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Tesco Bank has halted online payments for current account customers after money was taken from 20,000 accounts. The bank’s chief executive Benny Higgins said he was “very hopeful” customers would be refunded within 24 hours.

About 40,000 accounts saw suspicious transactions over the weekend, of which half had money taken, he said. Customers will still be able to use their cards for cash withdrawals, chip and pin payments, and bill payments.

They can also use online banking, but cannot make online transactions until the situation is back under control, Mr Higgins told the BBC’s Today programme.

Earlier, the bank confirmed some accounts “have been subject to online criminal activity, in some cases resulting in money being withdrawn fraudulently”.

Mr Higgins also apologised for the “worry and inconvenience” that customers have faced.

Over the weekend, customers complained about money being withdrawn without permission, cards being blocked and long delays to get through to the bank on the phone.

“Any financial loss that results from this fraudulent activity will be borne by the bank,” Mr Higgins said. “Customers are not at financial risk.”

“We continue to work with the authorities and regulators to address the fraud and will keep our customers informed through regular updates on our website, Twitter, and direct communication,” Mr Higgins added.

Tesco has yet to use the word “hacking” to describe the breach. The bank has more than seven million customer accounts and 4,000 staff, based in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Newcastle.

Customers complained on Tesco Bank’s website and through social media about long delays when calling the company’s customer service line to find out if their account was affected.

“Appalling service here. Woken at 4am to say contact urgently. Spent over three hours on hold. No answer,” one wrote.

Another wrote: “I waited an hour for the person to pick up who told me she wasn’t trained to do anything about my account and couldn’t answer my questions.”

A third said: “My weekend is not going very well, thanks to Tesco Bank. Money has vanished from my account and you don’t even answer the phone.”

Robert Schifreen, editor of the computer safety website Security Smart, said Tesco Bank must tell people what happened and how fraudsters obtained customers’ bank details.

“It could be, for example, that people have been attaching skimming devices, card readers and cameras specifically to Tesco’s cash point machines, so that they’ve been capturing people’s accounts there,” he told the BBC.

“It could be somebody who works at Tesco Bank who’s had access to the database. It could be somebody else, who Tesco have passed information to, and that information has been hacked.”

The Financial Conduct Authority says banks must refund unauthorised payments immediately, unless they have evidence that the customer was at fault or the payment was more than 13 months ago.

Banks are also required to refund any charges or interest added to your account as a result of the fraudulent payments. Tesco Bank has been owned by Tesco plc since 2008, after starting as a joint venture with Royal Bank of Scotland.

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