Sam Dunn: So you think you'd never be a sucker for a finance scam?

Last year, we fell victim to £1bn of frauds. Half the nation was targeted
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The Independent Online

When the next sorry tale emerges of an unfortunate person duped out of thousands in a financial scam, listen for a chorus of disapproving tuts.

"I would never have fallen for that," one comment might go. Or, with a slight sneer, "but it's so obvious, anyone could see that".

My personal favourite is: "He's got a high-flying job too; you'd think he'd have known what was going on."

The truth is, though, that anyone can be caught with their defences down. For all our disbelief at the ease with which fraudsters manage to swindle us, manage it they do, with many people.

We fell victim to £1bn worth of scams last year, reports the Office of Fair Trading (OFT). Half the population was targeted in some shape or form, it says - usually via email, phone, a mailshot or a text message.

Dodgy prize draws, misleading premium-rate phone promotions, "advance-fee" frauds, "psychic" mailshots, email "phishing" cons that persuade you to part with bank details - the list is endless.

So who are the vulnerable "suckers" prone to falling for them? Unfortunately, we all are.

For the problem is that scams are personalised: fraudsters, particularly the more subtle, are adept at pushing our individual pressure points.

The person who might laugh off a poorly composed email suggesting "youre bank detales need updating now - please reply to this LoydsTS B demand urgently" could easily be persuaded to call a premium- rate number promising live chat with single women.

Only after hanging on the line through a string of recorded messages - racking up a huge phone bill along the way - does he realise he's been conned.

Alternatively, someone quick to bin a letter warning of terrible consequen- ces if they don't immediately send £20 in the post (the OFT recently clamped down on a Swiss company doing just this) may be less speedy when opening a personalised letter purporting to be from a solicitor. They've been left a small legacy by an old, distant friend or colleague, it reads. To make sure they don't miss out, they should call this number (a cleverly disguised premium one) or send a few bank details.

And so the money rolls out of their account, and the scamster moves on to someone else.

If you'd been snared by such a fraud, would you report it? Part of the difficulty in pinning a reliable figure on the number of scams sweeping Britain is that many people are too embarrassed by their slip-up and ashamed of their greed, says the OFT.

And if the sums are small, many don't realise they've been scammed or can't be bothered to report it.

All of which means that consumers are suffering in silence and the regulator is trying desperately to slam the lid down on this box of nasty tricks.

To bolster its efforts, the OFT has just embarked on a month-long publicity campaign to alert as many people as possible to scams.

Along with a blizzard of radio and internet ads, it will distribute half a million leaflets carrying tips on how to beat the fraudsters.

With the "if it's too good to be true, it is" theme running through the campaign, the OFT hopes that consumers will be better armed against future attacks.

Its stock advice is as follows: never send money upfront; don't part with your financial details; avoid expensive premium-rate numbers starting with 090; and steer clear of "exclusive" investment schemes and "bonanza" competition prizes. That all sounds straightforward, but it's difficult to keep up when countless variations on that innocent email, kindly knock at the door, smooth telephone call or inviting letter try to dazzle you into making a mistake.

Don't forget that, as in any industry, scamming will have its practitioners who work extremely hard to get better and richer. They learn from their errors and hone their practices. So as their sophistication grows, it's doubly important to be on your guard.

Not so long ago, a friend's parents unwittingly signed over more than £3,000 to a holiday timeshare scam.

Their interest in what appeared to be a genuine investment opportunity turned into a nightmare where they were bamboozled by paperwork and exquisitely charming and reassuring sales staff.

After the experience, when they had managed to claw back some cash, they expressed their astonishment at why they hadn't seen it coming.

Of course, that's the point of a well-executed con - it catches you on your blindside.

A successful recent scam exploited the generous side of human nature: a fake charity collecting money for victims of Hurricane Katrina in the US.

Who'd have thought that scamsters would stoop so low? Clearly, only the scamsters themselves.

There's a myth that only vulnerable people fall for scams, but we've all got the capacity to do so.

We wouldn't be human if we didn't.

Easy option?

Talking of myths, that of bankruptcy being an easy way out of debt continues.

The most recent figures, for the three months to the end of 2005, reveal that 12,505 people declared themselves bankrupt - up 38 per cent on the same period in 2004, with over- indulgence on cheap credit playing a big part.

Be under no illusion: bankruptcy can strip you of your home, possessions and job, and make getting future credit and mortgage very expensive.

It should only ever be a last resort.

s.dunn@independent.co.uk

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