A few weeks back on the first day of August, an outraged post from a friend appeared in my Facebook newsfeed:
"Just called BMO and they wouldn't let me access my account cause my voice is too deep."
The friend, Julien Johnson, who identifies as non-binary, had triggered a fraud detection procedure through which banking call center operators can flag a call as fraudulent, if they think there's a mismatch between the caller's voice and the gender stated in the bank's records. In this case, the problem disappeared with a call to a more sympathetic operator; but nonetheless, it's indicative of a broader problem which can create inconvenience, anxiety, and emotional distress for transgender people.
Enok Ripley, an artist based in Montreal who is also transgender, had a similar experience which was not so easily resolved.
"I had to call my bank regarding a question about my credit card, and I was calling with some trepidation because it was the first time I'd called since my voice had changed [due to hormone therapy]," Ripley told VICE.
"As usual, they ask a few questions to confirm your identity, so I talked with the gentleman for a while, but then he kept asking more questions and into very specific territory: past jobs, addresses, so on. Then he asked several times, 'Is this you? Am I talking to this person?'—which was my legal name, and I suppose in his mind it didn't match up. So I confirmed, yes, this is me, I have a deep voice. He put me on hold for a really long time, and then eventually came back and said that he couldn't help me, and I'd have to go to my account branch with two pieces of ID."
Related: Watch 'On Hold,' our documentary about transgender health access in Canada
In practice, this meant that the account had been locked as a security measure, and that Ripley—originally from Alberta—would need to visit the branch where the account was opened, thousands of kilometers away. "When I got off the phone I felt really hopeless," says Ripley. "It wasn't the first time it had happened [with a phone service]. I actually left my account suspended for about a month, because I just couldn't find the emotional strength to deal with it right away." In the 21st century, financial fraud is a big deal. According to the Canadian Bankers' Association, in 2015 Canadian banks reimbursed customers $700 million [$535 million USD] due to fraudulent credit or debit card transactions; globally, the ever-growing trend for online shopping and banking means that levels of digital fraud are increasing year-on-year. Yet we're also in an era when gender boundaries are becoming less distinct, and in which there's been a huge increase in the visibility of transgender and other gender nonconforming people in society. Given this, are banks really doing enough to meet the needs of their transgender clients? Gabrielle Bouchard, Peer Support and Trans Advocacy Coordinator at Concordia's Centre for Gender Advocacy, doesn't think so. "We hear about this kind of thing regularly," Bouchard told me. "I've heard this reported about most major banks, and frequently from governmental agencies too. And I don't think that's it's just a question of what's on record. It's really about the perception of what is male and what is female; regardless of what [gender] information you do give, their perception of you seems to take precedent over anything else." In the process of writing this story, a call center operator working at BMO contacted me through a mutual friend to offer a background perspective on how gender perception is used as an antifraud measure. Speaking on condition of anonymity, she said that she had raised concerns about discrimination in the use of perceived voice gender as an antifraud technique during her training, and been told that it was an issue BMO was aware of and looking to resolve. Assessing a caller's voice against their listed gender is a standard procedure, she said, but should not on its own be enough to refuse service to a client: in her opinion the operator who had locked Enok Ripley's account would have been deviating from protocol, since correct responses to further security questions should have been enough to cancel out the initial suspicion. But it's important to understand that for call center workers, much more is at stake in providing fraudulent access to an account than in wrongly refusing a client: giving unauthorized account access is considered a serious offense and is often grounds for the termination of a job contract, while denying a legitimate customer would rarely if ever be; thus their incentive is to always err on the side of caution if any doubt exists—even when doing so causes distress or financial disruption to a client. I contacted BMO for a response to the story, and spoke to Ralph Marranca, head of corporate media relations, to ask how the bank was dealing with issues specific to their gender nonconforming clients. Among other things Maranca highlighted that BMO convenes "enterprise resource groups," small focus groups of employees from various minority backgrounds, who can bring their experience and insight to bear on shaping policy within the bank. "We do have an enterprise resource group made up of LGBTQ employees, and my understanding is that we've had discussions around challenges like this, and are trying to be more sensitive and overcome them," Marranca said. "Call centers are one of the cases where we did have this kind of a conversation with an enterprise resource group, and I can say that some of the authentication protocols were adjusted to help overcome some of these challenges." Besides BMO, I reached out to TD, RBC, CIBC, and Scotiabank by email for this story, asking for details on whether their call center operators were made aware of special considerations that might apply to transgender clients. CIBC and Scotiabank both sent short statements outlining that customer security was a priority, but that they were also committed to creating an inclusive environment for all customers and employees. RBC sent a longer statement, which, besides discussing the need for strong anti-fraud measures, also pointed to their Diversity and Inclusion Learning Curriculum, a company-wide initiative that encourages employees to address barriers to LGBT inclusion. TD Bank also referenced a similar diversity program, but of the four email statements, was the only one to directly address the fact that certain customers may have problems with the voice authentication system. "In each situation, if a customer has not been able to authenticate via phone, we would work with them to identify a solution that meets their needs while protecting their personal privacy," a spokesperson said. "If a customer chooses to self-identify, it can be noted on their account and voice authentication will no longer be used as one of the security measures when they call, but TD will not note information that our customers want private." In the opinion of Bouchard, the idea of doing away with the voice authentication for all customers is the best response—and one which might be brought about through legal means. "We've now seen the addition of gender identity and gender expression in the Canadian Human Rights Act. Banks are bound under this act, and I promise you banks will be brought to court because of this," Bouchard said. "So either they will fight against their trans clients in court, or they can be pro-active and fix it before it happens." We're still waiting for the kind of test case that will set precedent in this arena, but as Bouchard indicates, it's more likely a case of when, not if. Until then, more people will undoubtedly fall afoul of a security system that relies in part on a call center worker's subjective judgement of gender characteristics—a judgement which, arguably, is less and less relevant in the modern world. Follow Corin Faife on Twitter.