In 2017, Action Fraud – the UK’s fraud and cyber-crime reporting centre – was notified of more than 280,000 successful scams that left victims out of pocket.
These are the tip of the iceberg. Figures from the 2017 Crime Survey for England and Wales recorded 3.3 million incidences of fraud, three-quarters of which involved bank accounts and credit cards. That was a 4% increase on the previous year’s figures, continuing a year-on-year rise.
On the plus side, over the same period, National Trading Standards prevented nearly £127 million in losses, and more than 18,000 fraud offences resulted in a first hearing in a magistrates’ court.
Yet, as can be seen from the examples on the following pages, fraudsters will stop at nothing to get their hands on our cash. It’s up to us not to let them.
The bank-card scammers
Fraudulent telephone calls had a persuasive ring of truth
‘They were bright young men who were basically greedy.’ Detective Constable Andrew Butcher, of Greater Manchester Police’s Fraud Investigation Team, is talking about a gang that, over an 18-month period, swindled scores of people.
The victims (most were 60-plus) would receive a call from a bogus police officer telling them their bank card was being used fraudulently. They were given a number to call their bank. The ‘target’ would then hang up and redial, unaware that, far from terminating the call, the scammers were waiting on the line to launch part two of their deception.
Call-waiting music would play, then a ‘bank official’ would ask the victim to tap in their PIN, which the scammers’ device would capture. Next, the victim was told that the police needed the card itself as evidence and to hand it to a courier who would arrive by taxi.
Unwittingly – for the cabs were from legitimate firms – the driver would deliver the collected ‘package’ to the criminals, who used the cards to accumulate more than £66,000 in cash and goods. ‘They would go to Armani and buy a man’s belt for £400,’ recalls DC Butcher, who launched Operation Hamilton, the police sting that ultimately brought the men to justice.
The investigative team examined CCTV footage at cash dispensers to try to identify who was using stolen cards to withdraw money. As luck would have it, while the investigators were watching CCTV at a money exchange in Manchester City Centre, a gang member walked in. ‘We happened to be in the right place at the right time. Sure enough, he had a bank card in his possession taken earlier from an 80-year-old victim,’ said DC Butcher.
By now the police had contacted local taxi companies to warn them of the scam. A firm reported that a man had booked a driver to collect a birthday card from his ‘grandad’, to take to a location near a park. It sounded suspicious.
An undercover cop posed as the taxi driver and, when the criminals took receipt of the card, other officers appeared and gave chase. This led to the capture of ringleader Saif Musa, and co-conspirator Ahad Miah. Sniffer dogs later recovered a mobile phone they’d tossed into the bushes.
By March 2017, 11 gang members had been found guilty of conspiracy to defraud. Saif Musa got three years, Miah got one year seven months, and the rest of the gang got sentences ranging from community service to four years inside.
A 76-year-old victim, who had been conned out of £4,000, described the gang as ‘selfish and despicable’. Officially the case involved 91 victims, but DC Butcher believes that there were countless more.
Lessons to be learnt
Many phone companies now terminate an open line after a few seconds, making this crime more difficult. Nonetheless:
• Never give out personal details over the phone.
• Don’t get pushed into making a snap decision. Speak to someone else and get advice.
• If in doubt, return the call from a different phone.
• Don’t give out or tap in your PIN; banks never ask for this.
• These fraudsters used an online directory that lists people by location and age. To prevent this, opt out of the ‘open’ electoral register (via your local electoral registration office) and make sure that your landline is ex-directory.
• Prevent nuisance calls. Register with the Telephone Preference Service 0345 070707.
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The rogue tradesman
A cowboy builder quoted such reasonable rates – but then more ‘problems’ came to light, and his charges went through the roof
Johnny Carroll is the stuff of nightmares: a seemingly respectable tradesman who, over a period of two years, defrauded 21 older people out of £108,000, ripping off customers from Devon to Buckinghamshire.
Carroll, of Cricklade, Wiltshire, advertised his services in local papers, distributed leaflets and cold-called clients. On paperwork he used non-existent ‘local’ addresses, or ones that weren’t associated with him. His leaflets offered a 15% discount and a 15- to 20-year guarantee — worthless given that after fleecing his victims, Carroll would change his name and number.
‘His initial quotes would be reasonable, but while carrying out the work he would identify alleged problems, often rotten beams on the roof, and the price would escalate drastically,’ says Amy Chapman, accredited financial investigator and Trading Standards officer. According to Chapman, there is no evidence that Carroll had any relevant qualifications.
Victims paid thousands more than quoted, for shoddy work. One elderly man shelled out £7,000 for a job that should have cost £170. An 81-year-old woman was conned out of £12,000 for roof work. When this leaked, Carroll charged her £3,800 to ‘fix it’, despite the supposed guarantee.
By March 2014, Carroll had paid more than £75,000 into his own accounts, and laundered a further £28,950 through his accomplice, John Rice, of Swansea. It was the involvement of Rice — later jailed for 12 weeks for his role — that undid Carroll.
Rice came to police attention as £30,000 passed through an account where the balance had never previously exceeded £100. The money came from four victims in Devon and Somerset for dubious work carried out on their homes.
But the victims’ descriptions of the perpetrator did not match Rice, and phone records showed he had not left South Wales. ‘It was clear another suspect needed to be identified,’ continues Chapman.
The investigators examined Rice’s phone for commonly called numbers, of which Carroll’s was one. In addition, they looked at data for the mobile number listed on Carroll’s flyers. His phone had been topped up from a petrol station in Somerset. CCTV footage showed a male matching the rogue trader’s description, together with a vehicle, which was checked for its registered keeper.
‘All these lines of inquiry led us to Johnny Carroll.’ His phone records showed that he’d travelled from Somerset to Swansea on the same days as Rice withdrew cash, suggesting he would meet Rice to receive his ill-gotten gains.
Carroll was arrested. A surveyor assessed the true value of the trickster’s work, victims identified him from photographs, and a handwriting expert linked him to his invoices. In addition, phone-location data put Carroll at the scene of the crimes.
In May 2017, Exeter Crown Court sentenced Carroll to 38 months in prison.
Lessons to be learnt
• Don’t agree a contract with people who cold-call you.
• Aim to obtain three separate quotes before deciding on a suitable tradesman.
• If you do agree to work being done, remember you are entitled to a 14-day cooling-off period, during which no work should start. Be cautious if traders push to begin immediately – especially if they contacted you.
• Find reputable traders vetted by Trading Standards by looking at Buy With Confidence; search via TrustMark, the Government-endorsed scheme; or use firms that have been recommended by friends or family.
• If a trader has started work and then claims that more work is necessary, you should always get a second opinion.
The family fraudsters
Vacuum cleaner owners were sucked in by a sales call and extortionate charges for shoddy and needless ‘repairs’
‘Your Dyson vacuum cleaner is due for a service. We can offer a discounted rate.’ If you owned a Dyson and received this call, you’d probably assume it was legitimate. That was the assumption on which mother-and-son duo Linda and Thomas Scoffin worked, cleaning up to the tune of £1.5 million by falsely claiming to represent Dyson and selling pensioners unnecessary vacuum repairs.
The call was just the first stage of a sophisticated scam, ‘the foot in the door’, explains Colin Rumford, head of National Trading Standards Yorkshire and Humber Regional Investigations Team. Excel Servicing Ltd, a registered company with a call centre in Leeds, employed salespeople to cold-call older people on the off-chance that they owned a Dyson. Whenever they struck lucky, a service would be offered for around £19.99, and a representative would be sent to the customer’s home.
Polite and plausible, the rep would then ‘service’ the customer’s Dyson and find fault with it. ‘The filters would allegedly need replacing, which is rubbish because Dyson vacuum cleaners don’t need replacement filters – you take them out, wash them and put them back. Then they would charge ridiculous amounts for cheap, second-hand, counterfeit parts and put them in the machine. People reported the machine’s performance was worse after the service had been carried out,’ says Rumford. The unnecessary extra work would cost between £50 and £200, well in excess of the ‘discounted’ price quoted. And it didn’t end there.
While Thomas Scoffin ran Excel Servicing Ltd, Linda operated KB Midlands Ltd, a Lincoln-based business that sold Kirby cleaners. ‘The real mischief was to then say: “We can sell you a Kirby vacuum cleaner, which is better than a Dyson”,’ says Rumford. ‘People would often agree to buy these things – for up to £2,000 – just to get salespeople out of the house.’ Kirbys in fact are best suited to industrial premises. One 82-year-old found her new purchase too heavy to use.
While Thomas Scoffin splashed out on a Porsche and expensive holidays, victims and their relatives called the authorities. At least 80 people complained, but it is likely that hundreds more were duped.
Colin Rumford’s team used warrants to enter Thomas Scoffin’s business premises, and seized paperwork, computers and the script used by the sales staff. After the raid, some former employees came forward to describe the company’s working practices. ‘They’d been taken on as call-centre staff, but walked away when they realised the true nature of the business. Others were employed as engineers, given a couple of days’ training on how to service a Dyson, but more time on how to sell a Kirby.’
More than 60 victims and five ex-employees gave statements, as did Dyson – confirming that the services and parts sold were not required. A jury unanimously declared the Scoffins guilty.
In September 2017, Thomas was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment, Linda to three. Both have appealed.
Lessons to be learnt
• If you need to get something done, do your homework first and never be persuaded by a cold call that there is a bargain on offer.
• Know your rights. Aggressive selling practices are unlawful under The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations, 2008. This covers: ‘harassment, coercion or undue influence’.
• If you have been the victim of a misleading trading practice, including aggressive selling, the Consumer Protection (Amendment) Regulations 2014 gives you rights to redress.
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