Fraud victim Catriona Oliphant is one of the lucky ones. Through steely determination – and help from The Mail on Sunday – she recently managed to get her bank to reimburse £239,000 scammed from her account.
But Catriona, a highly-regarded lawyer, was not content. Outraged by the complacency shown by Action Fraud – a national hub for reporting fraud – over investigating her case she vowed to take matters into her own hands. Last week, she decided to track down the scammers with The Mail on Sunday alongside her.
Although Catriona was thwarted at the last moment by a desperate plea from Action Fraud not to interfere in an ongoing investigation – a request we felt we could not ignore – the ease with which we tracked down those involved in the scam raises serious questions over Action Fraud’s willingness and ability to tackle the rising tide of financial crime.
Investigation: The MoS’s Rachel Rickard Straus and fraud victim Catriona Oliphant find where the crooks live
Scandalously, only 4 per cent of reported fraud cases are passed to law enforcement agencies to look into.
Professor Mark Button, director of the Centre for Counter Fraud Studies at the University of Portsmouth, told The Mail on Sunday: ‘Action Fraud is in reality a call centre and has no capacity to investigate. When potential leads are identified they are sent to the relevant police force to investigate, but in reality many don’t have the resources – and cases are filed away.
‘Victims face a postcode lottery. If you are lucky enough to live in an area where fraud is taken seriously, you might stand a greater chance of your case being investigated. But in reality few cases are.’
His sentiment was echoed by Money Saving Expert Martin Lewis. He described Action Fraud as a ‘flaccid organisation that does little and is woefully under resourced’.
HOW WE MANAGED TO FIND THE FRAUDSTERS
Tracking down the scammers was not hard. Like thousands of victims of bank transfer scams, Catriona knew their names.
That’s because when they tricked her into transferring money to seven individuals, they had to provide account numbers, sort codes and names.
We went through the list of seven payees to find out as much as we could about them. We then searched Google, social media, and Companies House for more details.
We found three payees were listed on Companies House as directors of new building firms. All three were registered at residential addresses within a few miles of each other in East London.
Of course, there is a chance our suspects were not Catriona’s payees and just shared their names, or had their addresses used by someone else, but it would be an astounding coincidence.
Next, we went to their addresses. Before going, we asked Action Fraud if it had done this. It did not answer the question. We said we were willing to confront the suspected scammers and invited Action Fraud to accompany us.
It declined – and urged us not to go. We went anyway, but we did agree not to approach the suspected scammers.
WHAT WE FOUND AT THE CROOKS’ HOMES
The homes did not look like those of the recipients of windfalls of hundreds of thousands of pounds, as we believe they are. They were not luxurious houses with expensive cars parked outside. A recipient of £60,000 of Catriona’s stolen money had a home with peeling paintwork, located metres from a motorway.
The one who got £100,000 had a home with rotten window frames while the individual who received £10,000 had a home which was the most poorly maintained among the terrace it was part of.
By visiting their homes, more pieces fell into place. We now suspect these three criminals are money mules – caught up in the scam, but not masterminding it.
We had started to join the dots. It wasn’t hard, so imagine what Action Fraud could have achieved had it tried, with its resources and expertise. Prof Button says: ‘There are clearly lines of inquiry that could be checked out. These may well be money mules. I can understand why Catriona is frustrated.
‘The truth is police forces have limited resources to investigate. Fraud may also not be a priority – most forces are more likely to prioritise crimes such as child sex abuse and terrorism, and so fraud cases fall way down the list.
‘Even if there are lines to pursue, the police are more likely to prioritise cases where there is the greatest chance of a result.’
PUTTING A FACE TO THE SCAMMER…AND VICTIM
Catriona may have had her money reimbursed by her bank, HSBC. But the scammers are still out there enjoying her life savings. We asked HSBC how much it had managed to claw back from the scammers’ accounts. The answer? A pitiful £7.65.
As we drove past one of the three houses we spotted a woman whom we believe received £100,000 of Catriona’s money walking up to her front door with three school children in tow, blithely swinging their book bags.
It took all the willpower and professional training Catriona could muster not to approach her.
‘I want her to know that what she was part of had an impact on a real person’s life,’ she said, her hand reflexively moving towards the car door handle.
‘I want her to see my face. And I want to ask her what kind of example she thinks she’s setting for her children.’
£2.4BN LOST IN A YEAR – WE NEED ACTION NOW
Scam victims have lost £2.4billion in the past 12 months. Cases have escalated during lockdown as fraudsters have taken advantage of people spending more time indoors near their landline and online.
It would be unsurprising to learn that scammers have been emboldened by the knowledge that there is only a minuscule chance they will face justice.
Most victims will never see their money again. And it’s terrifying to think what criminal activities their life savings will go on to fund.
Fraud expert Richard Emery, from consultancy 4Keys International, based in Bracknell, Berkshire, said: ‘It shouldn’t be down to individual citizens such as Catriona Oliphant to investigate scammers. Fraud makes up around 30 per cent of all crime in the UK, yet the police budget to fight it is just 1 per cent.’
Prof Button adds: ‘It’s sad that victims who have worked hard all their lives to build up their savings lose all their money and are told their case won’t be investigated.
‘Fraudsters are literally getting away with it. It’s appalling.’
On Friday, The Mail on Sunday asked Action Fraud to confirm its advice that we should not approach the people whom we believe to be involved in Catriona’s scam.
The agency would only say: ‘If anyone has information which they believe could be pertinent to a police investigation, it should be immediately passed on to the police, who can examine and fully verify it as part of their lines of enquiry.’
Fobbed off with a bland email
Mail on Sunday has heard from scores of scam victims like Catriona who hand over reams of information to Action Fraud only to be told their case has been closed without being solved, writes Rachel Rickard Straus.
Victims give meticulous accounts and details of their scammers, including email correspondence, fake certificates of investment, and notes of countless hours of phone calls. In response, they receive a curt standard email from Action Fraud stating their case has been closed and that it has ‘not been possible to identify a line of enquiry which a law enforcement organisation in the UK could pursue’.
Thousands of victims every year are left having lost life changing sums of money and are unable to rely on the one organisation that may be able to help bring their scammers to justice.
Action Fraud even admits this is the case.
A spokesperson said: ‘With well over 850,000 reported cases each year, not all can be passed on for further investigation. ‘The reports most likely to present an investigative opportunity for forces, or where a crime is ongoing, and those that present the greatest threat and harm to the victim or victims concerned, are the ones that are prioritised for onward dissemination.
‘Not every report can be investigated, but every one matters in building complex patterns of criminality.’