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How safe is telephone banking?

telephone banking

Do you think your bank’s security checks are thorough enough? When we investigated the banks’ telephone security systems, we found big differences between the best and worst banks.

Most internet banking involves jumping through hoops, like using card readers or inputting unique confirmation codes. So we wondered whether telephone banking was a weak link in the chain for customer security.

When I last wrote about telephone banking security, some of you said you struggled to remember all the information you needed to give. Rarrar said:

‘Trying to remember security details is a nightmare, especially when the online ones are separate from the telephone ones.’

John Ward added:

‘A long time ago I chose the name of my first school as one of the “memorable” passwords for telephone banking and other online activity. I am able to remember the name all right, but I’m blowed if I can remember how I spelt it – is it Mount Edgecombe, Edgcombe, Edgcome, Edgcumbe, or some other variation?’

Which? investigates telephone banking

We made more than 100 calls to nine of the UK’s biggest banks to see how hard it is to break through their phone banking security procedures. We wanted to find out what would happen if someone else tried to access your account without your permission, so we made the calls without using any previously set-up passwords, codes or Pins.

Our aim was to get through to find out personal information, such as your balance or overdraft limit. We rated each call on how many questions we were asked and the security of those questions.

We found that First Direct was way ahead of the competition for phone banking security. In our test scenario, it asked callers the most high-grade security questions. In addition, each caller was asked to go somewhere we couldn’t be overheard – important if you’re going to let slip personal details. I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve used telephone banking on the train in the past without much thought as to what I might be giving away…

However, at the other end of the scale, Halifax and Santander both scored poorly for their initial security procedures in our test scenario. In one call to Santander, we were asked for nine ‘easy’ pieces of information that would be relatively simple to get hold of, but nothing more challenging. In a call to Halifax, one of our testers told us it was ‘frighteningly easy to get my balance with only card details and my date of birth’.

Getting through telephone banking security

You can normally answer a number of questions to ‘pass’ initial security and speak to someone about your account. I’ve certainly got no problem with this, but there needs to be a robust level of security. For example, there’s no use only asking questions with answers that could easily be found in your bag or wallet if someone stole them.

According to the National Fraud Authority, most telephone banking losses involve customers being duped by criminals into revealing their details. If there was one thing to remember, it’s that it’s very rare that your bank will contact you out of the blue. So if you are contacted by someone claiming to be from your bank, whether by phone or email, don’t give them your personal details.

Do you have any concerns about the safety of telephone banking? Have you been a victim of fraud as a result of poor phone banking security?


I am not very happy with the system used by NatWest, which requires a Customer Number based on my date of birth plus three digits followed by two digits of a four digit PIN. At least it makes it easy to use and has the advantage that few are likely to write down these details. I don’t use telephone banking very often these days but remember something else with ten characters, possibly needed if I had problems using the service.

Fortunately, I have never been a victim of fraud using telephone or online banking.

Snap! The same image appears in a recent Conversation about nuisance calls and texts.

I was always very satisfied with the checks made by firstdirect when I had an account there. I Not quite the same as banking, but I have also been very impressed by the security procedures used by M&S in connexion with orders for made-to-order curtains and blinds; more rigorous than John Lewis I have to report. I no longer do telephone banking but use on-line banking quite a lot and consider that the Nationwide system – with an electronic card reader that requires the PIN in order to generate a code number enabling access to the account [in addition to a long customer number] – would be hard to beat.

One thing First Direct weren’t too good at was when I had a call from them. Being naturally suspicious I refused to answer their questions before they could prove they were who they said they were. The fact the caller didn’t know how to raised alarm bells as only the previous week I’d had a call from them and the chap know exactly what to say to convince me. Fortunately they rang back a couple of minutes later and proceeded to convince me after checking with the guy who’d rung me the week before to find out what he’d done.

Doesn’t seem like many people question calls from their banks are genuine going by the tone of the second caller.

Subsequently all later calls have passed the test. So they are learning.

Katharine says:
21 May 2013

My partner rang Lloyds phone banking over the weekend – something he rarely does, as it’s mostly done online, but this time he had to speak to them. Their security checks were maddening. First of all their speech recognition couldn’t understand his [standard English, clear] voice. The he was asked various security questions by the operator, and when he got one wrong (he’d simply forgotten, as it was so long ago that he’d set it), rather than be allowed to try another question, he was told he’d ‘failed’ the security check so had to phone in again, past the impenetrable voice recognition system. Maddening.

Helen says:
14 June 2013

I agree Lloyds telephone security is a nightmare. Their security questions included things that that i had phoned up to ask them about – so got caught in this ridiculous circular problem. They send you a statement once a year on an ISA but when you phone up to ask your balance they ask you what is the CURRENT balance as a security question. When you odn’t know it becuase they only send you a statement once a year! Their operators just repeat back them same words over and over again. you ask to talk to someone senior and they say they can’t. it is so torturous and it has happened to me more than once – and then when you finally get through to someone with brain cells who understand what ‘helping customers means’ they offer you some compensation. Frankly i would rather they improved their security. The good think was the experience was so bad I got may act together and transferred my ISA the same day. Never again Lloyd NEVER. people say Santander is bad they they have nothing on Lloyds TSB. I think I would almost risk a CYpriot bank than go anywhere near Lloyd again.

richard says:
22 May 2013

As I have said for years on this forum FIRST DIRECT is brilliant. I have only had need of one phone call from them when the security measures were impeccable – I cannot recommend First Direct enough.

Tessa Moulton says:
23 September 2016

I just had a terrible experience with Nationwide – calling them because their internet banking system was down. I failed their security check as I firstly didn’t know my balance (partly what I was calling to check). The remainder of the questions they asked were badly thought-through in that not only would it not be guaranteed that people would know the answer for their account off the top of their head, but the number of possible answers were limited, e.g. ‘do you have an overdraft limit?’ or ‘did you set up your account online or in branch?’ to which I would imagine the guess-right-rate for each would be about 50%… Another was ‘the names of the savings account types you hold with us’ which I didn’t know off the top of my head (do people know this stuff?) but could have found out if they’d suggested I look at my statements – however, apparently not knowing the names of their products off the top of my head was already enough for me to have been ‘rejected’ by the system. “Please call again for different questions” (and wait for another 10 minutes) – no thanks, I’ll wait for the internet banking to be working again.

We complain about bank fraud elsewhere. Frankly, I’d rather Nationwide failed you when you couldn’t answer their questions (best to have all the relevant information to hand) then allow inadequate replies to pass their security system. You might be the first to complain if someone accessed your account by passing a bank’s security system with inadequate answers? 🙂

sunny says:
30 May 2019

NatWest is stopping phone banking in September which means I will have to find another bank as since the Iceland debacle I refuse to do online banking and live in a rural area. But these stories above sound just as bad, not sure who to go to now.

Hi sunny, I have been with First Direct since just after they started back in 1989.

Up until a few months ago, I would have said they had the best telephone banking you could get with knowledgeable friendly staff answering phones very quickly.

The last 2 times I have called them, they have been slow to answer the phone and I didn’t get my expected knowledgable person on the other end. Whether I was unlucky on those occasions as my request wasn’t straightforward or that is their new standard, I don’t know. Hopefully, their usual standard will return.

You get free banking if you meet certain criteria, I can’t remember exactly what, but it is something like having 2 products which can be a current account, a savings account (not worth having unless you do a regular monthly saver) or a credit card, and there may be conditions on your current account. Whatever they are, the conditions are not hard to adhere to.

So if you are stuck, you could do worse that go there.