5 Oct 2017, 5:30pm
housing personal finance
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  • Cheques checked the recipient’s name – BACS & CHAPS use untested numbers

    It’s a funny old world. Way back in 1979 when I got my first bank account I got issued with a thing called a cheque book. You could write out the recipient and how much you wanted to pay them and that was all you needed to do. In those days the cheques were open, so some thieving git could swipe it or steam open the letters, and pay the cheque to themselves or ask for it to be paid in cash over the counter. Fewer people had bank accounts then – when I started my first job I was paid by open cheque that I had to go to the bank over the road and exchange for cash.

    To forestall the hazard of dodgy geezers steaming the mail open they changed the system so you got to draw a couple of lines across the cheque and write A/C Payee, and they changed the law such that this happened

    Not if it is crossed ‘A/C Payee Only’ or ‘A/C Payee’. The Cheques Act 1992 and Section 81 of the Bills of Exchange Act 1882 give statutory power to the ‘A/C Payee’ and ‘A/C Payee Only’ crossing, when it is used. The legislation means that a cheque which bears the ‘A/C Payee’ or ‘A/C Payee Only’ crossing can only be paid into an account in the name of the receiver of the cheque exactly as it appears on the cheque.

    A cheque crossed A/C payee. Presumably the computer’s trained to ignore the * sign.

    Now in practice you could usually get away with paying in cheques in a different name if they were small, or if it was just the first name that was different. I presume if the payer kicked up a fuss then the bank would have clawed the money back, and if recipient had skipped to Rio then they’d have to refund the money. All in all a perfectly serviceable system, though because of all this possibility of fouling up you could only count on having the money after about five working days of paying the cheque in. When I bought my last house in the dog years of the 1990s, I had to make up the mahoosive amount of money I had lost on the previous one and pay even more because I was going upmarket from the two-up-two-down bachelor pad I had foolishly bought in 1989. To do that I went to my solicitor and paid them a cheque. There was never any issue of the secretary deciding she wanted a knees-up in Lanzarote with all her pals funded by running off with the cheque because she’d have had to change her name by deed poll to the solicitors and open a bank account in that name.

    Fast-forward 20 years and we don’t check the name any more

    Twenty years of technical progress passes, and I get to receive the proceeds of my old house. It all comes down to a six-digit number and an eight digit number. Sure, the payment system would like a name to put in the payee field, but it doesn’t matter if you put Mustela erminea, Beyonce or Beelzebub in there. The routeing system doesn’t give a damn. So criminals hack emails and change the details, because the humans look at the name and think it’s all okay but the transfer goes to a different account, which is then emptied and the bad guys scarper with the money. And you get to read newspaper articles like this, this and this

    Given all the usual delays involved in selling a house, there’s something to be said for the security of the good old crossed cheque. We were smart enough in the 1980s to realise that making the name matter was key to fixing this, but that wisdom has got lost in the search for expediency. Is it really too much to ask that 21st century money transfers meet the standards of the 20th century paper methods?

    This pathology also applies to the faster payments system – it doesn’t matter if you make the payment to your cat rather than the payee, it’s all about the six digit sort code and the eight digit account number. They could make these combinations testable by the same system used to catch mistyping of credit card numbers, but this isn’t done either. Update – this Ermine rant is not in fact correct – see David’s comment below. Despite this, some people still seem to be able to screw up in this way – presumably they err is more than one number.

    So you can easily mistype or transpose the numbers, sending your payment to the water company to Bill in Basildon, and you don’t get to know that until you start getting dunning letters from the water board. Bill doesn’t have to give you the money back – after all he’s done nothing wrong. He never claimed to be the water board, all he saw was a kind gift from an unknown benefactor come out of the blue, and he’s probably spent it now. As Faster Payments say on their website, it’s tough luck

    Faster Payments, once sent, cannot be cancelled.

    Whilst the vast majority of payments are made without issue, in rare cases problems can arise if the wrong information (e.g. sort code and account number), is entered – resulting in a payment being made to the wrong account.
    It’s vital to double check the sort code and account number before sending a payment: payments are processed only using these numbers and getting them wrong is like sending a letter with the wrong address and post code.

    The last statement is bullshit – if you send a letter using the wrong address and postcode there’s a much better chance of it getting to the right place because there’s some redundancy and there’s also local knowledge with the postman. And the name would help clarify matters, as it did with crossed cheques.

    Double checking doesn’t help with some conceptual errors, like transposing some digit pairs, for the same reason that it’s tough to proof-read your own writing. To err is human – we could do with helping people out a bit. This is why credit card numbers use the Luhn algorithm, to catch simple cock-ups like transposition and single digit errors.

    The six payment systems in the UK. More info from the BACS PDF

    How about BACS – this is the payments system 1 you use when you put money in, or take it out of NS&I. My solicitor was proposing to use that for the house money because it would save me the £30 transfer fee. I decided I was easy with paying £30 to know I’d got it on Friday afternoon rather than some unspecified time probably Wednesday the next week. If something goes wrong, time is absolutely of the essence to flag up that the crims have made off with the loot to at least try and freeze the receiving account before they empty it over the weekend 2.

    I was unable to determine if BACS checks the name, though the warnings from NS&I to get the right sort code and account number imply not. BACS gives you an automatic delay of three working days, as I found to my cost when I transferred money into NS&I using a debit card, and then got to ring them up to find out what black hole half a house worth of money had disappeared to. At least that made the three working delay between transferring out and receiving it a bit more understandable, though it still raised the blood pressure.

    We have implemented a system without number error checksums, casually tossed away the A/C payee name checking of the cheque era, and sped up the ability of the criminals to scarper with the money by an order of magnitude. This is not progress.

    Notes:

    1. BACS has a rather neat PDF describing the six inland money transfer systems in use in the UK
    2. This is why in an ideal world you should complete on any day other than Friday, particularly a Friday before a bank holiday weekend. Of course, everybody wants to move on Friday so they don’t have to take time off work, which suits the bad guys just fine
     
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