A pioneering voice recognition security system introduced by First Direct is failing to recognise some account-holders, with a number of customers left furious after being wrongly locked out of their accounts.
MoneySavingExpert.com can reveal that just weeks after First Direct launched its long-awaited biometric banking system, some customers are claiming they've had "horrific" problems using the system, while others have ended up being told they'll have to go into a branch to rectify the problem.
The majority of First Direct's 1.3 million customers are thought to be now using its voice recognition technology, which is designed to speed up the process of accessing your account on the phone by doing away with the need to memorise passwords. First Direct insists the new system is "robust", but has admitted that it may be failing to identify some genuine customers.
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'I was locked out of my account for two weeks'
One MoneySaver contacted us to say she'd been left unable to pay her bills after the voice ID system failed to recognise her.
The customer, who asked not to be named, said: "I've been a First Direct customer for about 30 years and this is the first time I've had any kind of issue. I was locked out of my account for two weeks, which really put me in jeopardy because I was unable to pay my bills."
After being refused access, the customer asked to opt-out of voice recognition and was told she would get a call back.
"When they called me back I refused to give them password info because it could be anyone on the other end of the phone and I was worried about fraud," she said. "They said the only way I could resolve this was to go into an HSBC [First Direct's parent company] branch, which isn't convenient for me at all.
"I just feel like the technology hasn't been tested properly. The situation was only resolved when I wrote to First Direct's CEO – to be fair they did credit my account with £100 as a way of saying sorry."
'A simple payment took well over an hour'
Unfortunately this doesn't appear to be an isolated incident, with other First Direct customers voicing their frustrations on the MSE forum and other social media.
Forumite jaybeetoo wrote: "If my wife's experience is anything to go by, First Direct need to get their act together. She was abroad with no access to the internet so had to use phone banking.
"She failed the voice security and was put on hold for ages. Gave up, tried again. When she was about to be put on hold, she asked for somebody to call her back. Was told it would happen 10 minutes later. They didn't call back.
"Called First Direct again, [she] refused to be put on hold again and was told someone would call her back. Eventually somebody did, who then asked questions that were difficult to answer without access to any information – she was sat on a beach at the time.
"A simple payment took well over an hour and several expensive phone calls. She is going to make a complaint and opt-out when she gets back to the UK."
Meanwhile, others went on Twitter to vent:
@firstdirect Terrible experience of failed voice recognition = locked out of my account. Horrific. I'm furious. Reconsidering my bank.— Dr Joanna Semlyen #FBPE (@Dr_Jo_S) September 17, 2016
@firstdirect so, first time use of voice recognition software couldn't cope with hands free when driving. Not great and couldn't make pymt.— Andy Johnston (@Countrymanimage) September 16, 2016
Firstdirect's new voice recognition software doesn't recognise my voice and it's causing all sorts of problems. I wonder how common this is— Simon Hinde (@Simonhinde) September 14, 2016
How is the voice ID system supposed to work?
Those enrolled on the new system no longer give a password when they ring First Direct, and in due course security questions could also be scrapped. If you're a First Direct customer and you're not already enrolled you'll be asked if you'd like to join the next time you call.
The voice recognition kicks in while you're giving your postcode and name (and, for the time being, answering the security question). First Direct says the system will be able to tell if you are who you're claiming to be in just two seconds – it's supposed to speed up and simplify the security process because you won't need to remember a password anymore.
When a customer speaks, the technology measures how they use their lips, mouth, vocal tract and diaphragm, as well as behavioural aspects like speed of speech, pronunciation and accents. It takes about 140 different performance measurements that, together, are totally unique to the person speaking.
Rather than taking an actual recording of your voice, before you signed up the bank would've taken a 'digital print' of what's going on when you speak, and that 'print' has been attached to your account so it recognises you when you call.
A First Direct spokesperson told us: "Voice ID is a robust, secure authentication system. It takes away the need for customers to remember a password, but as with all biometric verification tools, there may be occasions where it will not accept verification of a genuine customer.
"It's more difficult to verify a customer when there's lots of background noise or a crowded place with lots of people talking, for example, but if we can't verify a customer using voice ID, we'll try to use a different verification method."
What can I do if the voice ID system doesn't recognise me?
First Direct says if you fail the voice ID check twice on the same call you'll then be asked to answer certain questions (eg, how much you spent on a recent transaction). If you can answer those questions satisfactorily, you'll be allowed to pass through security. If not, you'll get a separate call back from First Direct to check security info, or be asked to visit an HSBC branch.
Some customers have objected to being asked for security info in a call from the bank – if you're unhappy with this, you'll be told to go to a branch instead.
It's worth noting the issue around voice recognition only applies to customers who rely on phone banking. Internet banking isn't affected.
Others more upbeat about voice ID system
Despite the bad experiences of some First Direct customers, it's not all doom and gloom – others on social media have embraced the new biometric system.
Seriously, how good is @firstdirect the phone rang once, it was answered, then you simply speak, to get through voice recognition security!— Adam Dandy (@AdamDandy) September 12, 2016