‘Lloyds ruined my trip of a lifetime’

The bank blocked the only card a Guardian feature writer had while on holiday in the US

Congratulations to Lloyds Bank for launching a timely mental health awareness campaign this month. In the Channel 4 adverts, famous people (including Jeremy Paxman and Victoria Pendleton) and members of the public, wear sticky notes on their heads featuring words and phrases such as bipolar disorder, agoraphobia, depression and anxiety. The voiceover tells us: “Mental health problems affect one in four of our customers, of our staff, of everyone. Let’s get it out in the open. Lloyds Bank – by your side.”

Of course we should get it out in the open. So let’s start with Lloyds Bank, and how it has contributed to my mental health problems by relying too heavily on algorithms and too little on human staff.

A week before this campaign was launched, I was in America with my autistic daughter. We had gone on a long-promised trip of a lifetime. I have depression, she has anxiety issues. It was never going to be entirely relaxed.

I travelled, as I always do, with one card: a Lloyds debit card. At the hotel, I tried to pay my bill. The debit card was declined. I phoned Lloyds in a huff – I’d been here before.

“I think you’ve blocked my card for no good reason and without warning,” I said. After the best part of an hour on the phone (at £2 a minute) trying to convince them it was me by answering questions such as “What did you spend £12.49 on?” it confirmed it had blocked me because it was not expecting me to be in America, and I had tried to pay for a taxi with my debit card.

“But you have told us we no longer need to tell you when travelling abroad,” I argued, quoting what it says on the bank’s website: “You no longer have to tell us when you are travelling abroad.” Silence. “This is costing a huge amount of money,” I said. “Are you going to pay the phone bill?” Silence.

By now, my daughter was having a full-blown panic attack. She thought we may end up in jail or sleeping on the streets. I explained to the bank why this was so stressful for us. They weren’t interested. My spending pattern was suspicious, they said.

I pointed out that if Lloyds had done the most cursory investigation, it would have discovered I had booked a flight to arrive in San Francisco that day, I had paid the first night of the hotel, and I had booked trips in San Francisco. They simply repeated that their computer showed “irregular activity”.

Eventually, I made them promise they would not stop my card again for the next 12 days while I was in America. They agreed. Four days later, I received a text in the middle of the night. “Dear Mr Hattenstone. Please contact us regarding an ongoing fraud investigation.”

Had they blocked my card again? They wouldn’t tell me until I answered security questions. The more questions I answered correctly, the more I was asked. When they asked for my passport number, my daughter became convinced this was a scam. I said they sounded more like fraudsters than a bank, and asked if they could do anything to convince me they were genuine. “No,” they said. “Just ring the number on the back of your card if you don’t believe us.”

So I did. By now, I’d been on the phone to Lloyds for the best part of three hours, which would come to well over £300. I was in America unable to pay my bills because an algorithm did not understand the concept of going away. The man in customer services told me the “fraud” investigation was because I had tried to pay for a taxi – something we had sorted out four days earlier.

I exploded. I told him Lloyds was destroying my life, and I was tempted “to jump out of the fucking hotel window and leave a message saying it was their fault”. Not the most measured response, I admit.

“If you swear again, sir, I shall terminate the conversation,” he said. By now, I felt ripe for a heart attack. I asked the man in customer care if he thought this was an appropriate way to respond to somebody talking about suicide. Silence.

Eventually, it was sorted, but not before another lengthy phone call. In 30 years as a journalist, I have never phoned a press office about a personal experience. But I thought this was the only way I could get any answers. Lloyds investigated and concluded the service I received was unsatisfactory. However, it failed to answer why it did not check its algorithm with human intelligence, which would show, in seconds, I was in America. Is it just a form of penny-pinching that puts profit before people (and mental health)? No answer.The issue that bothered me most was the bank’s threat to terminate the conversation when I swore and said I felt suicidal. Yes, I was in a state of extreme anxiety, but surely many people who are being messed around unnecessarily by banks end up in a similar state. And doesn’t Lloyds have a duty of care to customers like us?

A postscript. At the weekend my partner discovered her Halifax card for our joint account had been blocked and we were told we had to attend the Halifax with our passports. After an hour with incredibly helpful staff, we discovered what had happened: Lloyds, which owns the Halifax, had also decided to block our joint account because of the “suspicious” activity in America. Despite my call to the press office, my conversation with the head of fraud, my complaints that algorithms, rather than humans, were deciding when to stop me spending my own money, and the bank’s fulsome apology, Lloyds had not considered telling us it had blocked our Halifax account.

• Lloyds Bank told Hattenstone: “We’re sorry you had issues with your debit card. Lloyds Bank declined a number of payments and placed a temporary block on your card – steps taken to protect your account from potential fraud. We do contact customers to check if the payments have been correctly authorised, and are investigating why you didn’t receive the text messages. We have also taken the opportunity to retrain colleagues in the correct procedures.”

It is understood that on 13 January the bank’s fraud detection systems identified a “pattern of spending” which, it says, was similar to those it has seen in cases of fraud. As a result, it declined the six payments and blocked the card.

When Hattenstone confirmed the transactions were his, Lloyds lifted the block. But the bank then claimed to have identified further activity which again were cause for concern.

On this occasion, its systems did not decline any transactions or block his account, but it sent a text to ask him to get in touch. When he did, the bank acknowledges that the member of staff made “a number of errors”.

Then, on 15, 16 and 21 January, eight further transactions which Hattenstone attempted to make were declined. “This was done because of the manner in which the merchant attempted to process the payments ... specifically, while the card terminal was enabled to verify the payments via chip and pin, they did not use this option.

“In order to protect your account from fraud, our systems did not authorise these payments.”

Lloyds says it will refund the cost of the calls he made.

Blocked in the USA

So why are UK banks often quick to block people’s cards when they are in the US? It’s largely due to the fact that America has long been at, or near, the top of the list of overseas card fraud hotspots.

The eye-catching statistic is that 50% of the world’s credit and debit card fraud happens in the US, even though it is responsible for only 25% of the world’s card transactions.

Fraudsters have been creating fake magnetic-stripe cards to be used in the US and other countries with less secure payment systems. The US is at last replacing them with so-called EMV chip cards. However, this switchover seems to be taking forever.

If you are heading overseas, take more than one card, make sure companies have your up-to-date contact details, and that you have your card issuer’s 24-hour contact numbers.

Should you tell your bank you are going abroad? Lloyds’ advice is that “you no longer have to tell us when travelling abroad”. But HSBC says: “By letting us know, we can update our records and it will reduce the chance of us declining a transaction.”

Simon Hattenstone

The GuardianTramp

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