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 Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business -

‘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

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