A bank with problems

Slough of DespondI promised myself that I wouldn’t talk about Santander’s recent difficulties. It’s bad form to make mock of another’s misfortunes, but I can’t help myself.

Most recently, we’ve had the assessment by Which? magazine that Santander’s online banking security is laughable. You’d think that the bank would defend itself, and refute such defamatory suggestions. Not at all. It meekly pleads guilty to the charge, and will work with the magazine to try to put things right.

Such humility is heart-warming, isn’t it? Hold tight, though, because this is where we start to slide into the banking twilight zone. In the real world, if you admit fault you make yourself liable for any losses caused. Only in the banking universe could you have this conversation:

Bank: You remember when we agreed that I would look after your money?

Customer: Yes.

B: And you remember that I said that it was safe with me, because I knew most of the ways that it could be lost or stolen, and I was on top of it?

C: (nervously) Yes.

B: Well, it’s all gone.

C: That’s quite distressing. When do you intend to pay me back?

B: Oh, never. It’s your own fault for trusting me.

It wouldn’t work with any other trader, would it? Welcome to the magical world of Santander.

The most puzzling thing about this particular pantomime is that whenever customers have complained to Santander that its systems leak like a sieve, it has stuck its corporate nose in the air and refused to discuss the matter. As soon as a journalist tells it the same thing, the bank is asking which hoop it should jump through first. Oh, the power of publicity!

At almost the same time as this episode, Santander narrowly avoided having millions of pounds of customers’ money siphoned off in the same way that Barclay’s had allowed earlier in the year. Santander tried to claim this shambles as a triumph, because the attempt to install equipment in one of its branches was foiled by the police. The fact that the bank’s lax security allowed the thieves to get to the point of connecting into its hardware went without mention.

If you’re a Santander customer and have avoided having your money disappear through a hole in the online banking system, or filched by cyber-thieves, don’t feel too smug. There’s another way that it might vanish.

A hard-core minority of Santander employees knows how to exploit the pitiful ineptitude of the banks systems to get their hands into your virtual pockets. Christopher Wathen was recently jailed for two years for fraud. He was a client relationship manager(?) at the Malvern and Kidderminster branches of Santander, and stole £87,365 from a single customer over four months. He then tried to steal £58,728 in one go from another. There’s some suggestion that this theft was prevented by Santander’s security systems, but this is highly unlikely, as this bank will let you transfer £100,000 into an account with which you’ve had no previous connection, and not trouble to ask you for confirmation. It’s more probable that this man thought better of it, and bailed out.

The thief didn’t end up in court because of any checks carried out by his employer; Santander was blissfully unaware of all this. A relative of the first victim noticed the discrepancy and contacted the police.

It’s interesting to see that he laundered the proceeds through Lloyds bank, a popular choice with fraudsters because it will not query large sums of money whistling through its customers’ accounts without touching the sides. It really is a Trusting Sort of Bank. Now that it’s lost that suffix, perhaps things will improve.

Mr Wathan is not alone, of course. A few weeks earlier, Celia Zarebska, branch manager at Barrow-upon-Soar, was jailed for three years for a similar offence. She took her task much more seriously, though, and stole £315,000 over eight years. If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. I wonder why Santander didn’t notice?

Santander’s comment: “We take fraud very seriously and worked closely with the police in their investigation. Cases like this are extremely rare and the customers impacted have been informed and reimbursed.” (the bank clearly didn’t initiate the investigation)

As there were two of these cases in a few weeks, I think that we’ll all have to redefine ‘extremely rare’ so that we can stay in step with this great bank. You’ll have noticed also that Santander spins its duty to replace funds that its employees have stolen as some kind of gift that it has seen fit to bestow upon its customers. I’m sure that we’re all very grateful.

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