How to spot - and stop - a scam

By Annie Shaw

Saga Magazine's award-winning money expert Annie Shaw looks at the murky world of scam correspondence, something many of us have received from time to time.
Sharpen up your selling techniques onlineKeep a watchful eye out for scammers when you're online

I was recently asked by a reader what to do about a letter they had received, purporting to come from a lawyer in Portugal. The letter said that the lawyer was the representative of an English-born Portuguese resident who had died in an accident in 2008. He said he was trying to trace members of the deceased man’s family back in England, as he had left a large amount of money in a Portuguese bank account. The lawyer had traced my correspondent with the help of the British consul.

So far so convincing. But you know what is coming next. It was a scam.

As a financial journalist I reckon I am pretty canny when it comes to scams. I know all about “advance fee fraud” and “Nigerian 419 scams”. I know how “romance fraud” and “dating scams” work, I’m up to speed on phishing emails that seem to come from address book contacts who have purportedly been robbed, falsely imprisoned or taken ill in faraway places, requesting money from the recipient to rescue these pals in their plight.

But I have to confess this legal letter one had me going for a minute. It looked quite credible and, apparently coming from an EU country with good grammar and spelling – overseas crooks are notoriously bad at spelling – looked as if it could be genuine. I did a web search on the name and there was a smart website that confirmed the contact details from my correspondent’s letter.

Until I did a few basic checks. I checked the “whois” for the website. (Whois.net will tell you the registrants of all the top-level domains, such as .com and .org. The site nic.uk will do the same for sites ending in co.uk). It showed that the website had been registered less than a month ago. The website’s host (the place where a site is physically situated) had a Far Eastern name – not impossible for a reputable company, but not usual. The site was apparently hosted in the US, but its real origin was hidden. The business claimed to be a US law firm with offices in Portugal – again not impossible. Yet its Portuguese office was apparently in Lisboa (Portuguese for Lisbon), while the US office appeared to be in Lisboa, California – what an astonishing coincidence that this firm should have offices on either side of the globe in towns with identical names.

A quick computer search on the name of the principal attorney at the firm showed that the only reference on the internet to this apparently august lawyer was to this firm’s website – he appeared to have no previous career or life outside the firm, nor did he appear in American bar records. His co-partner did seem to appear on other websites – but the name that appeared elsewhere was slightly different (the middle initial). A quick glance might lead you to believe that the person who had received awards, won cases and written books was the one at the firm in question, but closer examination showed that the genuine eminent lawyer worked for a completely different firm.

The decider came when I extracted a phrase from the CV of one of the purported partners in this questionable firm. Lo and behold! It threw up the same phrase in relation to someone with a different name but a word-for-word identical career at a firm with a different name. Moreover, the second firm’s site was identical in every way in layout and design to the first firm’s. All the words and pictures were the same. Only the name of the site and the names of the bogus lawyers were different.

There’s a good article here about how to spot scams. I would boil those seven excellent tips down to three:

1) Be wary of anyone who contacts you out of the blue – by post or by email.

2) Never pay money to anyone after receiving a letter or email of this nature. If you have money due to you from a legacy there is no reason that the executors shouldn’t deduct their costs from the money due to you before they send the residue. You should NEVER send money first.

3) Be prepared to do a bit of research of your own, such as checking the “Whois” of websites. Googling a phrase from a website is an excellent way to find out if the content has been lifted from a genuine site or a cloned site. Scammers will set up fake sites to fool you, but they will rarely create a complicated multi-page site and originate all the content themselves.

If you receive a suspicious letter by post, don’t forget the internet is the best place to do your research into scams. It’s not just for emails.

People are getting wise to “phishing” emails and scam text messages. They know that their details are traded commercially and it’s easy for them to get into the hands of scammers.

Letters that come through the post may seem more convincing – but don’t be fooled. If you are not ex-directory, or your name appears on the public electoral roll, your address is available for anyone to read.

Likewise, if you own shares, shareholder registers are public documents and scammers love the registers of the old privatisation issues, such as BT and Centrica, as they will contain the names of many unsophisticated investors.

As Nick Ross used to say at the end of BBC’s Crimewatch: “Don’t have nightmares, do sleep well.” But do keep a watchful eye out for the scammers, too.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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