When a cheque for £3,000 was lost in the post and then pocketed by a fraudster, Computershare and Barclays were keen to dodge the blame
When Lee Peterson decided to sell £3,000- worth of stock he had earned from his company’s share scheme, he didn’t think twice when he was told that the cheque would be in the post.
As with most people, he assumed it would turn up in a day or two, and started planning what he would do with the money. However, 14 months later, following interminable battles with Computershare, the company behind the scheme; Barclays bank; and, to a lesser extent, his employer, he was still no nearer getting his hands on his £3,000 – a thief had intercepted the cheque and managed to cash it.
Despite appealing to all three companies and taking Barclays to the Financial Ombudsman Service, he was told by each of them that they bear no responsibility for the lost cheque, and he had simply been unlucky. His story has implications for anyone who is sent a large sum by cheque. It shows how surprisingly easy it is for a fraudster to cash a cheque in someone else’s name. And it also raises the question of why Computershare, Britain’s biggest employee share scheme provider, is not sending the money electronically.
The general conclusion would appear to be that it’s simply not safe to receive large sums of money by cheque. Lee Peterson’s tale starts back in August 2011. The IT contractor, who is a longstanding employee of Direct Line – then a division of Royal Bank of Scotland – decided to sell two batches of RBS shares he had accumulated through its employee share scheme.
Having asked Computershare to sell them, a cheque for the first batch, valued at £1,500, arrived at his north London home within two days. When the cheque for the second sale – for £3,076 – failed to arrive two days later, he rang the company’s Bristol HQ.
He asked for the cheque to be cancelled and the money paid by electronic transfer instead. However, he says he was told that nothing could be done until it had been missing for 10 days, and that Computershare had no facility to pay the money directly into his account.
What he didn’t know was that a fraudster had intercepted the cheque and opened a bank account at a branch of Barclays in Barking, east London, with what the bank said was an apparently “genuine” driving licence in his name. Barclays confirmed his cheque was paid in to the account on 7 September – 10 days after he reported it missing. The account was cleaned out a few days later.
Despite repeated requests to Computershare, firstly by him, and then his employer’s HR department, it continued to deny responsibility, despite sending the cheque in the normal post in an undisguised envelope. Computershare told him last November that “as no error has been made by us, we do not consider that we have an obligation to provide compensation. I regret, therefore, that we are unable to advise you any further at this point, other than to suggest you contact the police if you have not already done so”.
Peterson then approached Barclays to ask it to explain why it had cashed his cheque. Again, the bank said it had acted in good faith and wasn’t responsible. It said the cheque had not been altered in any way. Its investigation had shown that the account had been opened by someone showing a driving licence which led to a house nearby, and there had been nothing suspicious about the transaction. He approached the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS), which advised him to file a complaint against Barclays.
Encouraged by Computershare, the police took up the matter – a rarity in cases of financial fraud – and officers raided the address given to the bank by the fraudster, but found a woman who appeared to know nothing. In February the case was declared “unsolvable”.Peterson then spent a long summer waiting for the ombudsman’s findings. Deadlines set by the FOS investigator for Barclays to produce evidence were repeatedly missed. When its initial arbitration was announced, the FOS awarded Peterson £100 compensation for the delays, but found in the bank’s favour on the bigger issue.
The FOS decided that, because the cheque had not been tampered with, the cashier would not have had any reason to be suspicious. Barclays was able to claim that under section 4 of the Cheques Act 1957 a bank is not liable to the true owner of the cheque if it pays one belonging to them into the account of another, providing it acts with good faith and without negligence. Peterson rejects this line of thinking. “If the shoe were on the other foot and I owed Computershare £3,000, do you think it would allow me to say I put the cheque in the post in good faith, and therefore I don’t think I should pay?” he asks.
“Barclays has allowed an opportunist thief to open an account using fraudulent paperwork, so have clearly not applied the required due diligence, but apparently they bear no responsibility, either. The whole thing seems extraordinary.
“I patiently believed my money would be recovered internally. Each party involved has either shirked its responsibility and passed the blame, or stated it can offer no further assistance. I now believe I have exhausted every internal avenue that I can,” he says.
A Royal Mail spokesman says: “Royal Mail handles 58m items on average each day and the overwhelming majority arrive safely and on time. On any occasion where we do not provide the service a customer expects, we would fully investigate. Cheques sent by standard post are classed as a non-value item in the event of loss or damage and would not be covered by compensation.
Fortunately for Peterson, Guardian Money’s intervention prompted an eleventh-hour change of heart at Computershare. The Bristol-based firm continues to believe it has done nothing wrong but has agreed to pay him his money, plus compensation. It also said it would be attempting to recover the money from Barclays.
In a statement Computershare said: “Mr Peterson’s case is extremely unfortunate. The cheques due to him from the proceeds of his employee shares were despatched by Computershare via the method specified by his employer, in timely fashion. We simply cannot be held liable for the actions of a fraudster, or for a bank in accepting a cheque and crediting funds into an account opened with fraudulent intent. It is absolutely the bank’s obligation to know their customer and to prevent this kind of occurrence.”
It added: “All that said, as a gesture of goodwill because we are human beings who believe in customer service and not a corporate machine, we have today issued payment to Mr Peterson so that he is not out of pocket. We will be taking action for the recovery of the money from the bank who opened the fraudulent account and credited the cheque.” The firm has paid him £4,000. Interestingly, it did this via a Bacs payment straight into his account.
Barclays, meanwhile, laid the blame for Peterson’s problems firmly at Computershare’s door. “We don’t believe Computershare has taken the necessary steps to ensure the safe delivery of cheques to its customer, especially when it has been put on notice that it has not been received. Had it placed a stop on the cheque when it was reported missing, this whole situation would have been avoided,” a spokesman told us.
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