Seán Moncrieff: Is a bank account worth all this hassle?

Security questions mean companies know more about us than our close friends

I am tremendously unlucky. When I set up an Ulster Bank account all those years ago, I didn’t realise that they would eventually decide to withdraw from the Irish market. But that’s not the unlucky bit. I’m no more unlucky in that regard than thousands of others.

For reasons too boring and complicated to go into here, I can’t do that thing where you fill out a form and they transfer all your direct debits and standing orders to a new account. I’ve had to spend the last few weeks doing it manually: compiling a list of who gets what, and working out the timing so that I don’t miss any payments or leave myself stuck for money.

That has necessitated many mornings – and a day off work – where I’ve had to sit in phone queues while being reassured that my call is highly valued.

The unlucky part is that, despite feeling valued, even treasured, I never managed to get to speak to a human in less than 20 minutes: every time I’ve called a service provider, I’ve been told that there are high call volumes. Every time. I’ve tried it as soon as their phone lines open, or during lunchtime or just before the close of business. But it seems as if these places are in a semi-permanent state of crisis, daily battling to deal with a totally unprecedented and impossible- to-predict surge in phone inquiries.

And when I got through, there was a tang of suspicion that I might not be who I was claiming to be. Didn’t feel so treasured then. I had to run a gamut of security questions. My gas provider knows more about me than some of my closest friends.

But that’s nothing compared to what the new bank demanded to know. It was so intrusive, it felt like attending some avant-garde therapy session where I was required to dig around in my psyche for every traumatic experience until I was reduced to a snotty mass of tears.

And the therapy is ongoing: because of their Quantum Xenophon Starblast 3D Authentication protocol, every online purchase requires me to pen a short essay about my favourite sexual position and then run around the house looking for my phone so I can put in the pin they have texted.

All this, of course, is in the interests of security: though whose security isn’t always clear. For the average punter, having sundry companies know all sorts of personal information about you isn’t exactly a comfort. And no matter how cool-sounding the security protocols might be, we know that companies around the world are hacked all the time: what we don’t know is how often, and to what degree. For obvious reasons, that’s not information they are keen to share.

What we can reasonably infer – and what is widely reported – is that financial institutions, and the money in our bank accounts, are under constant attack: hence the elaborate security measures. A comparison with days of yore: if we were to travel back to the time when people were largely paid in cash, it would be like the streets of Ireland were jammed with muggers, waiting to leap upon employees on their way home. Veterinary nurses and national-school teachers would have to arm themselves with knuckle dusters or flick knives, just to get back to their front door on a Friday.

The digitisation of banking might be user-friendly and time-saving – or so banks would have us believe – but it comes with a large component of peril. The muggers and bank robbers can be anywhere in the world and work 24 hours a day. The banks have to be constantly vigilant, and so do we: any email or text message has to be treated with suspicion. The price for this supposed convenience is that we have to live in a state of constant, low-level paranoia. You’d wonder if it’s worth it.