In Heaven the tills are ringing

I’ve rather lost track of all the secular milestones that have dotted this year’s run-up to Christmas. Once people celebrated saints days. Now that we all worship at the altar of Mammon these have been replaced by secular equivalents. First came the US import of Black Friday, closely followed by Manic Monday (or whatever it was), and now we have Panic Saturday. Most of my Christmas shopping was done online and well in advance, since I’m a veteran of long queues at the Post Office and the hit and miss approach of Yodel Deliveries.

It’s interesting to speculate how much of this consumer spending is fuelled by credit cards. I’m not about to add to the many arguments against getting into debt. What worries me rather more is that I find it increasingly difficult to rely on my debit card, my preferred method of paying for things in the majority of cases. The reason is not that I keep going overdrawn; I’m very careful about that since the charges are, to say the least, a massive disincentive to misbehave. No, the problem is that NatWest in its wisdom has decided that an increasing number of my transactions appear to be fraudulent, so they take it upon themselves to block my card and don’t even have the good manners to send me a text and let me know.

It’s happened three times this week. What seemed to trigger it was a modest donation to Crisis at Christmas through the Guardian website. At least they let me know that time, albeit several hours later. They also blocked an Ocado order until I told them it was okay, which I promptly did only to log on to the Ocado website a few minutes ago and discover the payment is still outstanding and I’m blacklisted. Admittedly the bill was a bit higher than usual, but not as high as one from a couple of weeks ago that went through with no problem.

Then yesterday I was contacted by the farm shop who are providing our Christmas dinner. Again, my card had been blocked. No warning this time – I simply had to apologise and slap it on my credit card. This is a supplier we have dealt with regularly over the past couple of years, and trust completely. Frankly, they have better things to do at this time of year than phone their regulars for the privilege of getting paid for the stuff they are busily sending out.

I called NatWest, a process that took the best part of an hour since even their Customer Service team didn’t seem to know the difference between a Fraud Prevention Team and a Fraud Damage Limitation Team, and I was put on hold on three different numbers. I was promised – at least in theory – that they had fouled up and next time they would let me know. I was not completely reassured, however. From now on I’ll be carrying around more cash than I am comfortable doing – it seems that NatWest’s concern for my financial safety doesn’t extend to cover the possibility that I could be mugged on the High Street – or falling back on my flexible friend.

I do appreciate that it’s necessary to be vigilant, but what concerns me most about all this is not just the embarrassment and inconvenience involved –  it’s the creeping implication that people who don’t whack everything on plastic as a matter of course are somehow acting suspiciously. Nobody called from the credit card company to ask why I was paying for turkey on the never-never.

All this sounds like a very middle-class problem, prompting charges that I should shut up and be grateful that I’m not among the thousands looking to food banks to put food on the table this Christmas. There is a common thread, however. It’s a more nuanced version of the social exclusion suffered, far more seriously, by people who lack the regular income that makes them attractive to modern banks. It’s part of the problem that leaves poor people paying punitive charges because their benefits were stopped without their knowledge, and forking out £2.50 to take out £10.00 in cash at their local corner shop or pub because they can’t afford the bus fare to a cashpoint. If this is the way that NatWest treats a customer of nearly 30 years standing with an above-average household income, who hasn’t overdrawn by a penny for years, I shudder to think of the contempt they must have for someone with serious financial difficulties.

And I am old-fashioned enough to actually prefer paying for something at the time I actually get it, an attitude that seems to be regarded as somewhere between quaintly retro and downright socially irresponsible. I am being made to feel like a criminal, simply for wanting to spend my own money. By a bank that wouldn’t exist if my taxes hadn’t rescued them six years ago – and now our local services are being shredded by cuts to pay for that.

It’s a funny old world, isn’t it? Happy Christmas. Even if you work for NatWest.

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