The Independent on Sunday's sheer brass neck award must go this week to the scammers found posing online as the UK's Trading Standards Institute (TSI). They have been emailing consumers telling them that the TSI has £1m to give away in grants to 100 "lucky" recipients and all they need do to claim is log on to their bogus website or call a horrendously expensive premium rate phone line and – oh, yes – hand over their banking details and pay a "handling" fee.
Blowing the whistle on the scam, the TSI chief Ron Gainsford said he found it "galling" that the fraudsters had "taken in vain the name of an organisation which works to protect consumers and businesses from scams and unfair practices".
Mr Gainsford may be galled but he can't surely be surprised. Crooks have for time immemorial posed as the authorities to trick the unwary. For example, they routinely sell on to fellow members of the criminal community what they charmingly call "sucker lists" containing names of people they have managed to fleece in the past. These "suckers" are then approached by another fraudster posing as some sort of authority or specialist investigator and told that the money they have lost has been recovered. For a small fee – which almost by magic turns into a great big one further down the line – they can get it back. Of course, this is just a scam on the back of an earlier rip-off but you would be surprised how many bright, professional people fall for it.
The TSI and the other authorities that have had their identities hijacked are in reality pretty helpless. The problem is that the fraudsters are usually based abroad, although they will go to great lengths to pretend to be from the UK. I know of one Spanish-based fraudulent share trading operation, for instance, that played the chimes of Big Ben in its office to convince the people on the other end of the phone it was in dear old Blighty.
Cross-border police co-operation targeting these fraudsters has improved in recent years but they are still, more often than not, one step ahead of the authorities and are likely to remain so.