When June Fearn was asked by the National Crime Agency to assist with its ‘investigation’, her selfless instinct was to agree.
‘I thought I have to help,’ says June, 74, a retired head teacher. ‘I was brought up to be polite, and helpful to the authorities who are there to protect us.’
But little did June know that her kindness would cost her £37,000. The ‘investigation’ she was asked to help with was bogus.
Her callers were not from the agency, but highly sophisticated scammers who preyed on her goodwill to drain her bank account. They convinced June, who lives in Portsmouth, to make ‘bait’ payments into an account to trap a criminal insider at her bank.
Sophisticated: Scammers are preying on victims to drain their bank accounts
They told her the agency would refund her, but she never saw her money again. So-called impersonation scams, where criminals pretend to be from the police or a victim’s bank, are rampant in the UK.
Their number rose by 94 per cent last year, costing victims close to £100million. They have thrived during lockdown as people are more likely to answer their landlines – and to be isolated.
In February, we reported on the case of Catriona Oliphant who lost £239,000 when she was tricked into thinking she was helping the National Crime Agency to ensnare criminals.
Last month, we helped Catriona get her money back from her bank, HSBC. Since then we have been inundated with correspondence from readers who have been caught out by near-identical scams.
The victims are from all walks of life: including a retired headteacher, a businesswoman, an underwriter and a carer. But they all have one thing in common: they are kind people whose instinct is to help those in authority to fight crime. In some cases, their conscientious instincts have cost them their life savings.
The similarity between June’s and Catriona’s cases are enough to send shivers down spines. June says she was ‘astonished’ to read Catriona’s story. ‘Word for word, it told my story exactly.’
Like Catriona, June was asked to help the agency catch a criminal working within HSBC. The only difference was the name of the purported agency official: John Williams, as opposed to Alan Smith who spoke to Catriona.
‘During lockdown we’ve been prisoners in our own homes,’ says June. ‘We’re off our guard and less able to check things with other people.’ HSBC has so far refused to refund her £37,000.
There are more cases like June’s. Alice Allen rues the day she agreed to help the ‘Financial Conduct Authority’ catch criminals working inside her bank, Lloyds. It cost her £525,000.
The scammers were terrifyingly convincing. ‘I asked them how I could be sure they were from the regulator,’ she says. ‘They told me to look at the number they had phoned me from and then to look at the number on the regulator’s website. They were the same.’
Alice had not heard of ‘number spoofing’ whereby scammers can make it look as though they are calling from any number they choose.
Over a number of days, and hours of phone calls, the scammers groomed Alice, who lives in Somerset, into trusting them and doubting her own bank.
Lloyds spotted signs of the fraud and says it tried to warn her about scams over the phone, in branch and by letter. It even sent the police to her home to warn her about scammers. But the fraudsters had put Alice under a spell so strong that the warnings fell on deaf ears. It was not until her son visited and overheard Alice speaking with the fraudsters that he broke the spell.
By then, Alice’s money, earmarked to clear a mortgage, was gone, transferred to the fraudsters. Now 71, Alice is left with a debt she will never be able to pay back.
‘The fraudsters used fear, anxiety and stress to control me,’ she says. ‘It was a rollercoaster of emotion. One minute they said criminals inside my bank were trying to steal from my account. The next minute they would say we’ve protected your money, don’t worry.’
Alice adds: ‘When you realise you’ve been scammed, it puts you into shock. I was shaking and felt sick for days. You keep going over it in your mind.’
Lloyds has so far refused to reimburse Alice, although it says it has a ‘great deal of sympathy’. The bank insists it did all it could to protect her.
It adds: ‘Helping keep our customers’ money safe is our priority and we did absolutely everything we could to protect Mrs Allen – including stopping payments, writing to her to explain our concerns that it was a scam and involving the police.
‘It’s crucial for people to remember that a bank or a genuine company will never ask them to move money to a different account.’ But once a victim has been taken in by a fraudster, their chances of getting a reimbursement from their bank are little more than a lottery.
Last year, around 60 per cent of money stolen by fraudsters was reimbursed by banks. But whereas one bank reimbursed 18 per cent of victims, another paid back 64 per cent, according to data from the Payment Systems Regulator. Most major banks are signed up to a voluntary code that says victims who have taken care to avoid a scam should get back their money. But victims are not always aware or told of their rights.
Customers continue to face a lottery with banks having wildly different reimbursement rates – each letter represents a bank
When scammers swindled Peter West out of £8,061 last month, he was told he would not get it back. But on Friday, his bank agreed to refund him, after The Mail on Sunday intervened.
Peter’s family has banked with Barclays for more than 100 years. So when the 83-year-old from Northamptonshire got a phone call from its ‘fraud department’ asking for his help to trap a criminal insider, he felt duty-bound to help.
Peter, who is a carer for his wife who has dementia, asked the caller to prove his credentials. He did this by telling Peter the balances on his five Barclays accounts. ‘I didn’t see how he could have this information unless he was official,’ says Peter.
Authorised push payment scams see victims tricked into transferring money to fraudsters. Scams involving impersonations rose 94% in 2020
He was then asked by the fraudsters to make a payment into a specially set up account to ensnare the insider. When Barclays blocked the payment, the scammers told him to transfer the money instead into his Nationwide account and make the payment from there, which he did.
Peter still does not know – and Barclays cannot confirm – how the fraudsters knew his account balances.
Nationwide initially refused to refund the amount scammed. But it changed its mind after being approached by The Mail on Sunday.
It said: ‘The claim was initially declined as no error had been made by the society and all appropriate steps were taken to warn him about the risk of such scams before he made the payment.
‘At that time we were unaware of any vulnerability that could have impacted his decision making. We have now reviewed the case and agreed to refund in full.’
For more information about protecting yourself from financial scams, go to takefive-stopfraud. org.uk.
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