time.

You may believe that your bank or credit card provider is 'too big to fail', but last year's Visa outage showed that even the largest players could be brought to the ground by an IT glitch.

And these IT failings happen far more often than you expect. Between April 2018 and the end of the year, there were 302 incidents where an IT or security outage stopped bank customers' from making payments, previous Which? research has found.

In reaction to our findings, Caroline Wayman, chief executive of the Financial Ombudsman Service said that the Ombudsman has seen a 'large increase in current account complaints and high profile IT banking failures were a large part of it.

'In some cases we found that banks hadn't done enough to make up for the impact that IT failures can have on customers.'

How to protect yourself from payment failures

If a card is your only means of paying, an IT glitch may cut you off from your own money.

Those who have been cut off before often took steps to protect themselves. For many, this meant a second debit or credit card - one third of those previously affected by an outage said they now always carry a second card with them.

Some people turned to cash. One in five people who'd previously been left unable to use their card have started carrying more cash on them, while one in ten kept a stash at home, our survey found.

Which? acts to protect access to cash

Even as digital payments become increasingly common, all of us are vulnerable to IT glitches that block us from credit or debit card payments - whether it's a single shop suffering wi-fi issues, or a UK-wide IT failure.

Cash is a vital alternative, but gaining access to it is becoming increasingly difficult. We've found that bank branches are closing at a rate of 60 per month, with at least 2,961 shut since 2015.

Meanwhile, free-to-use ATMs are becoming harder to find, with 3,000 disappearing off UK streets in 2018 - and thousands more switching from free to charging a fee.

The government has recently moved to protect access to cash, giving oversight to a new committee and pledging to introduce legislation to safeguard cash infrastructure.

To ensure this commitment is met, Which? has called a Cash Summit today, to bring together leading figures involved in consumer finance, including regulators, high-street banks, the Shadow Economic Secretary and the treasury minister John Glen MP.

Gareth Shaw, head of Money at Which? says: 'Digital payments have enhanced many people's lives - but many still rely on cash and all of us risk being shut out of paying for goods and services when technology lets us down.

'Meanwhile, people across the UK risk being stripped of their ability to access cash through the double blow of widespread bank branch and cashpoint closures.

'The government's commitment to protecting access to cash must see its new strategy group quickly exploring all options - including legislation - to ensure cash is protected for those for whom it is a necessity and as a vital back-up for when digital systems fail.'

You can support our campaign for 'Freedom to Pay. Our Way' by signing our petition calling for regulators and the banking industry to protect our cash as a payment option.