Richard Smith on banks and vulnerable people

Richard Smith

Banks are probably now our most unpopular institutions, more so than estate agents, local authorities, and the Press Complaints Commission. So perhaps I shouldn’t kick them when they are down, but I fear that not only are they hopeless at managing risk (supposedly their core business) but also they are hopeless with vulnerable people.

My mother is a vulnerable person. Always jolly and remarking how it’s a lovely day (even when it’s awful weather), she has no short term memory. It’s been fascinating for me and my brothers to see how well she can manage without any short term memory. It seems to be “nice to have” rather than “must have.” She lives on her own with us visiting often, but she is vulnerable to sharks ringing her up.

At least twice she seems to have been persuaded to give out her bank card number, allowing one shark to make off with about £60 and another shark to set up a standing order to a bogus company. As far as I can tell, the bank identified these transactions as fraudulent and rang her. She couldn’t, however, remember what she had said to whom, and so the transactions went forward. It seems that it’s impossible for the bank to ring me or my brothers about these fraudulent claims until we invoke power of attorney (which we will have to do).

More remarkably the bank cannot stop the standing order—because my mother gave out her card numbers, so authorising the order. We must contact the debit card company, but we can’t do it ourselves. We must get our mother to do so. Last time we tried the number we were given was not answered. Even when we can get through, she is unsure what to ask and answer—and so we have to be beside her, prompting her.  The debit card company understandably doesn’t like this, and so for now the standing order continues.

(I find this especially irritating because I’m forever having my credit card blocked while I’m in far flung places. The banks don’t seem to think it normal that people should travel to Nigeria one week and Pakistan the next. Perhaps it isn’t by many definitions of normal.)

I arrived at my mother’s on Sunday night to see that she had out her bank statements and had written across the most recent one: “Natwest Bank called Saturday at 5.30 pm. Ring on Monday.” She had no memory of a call, and it might have been a while ago not the night before. Plus it was probably not the Natwest who called. I called the bank’s action line on Monday, but the confusing person on the other end couldn’t help me. Action was impossible.

Clearly we have to invoke the power of attorney, but surely too banks have to recognise that they are operating in a world where there are hundreds of thousands of demented people and will soon be millions. Most of these people will be their customers and need to be supported not ignored as their minds splinter.

Richard Smith was the editor of the BMJ until 2004.