Saturday 6 August 2016

Normally, I write specifically about writing. Today, after a bit of a long haul job (apologies to my two followers!), I am writing about the fundamental importance of double-checking what you write online, by way of - I hope - a simple example. Any comments are welcome.

Barclays, Lloyds and Santander – O, for a missing zero!

Two weeks ago, on a Friday, I made an immediate online down payment through Barclays, my bank of 43 years, as an advance to cover materials for work carried out by John Smith, a builder who had already put in two or more days’ work excavating and constructing a base for a new garage.

Using my trusty Barclays PINsentry and equipped with John Smith’s account details, I entered: the account name, John Smith B1; a six-figure sort code; a seven-figure account number placing a 0 in front, as instructed for seven-figure account numbers; and finally a reference for my own use (in this case ‘John Smith Garage Base’).

The next day we went on holiday for a week, returning on Saturday to an excellent completed job. On the Sunday of that weekend my partner made a payment representing the completion of the work required. She too placed the 0 in front of the seven-figure number, as required by the system.

On the Tuesday morning of the ensuing week, John Smith, who was by now working on the next section of the work required told me that no money had reached his account: not the advance I had successfully paid, nor the completion amount for part one of the work schedule.

To my horror, and certainly to John’s horror – we all know that sick feeling don’t we, when our worst fears are realised? – it turned out that John had missed out one of two consecutive noughts in his account number when he had handed me the paper with his clearly written details.

Thus, I had by all appearances created a new account number with most of them in the same sequence exactly as the correct version – which had two consecutive noughts in it, rather than one. 

I hope you’re with me on this; the two zeros were near the end of the account number, in 5th and 6th place. I should emphasise that each transaction, separated by nine days and duly administered through Barclays’ and Lloyd’s respective systems, was entirely successful from our end. We thought no more about the payments, having made them, and were given no reason to have the slightest concern. In my case, in particular, the mislaid money was not returned, nor reported as an error in my transaction even though a full eleven days had elapsed since I had made the first payment to the point at which I learned of the problem.

I, in the absence of my partner who was out at work, was very quick to inform her of what happened. I went to her office. As an estate agent she had several meetings with prospective buyers to honour and other calls on her time during a very busy period, which meant she was not able to get to her bank, physically or otherwise, until just after 2pm. By then, accompanied by John Smith, I had already spent the best part of an hour, initially being looked after by a cashier and subsequently talking directly to a Barclays ‘global’ (or something) operator who in polite and friendly (but distant American-sounding) tones, told me that I would receive a letter in five working days, which was the protocol for the ‘mispayment investigation’. This would be followed by an investigation report which might be in a further period of some 15 working days.

Somewhere, possibly, it seems, a button had been pressed and the rest was down to digital inevitability wrapped in anxiety, on the part, at least, of John Smith, my partner and me. I didn’t get the impression so far that any bank was much concerned with anything but to move me away from the queue. Meanwhile the data-seeking digital missile is ponderously towed to its silo.

To my surprise, I was also told that the name of the account holder was irrelevant in the system itself because it was not cross-checked in the system. Whether the cashier who told me this was right or not I still do not know, despite a three-quarter hour follow-up call which involved retelling the entire story – eventually. I find it extremely hard to believe, in a system that won’t let you make a correct submission without the bank account payee’s name, that the name is to all extents and purposes irrelevant.

Following her meeting at Lloyds local branch, my partner was given exactly the same kind of information – basically they could only provide an answer to their investigation in some 20 days’ time. Bear in mind her concern about this, because the missing money from her account was some 500 per cent more than the amount I had sent into the ether.

John Smith then went to his bank, Santander, owner of the sort code, which was thankfully correct and which, within the general banking system, denotes a bank branch in a specific physical place – in John’s case, somewhere in the Aylesbury area. He told his woes and was given some assurance, again thankfully, that bearing in mind the extreme unlikeliness of there being two such very similar accounts belonging to one local branch, it was probable that the ‘system’ had slipped the dosh into a back pocket until someone rang its doorbell. This at least was some assurance towards the end of a very fraught day; a day in which I lost most of my working time as a commissioned writer while the builder lost his entire day. And all we were left with was uncertainty. Uncertainty is the latest fashion trend promoted on summer catwalks: the higher the couture the more difficult the decisions, even for the very rich.

In an ideal payment system what certainties would we most of all like, as pertains to a case like mine? I think they are these:

First, that the money is returned in full, with the lightning speed, if not within a day or two at the very most. Therefore, and as part of the first process, a transaction in process to the wrong account number would not be ‘completed successfully’, but is reported immediately – as in the immediacy of the internet generally with a fast connection – as an error. To us.

Second, that we do not have to pursue endless hidden and hopeful electronic corridors to find a person to talk to us about the progress of any enquiry in such a way that every time we knock, with our customer presence, on the door of own money, we are treated as strangers and have to explain ourselves as if we are passing urchins begging for a scrap.

Third, and most hopeful, is that true and real, dynamic, knowledgeable and human personality is uppermost in all dealings and transactions, whatever our financial status.

I’m betting there are countless other possible requests. Clearly we have years and years before we get vaguely close to this systemic utopia, for currently we are all bound by a system, here in little old 2016, which leaves the rats to feed on the children, our eyes averted as we sit at our screens.