Jeff Prestridge: scamming is a UK growth industry

17 September 2019

Rarely a day goes by without some crook trying to empty my bank account of what little is in it

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Rarely an hour goes by without someone – including friends and foes – telling me that a fraudster has just tried to scam them

Scamming, it seems, is now part and parcel of everyday life in the UK. A growth industry irrespective of what happens on the political or Brexit fronts. The way we are going, we could end up becoming the scam centre of the world.

Most of the time I can spot these fraudsters from a mile off and merely ignore their naughty email missives. But occasionally, usually when I’m a little flustered at work, they almost catch me off guard.

Recently I received an email suggesting that the payment for my TV licence could not be taken (“direct debit cancelled”) and that I would have to set up a new direct debit payment. For a moment it unsettled me and rang a little true, given my debit card had just been stolen and I had been required to get a new one. I thought maybe the two events were connected.

The email was given credence by the fact that it used both the TV licensing logo and the same picture that appears on the (BBC) TV licensing website.

The email didn’t beat around the bush. It invited me to sign in online and make good the payment missed. It also asked me to confirm my correct bank details. It even said that I could add ‘rewards’ to my online account, entitling me to ‘exciting giveaways’ such as free energy. Tempting given I had just gone through the pain of paying a big energy bill from British Gas.

Of course, closer examination of the offending message confirmed that it was a fraudster, phishing for my bank account details. The telltale sign? Poor grammar, something you can never accuse the BBC of.  And worst of all, the misspelling of ‘TV licence’. It was spelt ‘TV license’.

As it transpired a work colleague had also received the same email (badged TV licensing test@plaex.com). And, just like me, she was nearly bamboozled into responding to it. “Pretty convincing to look at,” was her first impression.No doubt, the emails were deliberately timed, coinciding as they did with the furore surrounding the loss of free TV licences for the over-75s next year.

And, no doubt, some people were tricked into making a payment or giving away their bank details.

According to the scams team at National Trading Standards, more than half of over-65s (not me yet, by the way) have been targeted by scammers. For those who fall for their tricks, the average loss is in excess of £3,000. The team estimates that scamming costs the economy upwards of £5 billion a year – money sucked out of our bank accounts and into those of fraudsters, mostly operating overseas.

Scamming isn’t confined to email. My mother, who’s in her 80s, was recently sent a letter from the Melbourne-based (and fictitious) International Postcode Online Lottery, informing her she had won a prize of £900,000.

For a moment, she thought life had dealt her a great big lump of luck. She left a series of messages on my phone to that effect, but my younger brother (who lives nearby) soon assured her the letter was a hoax.

To prove the point, I went in search of the London office from which the lottery’s agent allegedly worked and who winners had to ring to get their cheque released. I wanted to give him a piece of my mind.

Having completed a couple of laps of Hanover Square in London’s West End in search of the office, I finally knocked on the door of a building site. There, I was informed by a kindly worker that the office in question (at number 22) had long been demolished to make way for a new hotel and 80 swanky flats.

National Trading Standards says such mailings are cleverly targeted at the elderly (my mother would have ended up paying a fee to receive a worthless cheque), and are led by organised global criminal networks. Although it is doing all it can to prevent such mail entering the postal system, it’s an uphill struggle.

If, like me or my mother, you are approached by a scammer (email, phone or post), do something about it. Report it to Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040, or at the website Actionfraud.police.uk – only 5% of scams are reported. Alternatively, report anything suspicious to Citizens Advice on 03454 040506.

Even better, consider joining the Friends Against Scams campaign that was launched last year by National Trading Standards. Through the provision of training and support, its aim is to empower communities and victims to take a stand against scammers. For further details, contact the website Friendsagainstscams.org.uk. I’m joining, as is my mother. How about you?

Jeff Prestridge is the personal finance editor of The Mail on Sunday. Email him at columnists@moneywise.co.uk.