The latest story on the British media circuit has the Big Banks in its sights: scammers have stolen more than £500 million (US$653 million) from UK bank customers in the first half of 2018, and the banks have done little to restore faith in the system. On the back of the ten year “anniversary” of the global financial crash of 2008, is this a public pushback the banking sector can wait out?

According to latest figures released by trade body UK Finance, some $190 million has been lost to theft through authorised push payment (APP) scams, where customers have been tricked into authorising payments to other accounts. Still another $468 million has been lost to unauthorised fraud, where transactions carried out by a third party without authorisation by the targeted account holders.  While this latter group of victims tend to receive a full refund, those caught by APP scams are yet to be assured of any legal protection for their losses. Only a fraction of the money lost through APP scams in 2018 has so far been returned to customers, says UK Finance.

Online fraud is a growing issue for UK customers, with many targeted when purchasing a product or service, such as car or holiday rental, which does not actually exist. Managing director of economic crime at UK Finance, Katy Worobec, says these latest figures reveal the extent of banking fraud as a major threat to the UK.

“The criminals behind it target their victims indiscriminately and the proceeds go on to fund terrorism, people smuggling and drug trafficking, whether or not the individual is refunded,” Worobec explains.

At the same time, impressions of the banking sector’s response to this emerging problem have been damning. Money expert at consumer group Which?, Gareth Shaw, says banks’ efforts have been “woefully insufficient” to date.

“It’s now two years since our super-complaint highlighted the lack of protection for victims of bank transfer scams, but these shocking figures show just how widespread the problem still is,” he argues.

The widely circulated British publication The Sun is even more damning: “HUNG OUT TO DRY: Shameless banks craft secret plan to avoid refunding victims of fraud that is costing families £1 million a day,” reads one headline. The UK’s big five- Lloyds, RBS, Barclays, HSBC and Standard Chartered- are condemned in the same piece, recording profits of £12 billion in the second quarter of 2018 while customers are seen to bear the brunt of financial crime. Earlier this year, the British Financial Ombudsman Service criticised the banking sector for failing to protect customers in the face of online scams; the message doesn’t seem to have been received. Instead, as British consumers realise the scale of the issue as this story plays out, this might be one public relations disaster the banks will be forced to address. Failing to do so may cost them.

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