How To: Unbank from 'U' / Ffrees

Wed, 16/08/2017 - 10:23 -- James Oakley
U Logo

A while back, I had a bit of a problem with someone, not me, opening bank / credit card accounts in my name. That meant I had the opportunity to contact the fraud teams at a number of banks.

Most of the banks handled things brilliantly. I had cause to ring up several banks. Barclays, Sainsburys, Bank of Scotland, Santander, ASDA — all handled this superbly. Once you're transferred to Fraud Investigations, you're away from a mass-market call-centre, and talking to professionals who are well-trained, eloquent and extremely bright. They cannot do enough to make sure everything is resolved, and to communicate clearly with you the whole way.

I learnt a lot — including how credit reference agencies do their job, about a very important agency called CIFAS, in fact generally about how well the British banking industry takes care to ensure people are who they say they are.

One card that I received proved a little trickier to get cancelled. So I thought I'd write this one up. If ever you're unfortunate enough to be in the same position as I was, here are the contact details you'll need. (Welcome, by the way, if you found this blog by searching Google. If you're looking for the phone number you need, hopefully this post will help you. Sorry to hear you need this).

Here's the card I received:

I'd never heard of the card issuer. The letter didn't contain any contact details at all, so I set to work finding out how to contact them.

Who was this card from?

It looks like it's a prepaid MasterCard.

(Prepaid cards can be really useful. They're not a credit card. You have to top them up with the money you want on them - a bit like an in-store gift card. Only, they're issued by one of the internationally recognised card issuers (Visa, MasterCard, etc), with a 16-digit card number, expiry date, and everything else that a website would need if you were to use it to shop. It means you can pay online using a card, but you cannot be charged for anything other than what you put onto the card).

Here's the small-print at the bottom of the letter:

U is the trading name of Ffrees Family Finance Ltd (Company Number: 7516554). U is not a bank. U is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority as a credit broker (Number: 630255). U Accounts are serviced online and by telephone. U does not offer overdrafts. MasterCard® is a registered trademark of MasterCard® International Incorporated. The Card is issued by Wirecard Card Solutions Ltd ("WDCS") pursuant to license by MasterCard® International Inc. WDCS is authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority to conduct electronic money service activities under the Electronic Money Regulations 2011 (Ref: 900051).

Why Does Fraud Matter?

You may wonder why this matters?

With a fraudulent loan or credit card, there's a risk that the fraudster gets the money, and you're left with the liability to repay the funds.

But why does it matter if a fraudster opens a savings account or a prepaid card in your name? Wouldn't they actually have to give you money to use the account?

The answer is that there are many reasons for account fraud. Stealing money in your name is only one reason. Another is money-laundering. The criminals want accounts into which they can deposit funds, and out of which they can withdraw them, and all the while it cannot be traced back to them. If you allow them to use your accounts for this, you are breaking the law (so I'm told: IANAL). So you want to make sure all those accounts are closed off properly.

There's another reason why you need to get things like this handled properly, and that concerns your credit file.

Credit Reference Agencies

There are a number of agencies who keep a file on you. When you operate a bank account, credit card account, telephone agreement, broadband line, you agree to them giving information about you to a credit reference agency. They keep track of whether you pay on time, how big your card limits are, and so on.

The next time you go to open an account, the provider will check your credit file. They want to make sure you're (a) a genuine person, and (b) not likely to break terms and default on any amounts owed. Usually, all that's given back is a numeric score to indicate how creditworthy you are. As well as things like whether you're up to date on payments, they also look at whether you are on the electoral register, the percentage of your current credit limits are you using, and so on.

Now, here's the thing: They record the searches that are made. One factor in the credit score matrix is how many new bank or credit accounts you've opened in the last twelve months. So if a fraudster goes to town, and opens lots of new accounts in your name, you look like someone who's about to max out. That lowers your credit score significantly. So you need to get those accounts closed, yes, but you also need to get those searches removed. Otherwise, you could find it's harder to get credit if you need it.

Equifax, one of the agencies, offers a free one month trial to let you see your full credit file and score. I'd recommend doing this, just to check there's nothing there that shouldn't be.

Contacting 'U'

So I set to work trying to do the two things I'd done with other banks: (i) close the account, and (ii) get the associated searches removed from my file.

Google showed me that their website is uaccount.uk. I went there looking for a phone number, and found they only accept contact over email. They get back to you within two working days.

I was reporting fraud, so that wasn't good enough: I wanted to get through to a real person in their fraud team as fast as possible. I knew from other banks that these are people who can move fast to help, so I wanted to speak to someone.

Contacting Ffrees

Next, I went to the website of the company who operates 'U': Ffrees Family Finance Ltd. They have a contact page, which gives a phone number of 0333 202 3640. I called the number and got a menu with two choices: To speak to someone about a 'U' card, press 1. To speak to someone about a Ffrees account, press 2.

I chose '1' for 'U'. Next up: A recorded message that told me I can only communicate via secure message using my online account. There's a problem there: I don't have an online account. Only the fraudster, who requested the card, has the login details I'd need.

So I dial back, and press "2", for Ffrees. This time, I reached a real person. Hurray! They told me that they have no access to 'U' Card data, and can only deal in Ffrees accounts. (To be honest, I'd seen that coming when I had to choose the "wrong" menu option). So I asked her for the number for their fraud investigation team. She replied that they don't have a fraud investigation team.

At this point, I couldn't quite believe it was so hard to report a fraudulent card. I was pretty sure that any card-issuing institution would have to have a channel for reporting fraud and abuse. So I asked her if I should therefore call the Financial Conduct Authority to let them know that Ffrees / U have no fraud department. She obviously had no idea that the conversation really wasn't supposed to go this way, as she agreed that was a good idea.

Contacting the FCA

So I rang the FCA (0300 500 8082, by the way), who could not have been more helpful.

First, they heard me out, and gave me a call reference number in case I needed to refer back to the phone call. (At last, I was dealing with someone professional.) Then they gave me three phone numbers:

  • Ffrees themselves have a head office number of 0114 286 6325.
  • The card was issued by WDCS, Wirecard Card Solutions Ltd. They have a number of 0191 227 5450.
  • Lastly, Ffrees also have Visa cards, who are issued by a company called Contis: 01756 693240.

The last number was almost certainly irrelevant, but I now had the other numbers I needed.

Contacting Ffrees / WDCS

Let's not airbrush this, and pretend that I made no mistakes. I called what I thought was the Ffrees number. In fact, I'd written it down wrongly, and called a wrong number in Hemel Hempstead. Oops. Fail.

Either the FCA had given me the wrong number, or I'd written it down incorrectly. Either way, I called WDCS, as that was the other number I had. They were very helpful. They explained that they issue the card, but do none of the background checks or account maintenance. He could nevertheless ensure the card was stopped immediately; he'd arrange for someone from Ffrees to contact me to confirm this.

They never did. So 3 days later, I called the right Ffrees number (as above). They told me that they only deal over email, so I was to email info@uaccount.uk. Grateful that I'd already had the card stopped by WDCS, I was happy to work over email this time, to get definitive resolution. Here's the important part of the email I sent them:

Please can you close this account, mark the application as fraudulent, and ask Experian (or whichever credit reference agency you use) to remove the associated searches from my history (I can see “Ffrees Family Finance” on my file). I’d also appreciate it if you can apply to have a marker put for my details on the CIFAS system to deter future fraudulent applications.

They replied within the hour:

Unfortunately, we're unable to discuss anything with you regarding this account, but can assure you we will be launching an investigation into what's happened. This usually entails alerting the relevant authorities and taking the necessary steps to prevent fraudulent activities.

Our general policy where we identify an account that's been opened in somebody else's name, is to request verification documents. These allows us to evidence that the account has been opened fraudulently, which means we can then close the account.

It would be helpful if you could provide with a photo of yourself which we can cross reference against any documents supplied by our account holder to verify identity. Just to clarify, we're not asking for ID documents, just a photo of yourself.

I replied right away, and sent them a photo that I knew was already in the public domain. They hadn't addressed my request that they remove all credit searches connected with the application, so I asked them this:

Whilst you cannot discuss the account with me, may I repeat my original request that you confirm when you've requested Experian remove the searches from my record with them.

That email did not receive a reply.

After one week, I chased it up with a brief, polite email to check they'd received my email.

After a further week, I still had not had a reply, so I sent them a longer email. I pointed out how hard it had been to contact them in the first place, and that I was still waiting for confirmation that (a) the account had been closed, and (b) the credit reference agencies had been notified that the original searches were fraudlent.

This time, they did reply, just under a day later. A team leader said this to me:

I'm going to chase this up for you over the next few days and do apologise if this has caused you any inconvenience.

I stopped chasing them after that. They never did reply. That was several months ago.

Contacting Equifax

My final move was to contact Equifax. I had a free trial account with them, that allowed me to see my full credit file. That allowed me to open a ticket to their helpdesk to explain that the "Ffrees Family Finance" searches were all fraudulent.

I thought that credit reference agencies will delete searches you report as fraudulent. They don't. Only the organisation that made the search can have it deleted. So Equifax passed on my report to Ffrees.

Anyway, Equifax did get a reply from Ffrees. Two weeks later, Equifax told me they'd heard back from Ffrees who had said the search could be removed. Phew!

All Resolved

Finally, about 6 weeks after the account was opened, everything was resolved. The account was closed, and (I checked) the searches had been removed from my credit file.

Lessons Learned

If you need to get in touch with 'U' or Ffrees to report a fraudulent application, what lessons are there?

  • They like to use email. The email address info@uaccount.uk receives a prompt response during business hours to the first email you send them. However, after their first reply, they seem to treat this as resolved, and further emails do not get a reply. So make sure you include everything you need from them in your first email. You may like to email them a photo of you on holiday, to save them asking for that.
  • They do have a phone number. It's well-hidden, but it does exist. I checked some time later, and the menu options have changed on 0114 286 6325. You may now be able to get through to someone who can help. Perhaps.
  • Their card issuer can cancel the card. It's worth phoning 0191 227 5450 to speak to WDCS.
  • Ffrees don't make it easy to speak to their fraud team. In fact, I never did manage to speak to them. The only telephone contact I had was to be told (curtly) to send an email. The contrast with the easy-to-reach, extremely professional fraud teams at other insitutions could not be more marked.
  • I never got any feedback that things were resolved. I reached the point where I knew I'd reported the application, and where I'd asked them to cancel the card and remove the searches. I never reached the point where they had confirmed those things were done.
  • If you haven't done so already, access your credit file. Equifax will give you free access for a month. With other financial institutions, they will automatically remove fraudulent searches as part of their fraud workflow. With Ffrees, you should contact Equifax to ask them to do it.

The mark of a good financial institution is how they handle things when they go wrong. Statistically, most of us only experience how things are supposed to work. I had the "privilege" to experience several banks, of various sizes, handling a problem situation.

If I ever found myself needing a pre-paid card in the future, I don't think I'd use 'U' or any other brands connected with Ffrees. If everything goes well, it's fine, but if you need help solving a big problem they cannot be reached over the phone and do not respond to email.

That's a shame, because U Account is marketed as an alternative way to do banking, specifically to help people who may find (for whatever reason) that they struggle to access conventional "high street" banking services. I want them to succeed, because there is a need for a provider like that.

For this reason, I'm sure that people will sign up for them on a regular basis. If you find yourself needing to resolve problems that are bigger than day-to-day banking queries, I hope that the information here will help you.

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