“I am just SEETHING.” So said a good friend of mine in a message he sent me earlier this week. His mother, who is terminally ill with liver disease and cancer, had just confessed to sending £12,500 to a man she had never met in person but with whom she had been messaging online for several months.
“She knew she was sending money to a complete stranger,” said my friend. “How can she have been so stupid?”
Gently, I pointed out that she is living alone, having lost her husband to cancer two years ago. She’s lonely.
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Coming clean with her son about having been scammed in this way would have been almost impossibly hard for her.
Be on her side on this one, I said. She’s probably feeling foolish, miserable and what she’s done is a reflection of the fact she trusted someone who turned out to be a criminal. She’s been brave in telling you.
To his credit, my friend took a deep breath, gave his mum a hug and thanked her for having the courage to tell him the truth. The £12,500 meanwhile? It’s still not clear whether she’ll see that again.
This is, sadly, not an uncommon scenario. Data from UK Finance reveals a 20 per cent increase in bank transfer romance fraud between January and November 2020 compared to the previous year, with the total value of these scams rising by 12 per cent to £18.5m. The average loss per victim reported to UK Finance members was £7,850 – a significant sum for most people.
The wave of new scams claiming millions from unsuspecting victims across the UK is horrifying. When it is an authorised push payment (APP) scam such at the one suffered by my friend’s mother, it’s very hard to trace the criminal and because the payment was made willingly by her – there is often little the bank or building society will do to reimburse the loss.
It’s not just this type of scam that’s rocketing either. In the past week my cousin also messaged me to ask for my help working out whether she had in fact been scammed after she signed up to do a social media training course online and then found the company had been debiting large amounts from her bank account and she couldn’t find any way to contact them to cancel or recover money which she ought not to have paid.
On Thursday evening I then picked up a frantic message from yet another friend saying that she and her husband had just discovered that someone had faked their passports and applied for a bridging loan worth hundreds of thousands of pounds in their names against their home.
Not only that, but he had been allowed to go around their home, which is currently on the market, twice. The latter time was with a “contractor” who turned out to be a broker under the impression that this was the home’s owner, not a criminal hoping to break the law.
They reported it to Action Fraud and were told they had been the victims of identity theft but not identity fraud as they’d not yet lost any money. There was basically nothing they could do.
What can they do to protect themselves?
There are some steps, such as cancelling cards, updating passwords, running a credit check, registering for fraud watch services through a credit referencing agency and alerting their bank and solicitor – but the reality is that none of these is measures is fail safe.
This is just shocking. That victims are so powerless to defend themselves and police are unable to come to their aid when common sense says, obviously, this is criminal – something is really not right.
Adding online scams to the Online Safety Bill due this year would be one step in the right direction. Even this, still something at lobby stage, does not go far enough though.
Government must work out how to hold criminals to account and give police power and resource to investigate and prosecute many, many more of these cases than is currently possible.