|'Computer says no' comedy sketch, seen on comedy series, Little Britain (Image: The Telegraph)|
Remember the noughties British TV comedy show Little Britain? While some of its sketches were rather tasteless and inappropriate, which creators David Walliams and Matt Lucas had later felt the need to apologise for, much of what they produced were hilarious and eerily relatable even 15-20 years later. One that springs to mind is the 'computer says no' sketch, which poked fun at unhelpful customer services. That attitude is, sadly, sinking the bank industry to a brand new low.
I'm talking with experience here, and please excuse my long sob story. Having been a customer of one bank (who will remain nameless here) for almost 20 years, without any issues prior to this point, I believed it would be there to support me through rainy days. Lately, while my level of incoming remains strong, rising outgoings has led to the both figures being almost equal, or on occasions, the latter number is larger than the former. That's been more prevalent over the last three months at least. Some of this has been down to financial own goals on my part, most have been out of my hands, including crippling administrative errors by companies I pay direct debits for. This time last year, my outgoings were consistent and I was able to budget effectively; this isn't so straightforward today.
For months, I knew (and convinced I still know) what the solution should be to end my economic setback - I've a credit card bill which I pay minimum charge each month and a personal loan which, again, I pay off monthly. Both amass a considerable chunk of my outgoings. You would think that by consolidating these together to one new charge, I'd be able to save money in the short term. After all, we're in the middle of a 'cost of living crisis' (which we hope is temporary), I'm sure I speak for many when I say we're not budgeting for months and years ahead like we used to. In fact, when calculating how much I could save by consolidating my credit card and personal loan, most providers suggest it would be £250 per month - potentially going a long way in helping me live a little easier and, ultimately, pay off that pesky credit card.
So, I go to my bank of 20 years with this proposition first of all. The response was blunt; I wasn't just told 'computer says no', but I was advised to be placed under 'special measures'. This meant that for a period of time, these two debts would reduce in cost for a short period of time. While it sounded ideal, it came with caveats, some of which wasn't raised during the agreement and I only discovered later.
The first caveat, which I was aware of, was that I'd be in arrears with the personal loan. Any 'warning letters' I received should be ignored, I'd been told. The second caveat was that this move would impact my credit score. While I thought this was fair enough, I had hoped it wouldn't need to come to that point. For such a long time, I kept this score near perfect, it's now just 'good'.
The third, which I wasn't informed of initially, was that the reduced credit card repayment wasn't the 'minimum charge'. Imagine my surprise when the card didn't work for days on end, to then be told it was because the so-called 'financial support' team that put me under 'special measures' never informed the credit card department (from the same bank) of these changes. I reverted to the original agreement with the credit card team who then told me that the next payment was 7th March. Great, I thought, let's budget on other payments. But wait - I was told the wrong date. This payment was going to go out on the 7th February. Naturally, this news came to me on the 6th. I clearly didn't have sufficient funds to accommodate this bank error, because I budgeted February differently. Arrears, we meet again.
By that point; my apartment service charge went up, council tax increased by £50 per month because 'We forgot to charge you for two months', energy bills shot up because we've endured cold nights and the weekly food shop has risen astronomically. From perfectly manageable bills have become increasingly difficult to calculate, and that potential £250 monthly debt reduction would have been wonderfully helpful. After my bank's 'computer says no' response, I applied through a few other banks for a consolidation loan and been declined for every one. I also signed up to Experian and Credit Score, so I know where I'm at with my credit score before ever thinking about pursuing any future applications.
My next golden idea was to change banks - surely, it's my bank that was the problem, I thought. I also believed that another bank, which has more branches than the provider I was departing from, would have proper bankers for me to meet in-person, as opposed to spending hours and hours on the phone, pushed from pillar to post.
Surprisingly, the process went swimmingly, despite my less-than-perfect credit score and being in an arranged overdraft. Within days, my main account was with a new provider. What I soon realised was that the result felt like another one step backwards move. It appears that more branches meant very little. When I booked an in-branch appointment, using the bank's online booking system, I arrived to see the branch was indeed closed. This supposedly effective digital system hadn't been updated, apparently, since before Covid-19 hit the world. Thankfully, it was only just closed and my Puss in Boots eyes got me in to see someone. Unfortunately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, they were unable to help. They only help with bereavement support or cash services. Again, 'computer says no' with that consolidation loan. "What you need, you'll find on the app," I'm told.
My past three months has been spent trying to juggle finances in ways I never thought I would endure. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. I realise that there are people in darker situations and I'm incredibly privileged to have a hugely supportive support network and a decent wage. I'd have been a hermit otherwise. Here I was, picturing bankers being able to provide tailored banking and apply basic common sense. Instead, we have impersonal customer service, with bankers reading through online textbooks and letting single-minded computer systems decide on their customers' financial futures.
Frontline banking needs a reset. While credit scoring is vital, it shouldn't be the deciding factor of a financial application, if logic suggests that it suits that particular situation at that moment. It should be easier to juggle finances without it catching people out. Nobody wants to be stuck paying loans for a long period of time, but if you're in that situation, your bank should be there to provide that support, regardless of how much you need to pay back. Banks profit enough for this figure not to completely matter.
It's concerning that, instead of making banking more straightforward and accessible, everything has to be done online - which seems anything but straightforward and accessible. The digitisation of the industry concerns me for several reasons. Firstly, while we're told our data is secure, a hack is only a click away. We've not completely cracked cybercrime. In fact, it's resulted in Britons reportedly losing £3.1 billion in 2022. Secondly, it encourages a cashless future. Many independent traditional businesses in the UK only accept card, which exposes particularly the older generation. And if you lose your card, or it's stolen, goodness knows how much that other person has taken from your account using contactless readers before you're able to cancel it. Cash payments are still socially accepted in most European countries, and there are valid reasons why they're reluctant to rely wholly on digital.
I hear theories about how alternative payments like Bitcoin, and artificial intelligence, are taking over various industries and for a long time, I've dismissed them as tosh and conspiracy. Yet, with fewer traditional bankers and bank branches (hundreds are closing in the UK every year), a greater reliance on algorithms and fewer human interactions, I can't help but entertain the conclusions that suggest the UK government is blindly - or consciously - allowing digital currencies and robots to enter the mainstream. This makes me incredibly uncomfortable. The prospect may sound exciting for technology boffins, but dangerously inaccessible for most of society. Many of us just want to make ends meet, not risk frail finances even further on vanity projects.
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