Banks forced to deny forgery claims as they seek to rebuild image
Campaigners have called for answers as allegations of signature fraud persist, writes Michael O’Dwyer
‘The best work was done at the photocopier,” claims one former employee of Royal Bank of Scotland. Banks, the villains of the last economic crisis, are fighting to rehabilitate their image by lending to businesses hit by the Covid pandemic and granting payment holidays to mortgage customers. But allegations persist that customers of the likes of Lloyds and RBS lost their businesses and homes as a result of widespread document forgery within the industry.
The RBS whistleblower, who later left the bank, claims he was taught more than a decade ago how to download customers’ signatures from the bank’s online systems, trace or glue them on to a new document, and use a photocopier to obscure the forgery. He’s part of BankConfidential, a network of about 50 current and former employees of multiple banks, who say they are aware of or participated in forgery. More than a year after it was asked by the Treasury select committee to review evidence of forgery by British banks, the National Crime Agency is facing fresh calls to open a formal investigation.
The Bank Signature Forgery Campaign, led by Julian Watts, has continued to gather examples of alleged forgery since it first submitted evidence a year ago. Watts says he submitted his fourth tranche of crime reports to the NCA last week, taking the total to more than 360, backed by 19 lever-arch files of evidence from the public. The banks deny wrongdoing.
Endemic fraud in a heavily regulated industry may seem unthinkable, particularly where there is no obvious benefit to employees who commit forgery. But it has happened before. Banks in the US were fined $25bn (£18.8bn) after the use of forged signatures and manipulated documents in the eviction of customers from their homes as shown to be rife.
From his home in Guildford, Surrey, Watts assesses the evidence and asks a handwriting expert to review documents he believes are suspicious.
He claims that some customers had their homes repossessed at least partly based on allegedly forged signatures on loan documents, guarantees and court documents. Watts has built up a trove of cases, a sample of which has been seen by The Daily Telegraph, where multiple documents purport to be signed by the same person but the signatures bear no resemblance to each other – or where seemingly identical signatures are used by different bank officials. He is frustrated by the NCA’s inaction and wants it to contact victims.
Lynne Owens, director general of the NCA, has cancelled meetings with him four times, Watts says.
The campaigner also wants Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, to meet victims of alleged fraud, to “understand the obfuscation, hostility and opposition that victims face when reporting serious organised crime by banks”. “This is not rocket science to prove,” says Watts. Checking the dates on which bank officials who signed documents were out of the office would be one straightforward starting point, he suggests.
If bank employees were away on days when their signatures were being included on documents, this would be an obvious red flag.
However, some banking lawyers believe it is arguable repossession orders are valid even if junior bank staff signed them in the names of their superiors.
“I find it almost unbelievable,” says Anthony Stansfeld, Police and Crime Commissioner for Thames Valley – the force that secured six convictions for the fraud against business customers of the Reading branch of Halifax Bank of Scotland. “The National Crime Agency … has done precisely nothing.”
An NCA spokesman says: “We are continuing to assess the material, including additional information supplied in May 2020.
“Together with partners in the FCA and SFO, we are making a thorough assessment to determine whether there are grounds for a criminal or regulatory investigation.”
Kevin Hollinrake, a Conservative MP and fair banking campaigner, says the authorities must do more, but adds law enforcement agencies need proper
‘I find it almost unbelievable. The National Crime Agency has done precisely nothing’
‘We don’t have the proper resources within some of the fraud agencies to take this stuff on proactively’
funding. “It’s disappointing that we don’t have the proper resources within some of the fraud agencies to take this stuff on proactively,” he says.
A spokesman for Natwest Group, which includes RBS, says it takes allegations of misconduct seriously, and that the forgery allegations have been investigated thoroughly in the past both by the bank and by external agencies. “No evidence has been found to substantiate the claims that the bank has manipulated internal documents,” he says.
Watts himself has had a series of legal battles with banks. His wife Helen had a property repossessed by Lloyds in 2010.
A Lloyds spokesman says of the Watts’ own case: “We will only proceed with a repossession when all other possible options have been exhausted. In March this year, a judge ruled that allegations of signature fraud should be struck out due to a lack of evidence.
“The decision of the court confirms our long-standing position that the allegation of signature fraud made by Mr and Mrs Watts was without foundation.”
Mr and Mrs Watts are seeking to appeal the decision.
Lloyds did not comment on allegations of more widespread forgery.
Watts is clear that there are some cases where banks must be allowed to take possession of people’s homes.
Cases where banks act unpleasantly but not illegally towards customers are not the focus of his campaign, he says.
“Creditors have a right to call in and secure their debt but they have to comply with criminal law,” he says. “If not, we’re in a society where some organisations are above the law.”
4,580 Number of mortgage repossessions in the UK during 2019 (source: CML) 2m Number of mortgage payment holidays offered to customers affected by Covid-19 (source: UK Finance) 1/6 More than one in six mortgages in the UK are subject to a payment holiday under the Covid-19 support scheme $25bn Amount banks in the US were fined for using manipulated documents in the eviction of customers from their homes Banks in the City of London have denied wrongdoing after forgery claims 360+ Number of crime reports the Bank Signature Forgery Campaign has received in the past year 6 Convictions secured by Thames Valley Police over fraud at the Reading branch of Halifax Bank of Scotland