Security offered by UK banks to online customers varies widely, according to a survey by Which? Computing.
Abbey and Halifax have less secure log-in procedures than their competitors, while Barclays scored top marks in the study. First Direct, Lloyds TSB, Nationwide, NatWest and RBS were also rated as "good", while Alliance & Leicester and HSBC returned average results.
The consumer magazine singled out Halifax for particular criticism. Halifax customers need to enter three pieces of information to log in, and since "each entry is typed in full, this makes the information vulnerable to a simple keylogger".
By contrast, Barclays and Lloyds TSB ask clients to use drop-down menus. Barclays was also praised by Which? Computing for using a PIN entry device to further bolster security.
Halifax criticised the methodology of the study. "The vast majority of our fraud defence is not visible to customers and we deliberately seek to provide security which does not adversely impact our customers' ability to bank with us online," a spokesman told Sky News.
Official figures from the UK Payments Administration (formerly APACS) reports that online banking fraud reached £52.5m in 2008, more than doubling from the £22.6m recorded in 2007. The prevalence of keylogging Trojans is blamed for a large part of this rise.
Instead of tricking users into entering their login credentials at fraudulent sites that pose as the real thing, as in conventional phishing attacks, keystroke loggers are designed to record what consumers type when surfers visit online banking sites before uploading this information to cybercrime servers.
The Which? Computing study also criticises some banks - including Abbey, Alliance & Leicester, HSBC and Halifax - for not logging out clients when surfers move on to browse at other sites, an approach that leaves accounts potentially vulnerable if accessed on a shared computer.
The study also looked at security measures applied to money transfers. "Abbey, First Direct, Halifax and HSBC have no visible security controls for money transfers, so if a banking session is hijacked, a criminal can enter the amount they want to," the magazine concludes.
Sarah Kidner, Which? Computing editor, commented: "There are surprisingly big differences between big banks' visible online security systems. Some simple measures, like the use of drop-down menus, could improve safety considerably.
"The banks may say it’s the hidden security measures that count, but to have real confidence in an online account, customers need to see security in place." ®