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Tuesday, 8 October, 2002, 12:45 GMT 13:45 UK
Q&A: Avoiding the con artists
News that criminals have used a fake version of a UK bank's online service to con people out of money has highlighted the ongoing problem of financial scams. Such schemes can raise big money for the operators. How can you avoid being caught out?

How common are they?

The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) which investigates scams says that it has no idea of how many bogus letters or e-mails are in circulation at any one time.

However, since the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) launched a public awareness campaign back in July over 1,000 different suspicious letters and e-mails have come to light.

The OFT is currently investigating these cases.

Where do scams usually originate?

Unsurprisingly, most scams operating in the UK do not originate here.

In fact, those operating scams in the UK tend to get found out and closed down very quickly.


Any letter that asks for money upfront should go straight in the bin. You should never have to pay for a prize

Tony Hetherington Scam investigation expert

According to the OFT, a third of UK scams originate from other EU countries - and many of these schemes are based in the Netherlands.

The OFT has cross border powers to shut these down but it can take time, and enough bogus scheme are operating to suggest that it is still a profitable business to scam the UK from the continent.

The trail goes a little colder when scams originate from outside the EU.

The UK authorities then have to rely on shared intelligence and local co-operation.

Sometimes this works well - the Canadian authorities, acting on complaints from the UK, have closed down nearly 40 bogus telemarketing operations in the last three years.

However, there are scam hotspots where UK authorities find it difficult to bring the operators to book.

Nigeria, for example, the country of origin for the latest internet banking rip-off, has long been considered a hotspot for scamming.

How do they get away with it?

Professional con artists have made an art of covering their tracks and with the explosion of internet usage their task has got a lot easier.

A favourite trick includes the copious use of PO boxes and forwarding addresses to make tracking them down more difficult.

What is more, they often pretend to be in a different country to where they are actually based.

One Spanish-based rip-off merchant played a tape of the chimes of Big Ben in the background in order to fool phone callers that he was based in London.

The internet makes tracking down those responsible even tougher.

In addition, the costs of online scamming are far less than with a traditional postal or telephone sting.

What form do scams take and what do they offer?

The most common type of rip-off is the lottery scam.

In short, the recipient of the e-mail, phone call or mail shot is told that they have won a prize but to claim it they have to send an 'administration' fee to cover carriage and local taxes.

If the recipient pays-up more often than not they will receive an item worth far less than the 'administration' fee paid or alternatively absolutely nothing.

One of the most disturbing developments of recent times in the scam world has been the increase in psychic letters and emails.


Be very careful, if in any doubt send the details to us and we will investigate.

Paul Matthews OFT spokesman

These tell the unfortunate recipient that they face an impending personal tragedy, such as a death in the family, unless they send money immediately for a psychic reading.

According to an OFT spokesperson, scams have a common denominator - they all ask for people to pay in advance for goods, services or a cash prize.

How can I protect myself?

The key seems to be never to reply to anyone running such a scheme.

Alarmingly, according to the OFT those that do reply, end up being put on a 'sucker list'- these lists are sold on to other con artists.

As a result, names on 'sucker lists' can end up being inundated by bogus offers.

It is possible to reduce the amount of direct mail shots received by registering with the mail preference service.

In addition, internet email service providers offer users the chance to block most junk or 'spam' e-mails.

However, whatever steps are taken the operators normally find a way through.

Paul Matthews, OFT spokesman warns consumers that they need to have their guard up.

"Be very careful, if in any doubt send the details to us and we will investigate," he said.

Tony Hetherington, a freelance journalist and scam investigation expert, who has played a key role in bringing many to book, has more unequivocal advice:

"Any letter that asks for money upfront should go straight in the bin. You should never have to pay for a prize."

What is more, Mr Hetherington told BBC News Online that falling for sophisticated scams from abroad can cost more than money.

"There are cases of people being kidnapped then killed after being persuaded to meet-up with scamsters based abroad," he warns.

See also:

08 Oct 02 | Technology
30 Sep 02 | England
19 Sep 02 | UK
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