The door-to-door scammer I didn’t see for dust: After writing about fraudsters, I thought I’d be good at spotting them, says RACHEL RICKARD STRAUS
After years of writing about fraudsters, I thought I’d be good at spotting them. But, when one turned up on my doorstep, I could not tell if he was bogus or genuine.
Do you think you could spot a fraudster if one showed up at your home? I’ll tell you the details and see how you would have fared in my position. Please let me know.
It was an afternoon just before Christmas when there was an unexpected, jaunty knock on the door.
Pushing the wrong buttons: Do you think you could spot a fraudster if one showed up at your home?
I cautiously opened it to find a middle-aged man dressed in a black jacket and smart pair of jeans with a friendly smile on his face. He was holding a large plastic tray of cleaning equipment – dusters, sponges, detergents. ‘Hello, madam,’ he said brightly. ‘Would you like to buy something to support the homelessness charity St Mungo’s?’
He proceeded to go through his wares while explaining that he was homeless and staying at a St Mungo’s hostel. ‘I’ve been given these items to sell to make some money for the charity,’ he said.
No doubt he could see I was wary, so he swiftly held up the lanyard around his neck to prove that he was fundraising legitimately. He also reassured me that if I paid by card, I could have an email receipt.
So what did I do?
I’ll tell you, but on one condition. Do not try this at home. I have spoken to many scam victims who have tried to test or outwit a scammer, and it has not ended well. Some have lost thousands of pounds.
If you think you are being scammed, hang up the phone, shut the door or don’t click on the email.
Then report it to Action Fraud (www.actionfraud.police.uk or 0300 123 2040.)
Against my own advice, I decided to buy a duster for £8.99 to see how it would play out. A bendy one caught my eye – I thought it could be useful to get behind the radiators to make them more efficient.
‘Good choice, madam,’ the seller said. No doubt reading me like a book, he added: ‘These were donated to us by John Lewis. They retail there at £15.99 each.’ Once he was gone, I got on the phone to St Mungo’s. Predictably, they said they do not send people to sell door-to-door.
Then I phoned the Fundraising Regulator to see if such activity could ever be legitimate. It told me that it is permitted, but unusual. To sell door-to-door, charities need a licence from the local authority – or from the Metropolitan Police if in London. They also need a separate pedlar’s licence. It’s bureaucratic; few charities bother.
Next, I spoke to Katherine Hart, lead officer for doorstep crime and scams at the Chartered Trading Standards Institute. ‘The problem is that it is very hard to tell if a doorstep seller is legitimate or out to fleece you,’ she said.
‘Our advice, therefore, is not to engage. If you want to support a charity, do it through other means.’
She added that if you want to support someone from a charity at your door, make sure you ask lots of questions, ask for identification, and you can always phone the charity to check.
‘Don’t phone the number on the back of the seller’s lanyard though,’ she cautions. ‘That too could be made up.’
Next, I looked at the receipt that I had been emailed. At the top is the registered address of the vendor. I looked it up on Google maps – it is a block of flats in Essex.
So, was he a scammer?
Well, I did end up with a useful duster. And to be honest, just before Christmas, I didn’t mind helping this man earn a bit of income.
However, what does seem wrong is that he benefits by using the name of St Mungo’s. People may buy from him because they think they are supporting the charity. The charity itself could be missing out as a result.
Finally, I looked up dusters on the John Lewis website. They do not sell the bendy one I bought.
You can buy them from wholesale suppliers online, though, for £1.79 a piece.