Andrew Vine: Fraudsters’ glee at death of the cheque

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THE road tax renewal notice arrived, and as usual I reached for MoT certificate, insurance details and cheque book in preparation for a visit to the Post Office.

It’s one of those chores that has been done on autopilot for more years than I care to remember, except this time I stumbled because there was something very important missing from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency form.

Details of how to pay by cheque have disappeared. How to pay online, how to set up a direct debit, how to pay by card were all there, but my preferred option was not.

It was there six months ago when I last renewed, but now it has vanished. The woman behind the counter at the Post Office nodded sagely when I asked her if I could still pay by cheque. “You’re not the first,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of people asking the same thing.”

Yes, of course I could still pay by cheque, as a lot of people like to do, but what is plain is that the DVLA is joining banks in applying unwelcome pressure on consumers to abandon a time-honoured and safe method of payment.

In common with countless other consumers, I’ve been the victim of card fraud. Twice, in fact, when either a dishonest shop assistant or call centre worker has copied details of a credit or debit card and money has been spirited out of my account.

In fairness to my bank, I’ve never been left out of pocket and the frauds involved relatively modest amounts of money. Even so, the inconvenience of being left without the means to withdraw cash while replacement cards were issued makes it an experience I wouldn’t wish to repeat.

But I have never been a victim of fraud as a result of a transaction involving a cheque, and I don’t know anybody else who has either. That’s because the time-honoured promisory note is a much harder nut to crack for fraudsters than the pieces of plastic that now fill our wallets and purses, involving as it does getting hold of somebody’s cheque book and forging their signature.

One of this country’s most unwelcome boom industries in recent years has been the massive growth in card fraud. It has snowballed relentlessly despite the best efforts of the banks to keep on top of it. As the consumer economy has switched from cheques to cards, criminals appear to have effortlessly sidestepped each new attempt to foil them.

Signatures on debit card slips were replaced with chip-and-pin as we were all assured this would stump the fraudsters. It didn’t work. Now we’re advancing rapidly into a new system of contactless cards, which don’t have to be placed into a reader in order to pay for something. It is a safe bet that fraudsters are full of gleeful anticipation.

Meanwhile the dear old cheque, secure because of its low-tech nature, is rapidly being consigned to oblivion.

And this despite the fondness of consumers – admittedly middle-aged and older – for paying by this method.

The unwillingness of the public to part with its cheque books has so far proved an effective rearguard against efforts to abolish it, which started in earnest about four years ago when the banking industry looked into its crystal ball and declared that not only cheques, but small change as well, were becoming things of the past.

This, of course, had nothing to do with the convenience or preferences of consumers. The supposed obsolescence of cheques is all to do with the convenience of the banks.

Since then, there has been a furtive but persistent effort to pressurise the public into turning away from cheques, not least the refusal of the major supermarket chains to accept them.

Now the DVLA has got in on the act, its ignoring of cheque payments presumably an indication that government departments have swallowed the line about them being a relic of the past.

Except it is not the business of government departments to discourage people from paying by a legitimate and trusted means of their choice.

Just as there remain millions of people who prefer to do their banking face-to-face, so there are many who like to sidestep the risk of card fraud by sticking to a tried-and-tested method of payment.

This is about people power and consumer choice. Press ahead with new, innovative payment methods by all means – and continue doing everything possible to foil the fraudsters – but don’t try to push the public into abandoning the cheques they trust.