Top 10 scams to watch out for this summer
Protect yourself from the fraudsters who have 'never had it so good', and who cost Britons £38bn a year. Alison Shepherd lists the cons to watch out for
Sunday 26 June 2011
From boiler rooms to bogus Syrian protesters looking to use your account to launder money, the financial fraudsters have never been as active.
Fraud in all its guises costs Britons more than £38bn a year, according to the latest police estimates, and following a warning from trading standards officers last week that conmen preying on the unsuspecting "have never had it so good", now is the time to ensure that you protect yourself from unscrupulous, smooth-talking salespeople.
To help you be on your guard, here are our top 10 scams to watch out for this summer.
1. Online shopping and auctions
Fake luxury-brand websites attract more than 120 million visitors a year, according to Brand-i.org, a website created to help consumers search for legitimate online stockists of their favourite designer brands.
"These fraudsters use every trick in the book to lure their victims online. They tout their wares via professional-looking, flashy sites, offering designer perfumes at tempting prices," says Detective Superintendent Tony Crampton, director of the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB). "However, there can be 'tell-tale' signs that all is not as it seems. Customers should check the http address has 's' at the end, or that there is a small padlock in the browser window indicating it's secure. Most fraudulent sites will not show either."
Auction sites can be a minefield for buyers – who receive counterfeit goods, or nothing at all – and sellers, who send out goods to those who have used stolen credit cards.
2. Fake tickets
The arrest earlier this month of a man alleged to have sold thousands of fake tickets via a website to Take That fans desperate to see the Progress Tour, highlights how easy it can be to allow emotions to cloud common sense. And the police fear that with the music festival season under way, and 2012 Olympics tickets so hard to come by, ticketing fraud run by organised crime gangs is only likely to increase.
"There is a big element of self-responsibility," says Det Supt Crampton. "Don't try to convince yourself that someone is selling genuine tickets when all the reputable distributors say the event is sold out."
If you just can't resist, paying with a credit card could get your money back if your tickets don't appear.
Visit getsafeonline.org for more advice on avoiding scams.
3. Tax credits
Criminals have noticed the deadline for renewing tax credits is 31 July, and have contacted more than 46,000 families by email claiming to be from HMRC. HMRC says it has closed 150 fraudulent websites since April, but as one closes another one or two spring into life. The emails suggest people are due a refund, and direct them to a clone of the HMRC website, where they enter their bank details to receive the "refund".
But the con is easily avoided: "We only ever contact customers who are due a tax refund in writing by post. We never use telephone calls or email," says Joan Wood, director of HMRC online and digital.
4. Electricity meter top-ups
This is a relatively new fraud targeting people who have fallen on hard times, and is being treated as a high priority by Det Supt Crampton's team. Conmen offer to top up the household's electricity meter with a forged master key by £50, in exchange for £25. But when the householders next use their legitimate key, the system recognises that the previous top ups were illegal and will charge for the missed payments.
5. Online dating
The NFIB is correlating all the intelligence in its supercomputer on reports of the lovelorn being conned by those pretending to be soulmates, who would love to have a face to face meeting, only they can't afford the fare. Or have a sick child and can't afford the medical bills, or, well, you get the picture. "It is early days yet," says Det Supt Crampton, "but it appears that the most common victims of such scams are aged over 50".
The advice from ActionFraud.org.uk, the website set up by the Government to receive all scam reports, is to break off all contact immediately, report the fraudster to the website, and do not send any money.
6. Debt management
Another attack on those suffering most during the economic squeeze. The scammer will try to extract an exorbitant fee for what turns out to be a fake debt-management service. Or they may simply be after your bank details to plunder your account.
The Office of Fair Trading has launched a three-month consultation on guidelines for the multibillion-pound debt-management industry. But for now, if you need debt advice, try the legitimate and free Consumer Credit Counselling Service or the Citizens Advice Bureau.
7. Advance fees
These scams take a myriad of forms from guaranteeing a new job, equipment to set up a business from home, or even "clairvoyants" promising good news.
The best way to avoid being suckered, says Peter Chue of Action Fraud, "is to check if the scheme operators give contact details that include mobile phone numbers beginning with 07, or email addresses such as @yahoo or @hotmail. Genuine businesses do not use them.
"If you do respond to these emails or letters you might find your personal details sold on to other scammers."
This form of scam, where the conmen try to garner your bank details with a sob story or by pretending to be your bank, has been around as long as the internet. The criminals are masters at picking a topical world event and creating a plausible tale: the Nigerian general has over the years become an Egyptian or Syrian protester.
"The villains have become more believable and sophisticated over the years," says Det Supt Crampton. "But the advice remains the same. Ask yourself 'why has this come to me?'. And check all the website addresses you may be linked to very carefully. It may look like your bank's address but it will vary by as little as a single character."
Susan Marks, from the Citizens Advice Bureau, just adds: "Never give out your bank details in an email. All they will do is empty your account."
9. Premium phone numbers
Ever received a text or email telling you that you have won a prize draw, or that you have a secret admirer and all you have to do is ring a number?
Hopefully, you will have been wise enough to delete, because phoning that number will cost you dear, while the fraudster pockets thousands. "Never ring a premium rate number, it will cost you much more than any prize. Premium rate numbers start with 090, but watch out when calling abroad, too, if international numbers don't start with 00, then it's premium rate," says Ms Marks.
10. Boiler rooms
The first clue that you are not on the verge of sealing the deal of the century, whether in shares, wine or land, is that fact that the salesperson has called out of the blue. "Be wary of any cold call whether it's by phone, text, email or letter," says Ms Marks.
Often in these scams you will receive nothing at all for the hundreds or thousands of pounds that you have "invested". At other times you will receive worthless pieces of paper claiming to be share certificates, or the deeds to land in a green-belt area, without the promised planning permission. Or even bottles of wine, but they will not be from the vineyard or of the vintage claimed, with counterfeit labels.
"Don't allow yourself to be rushed into a decision," says Ms Marks. "Stop, think and think again. Get advice. A reputable firm will give you time.
"The message is: if anyone offers you anything that looks too good to be true, it generally is. And if you have been scammed, be part of the solution, and report it to the police or Action Fraud."
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