UK catelogue retailer Argos is being accused of calling its trans customers ‘frauds’.
Staff have challenged people on the basis of whether individuals sound right, it is alleged, with the fraud department creating a list of trans people.
Sophia Botha phoned their Card Services department to make her monthly minimum payment in January of this year.
When she queried a transaction on her account, she was put through to another department, which she later learnt was the security/fraud department. This occurred despite Botha answering all security questions asked correctly.
She made the payment and at the time, all appeared fine. However, she subsequently understands, at this point a block was put on her account because staff did not believe she was who she said she was.
A week ago on Sunday (15 February), Botha returned to Argos. Despite having sufficient credit available for the purchase she wished to make, her card was declined. While still in store, she phoned Argos Card Services to query this, but was informed the department she needed to talk with was closed at weekends.
The next day she phoned and was put through to what she believed to be the security/fraud department. There, a member of staff explained she had been passed onto them the previous month and on one other occasion, because the call centre staff had not believed she was who she said she was. Again, there was no question that she had failed to answer all the relevant security questions.
When Botha volunteered this might be because she is trans, the individual with whom she spoke suggested this should be noted on her account.
Gay Star News put a series of questions to Argos.
Asked whether they had a policy of using voice recognition software in place of anti-fraud procedures, they declined to answer directly, claiming rather they had ‘appropriate controls in place’ and could not provide further details on the measures employed ‘for obvious security reasons’.
On the question of whether staff are encouraged to flag transactions as ‘potentially fraudulent’ on the basis of how an individual sounds over the phone, they told us:
‘When speaking to our customers we have to be sure that we are speaking to the genuine card holder before discussing any account activity. All our advisors are trained to report any suspicious activity to our dedicated fraud team.’
Finally, in response to the question of whether staff are allowed or encouraged to note individual trans status on their computer records, they said: ‘We will leave notes on customer accounts in order to resolve an issue or to help prevent any future recurrence.
‘We will always ask for explicit consent from the customer before adding notes, especially if they are of a sensitive nature.’
These responses have since come under fire from experts.
Alice Ramsay, a lawyer specializing in discrimination law from the firm Leigh Day, set out the legal issues facing Argos. She explained: ‘Blocking a trans person’s account because of the pitch of their voice may well amount to an unlawful act of discrimination and/or harassment contrary to the Equality Act 2010.
‘If a service-provider uses a person’s voice to check their identity, they would potentially be putting trans people at a particular disadvantage, which could only be justified if the service-provider’s actions were a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.
‘More proportionate ways of checking a person’s identity for security reasons than making assumptions about their gender based on their voice could include, for example, requiring them to provide a password or sequence of numbers.’
This means that any trans person challenged on the basis of voice alone could well have a case against a service provider for unlawful discrimination.
Helen Belcher, who gave evidence to Lord Leveson about transphobia in the media said: ‘It’s not remotely relevant to Argos whether Sophia is trans or not, so I can’t see they would have a legitimate reason to record that info.
‘It might be relevant to record that she has a deep voice (a la Cleo Laine) but that indicates that some verification of voice is going on.
‘I can understand that security protocols might have to filter out calls on behalf of vulnerable people by those who might know the answers to the security questions, but I think this is a weak argument.’
She added: ‘The fact that Sophia felt compelled to disclose in order to access services is coercion. I would think that her permission was therefore not given freely, which brings into question other aspects of the Human Rights Act and Equality Act.’
An IT expert with whom we spoke confirmed that the recording of trans status – even in a free text comment field – combined with the use of current sophisticated search software effectively allowed Argos to create a list of trans customers.
Commenting on the above, Botha said: ‘Despite having been a customer who’s purchased thousands of pounds worth of products over the years, I’ve repeatedly had in-store staff abusively misgender me – and now I’m being abused for being trans by Argos call centre staff. This really isn’t on from a major high street retailer.’
Image: Mtaylor848. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.