Matt Allwright uncovers sophisticated scams. Matt meets a woman who lost hundreds of pounds when the man she had met online turned out to be a ruthless conman.
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Tricksters and conmen are trying to take our savings.
Every year, a shocking 3.2 million people
fall for their devious and ingenious scams.
Coming up: the dangers of falling in love over the internet.
You feel like you've let people down.
You've let your family down.
Plus we look at the scourge of scam mail
and see just how it can devastate someone's life.
I would gladly have given them everything, just to get my mother back.
They stole her from me.
I'm here to tell you what the conman doesn't want you to know.
How to stay one step ahead of the game and not get scammed.
If, as the song says, "love is all around"
then why can it be so hard to find?
The internet can offer the answer, but scammers have cottoned on to this, and over the last few years,
the Serious Organised Crime Agency, SOCA,
have seen a big rise in online romance scams.
This is a tens of millions of pounds'
problem for the United Kingdom.
Very typically, what happens is somebody will be either contacted
either because they've gone on to a website
a dating site, a lonely hearts site, something like that,
and they'll be contacted by somebody who will start to befriend them.
But it's not just dating websites that are used by scammers
to close in on potential targets.
Social networking sites used to just be
for the technologically savvy.
But not any more. They're for everyone. And that includes scam artists.
Your hobbies, your beliefs, your interests,
they're all things that a scam artist can use
to build up a picture of their next target.
32-year-old Marie is single, and had just started looking into internet dating when,
out of the blue, a man calling himself Nelson contacted her on Facebook.
-Ooh, hello! Who's that?
-Is she OK out?
Come on, we've got to hear a story, Penny.
Just a general message, saying what his name was
and he was a US soldier
and he just noticed me and thought he'd like to start chatting to me.
And if I was interested.
Nelson told Marie he was an American soldier serving at their army base in Nigeria.
What Marie didn't know was that he was a sophisticated scam artist
and that she was well and truly in his sights.
They often say "I'm in the army." Often the American army.
When scouting for targets, conmen are looking for the chinks in somebody's armour.
Something to exploit. Personal information on sites such as Facebook
gives them all they need to establish common ground with their victims.
What information did you put on Facebook? What was available for people to see?
He could see that I was single and a Christian.
That was probably the main thing and the two main things he used.
They seem like two fairly harmless pieces of information, but to the scammer it was what he needed.
As the pair began exchanging messages, he said he was also a Christian
and even quoted passages from the Bible, all music to Marie's ears.
How quickly did things move?
It went so quickly. Things happened really fast.
When it's a scam, they rapidly fall in love with you.
They rapidly want to meet you.
These are the warning signs to look for.
It's not a natural progression of any sort of relationship which has started like that.
Nelson certainly wasn't playing hard to get.
He quickly moved out of the confines of the internet, chatting to Marie on the phone.
Can you describe how he'd speak to you?
You're speaking to supposedly an American. How did he sound?
When I spoke to him, he sounded American.
There was a second accent which freaked me out a bit.
It sounded a bit Spanish.
But he said his mother was Mexican and his father was American.
Not unusual for me. My mother's French, my father's British, I'm South African.
So that wasn't unusual or weird.
So I just went, "Oh, OK." I didn't question it.
Smitten, Marie was being sucked in fast.
The time for Nelson to get down to business.
They will invariably ask for some sort of financial assistance.
Maybe straight up for money. They might ask for money to help with a visa.
It might be, "Can you send me £30 to charge my mobile phone so that I can ring you?"
But it escalates.
Sure enough, following the scammer's text book to a T,
Nelson caught Marie off-guard one day.
He said he was really down.
That he and fellow soldiers were unable to get into their bank accounts
and that Marie could sort this out if she could just send him some money.
I kind of could see where it was headed
so I tried to divert as much as I could by saying,
"The army can't leave you guys without being able to access your money.
"They should give you money."
"No, they're not. You don't understand. We're in the middle of a war zone here."
Trust was a big issue in our conversations that he kept bringing up.
"You've got to trust me." "Don't you trust me?"
"Why don't you trust me?"
I felt like I was backed in a corner. I was badly financially off.
I thought, "What do I do?
I can't leave him."
Eventually, Marie caved in and sent £100 for Nelson to pick up
through the Western Union cash transfer service.
I thought, "Right, this will be it."
If I didn't hear from him again, after this money, then I knew
that that's what it was.
So, in a weird way, you sending him money was a test of your trust in him?
Yes, that's exactly how I'd describe it to someone.
Nelson now had Marie where he wanted her.
With the promise of more money, he wasn't going anywhere. He called back, full of gratitude.
Marie started to believe that this was the real deal.
I told my mum. For the first time in any relationship I've ever had,
she was excited. I think my mum wanted to believe this was happening.
It had happened for my parents.
They were engaged within three weeks and have been married for 35 years.
So you looked at your parents' relationship and thought,
-"It's not so crazy, because it worked for them."
Another week went by. Nelson decided it was time to ramp up this scam.
He told Marie he wanted to come and see her.
But there was one teeny-weeny catch.
He asked Marie to send £700 to pay for his plane ticket.
This was crunch time.
I said, "I haven't got that kind of money. I just don't."
"You need to understand it's a lot of money.
"I'm worried and scared about sending this kind of money."
So I stopped direct debits. I stopped any action in or out of my bank account.
I stopped everything.
I went and drew the money out. Went down to Western Union,
Even the lady at Western Union said to me,
"Are you OK with sending this?" And I went, "I'm not.
"I'm not OK with it. It's a lot of money."
And then I thought, he'll do a runner, surely after that.
But he didn't. He was still there.
And he got closer to booking. Said he'd booked his ticket.
To prove his commitment, Nelson even sent through
a supposed confirmation of his flight details.
But in an unbelievably cruel trick
used by scammers to raise the stakes,
Marie received some shocking news.
I got a text message at 11 o'clock at night
to say that he'd been in a really bad accident
and that he was in critical condition.
That's a massive shock.
I couldn't talk.
I was just frantically trying to get the internet up
to get phone numbers for this Nigerian hospital to ring
and trying to find numbers for the American army
and I was just frantic.
When she finally got hold of them,
the American army gave her the hard facts.
They had no record of her soldier Nelson.
He simply didn't exist.
Marie was starting to realise she'd been tricked.
But the people behind this elaborate scam weren't about to give up.
Sometimes these people will say, "Yes, I'm sorry about that,
"it was a fraud and I'm not that American soldier.
"I am this person but I'm very poor.
But actually, I do really love you."
And they say, "See - he really does like me."
And you think, "Please, don't do this! That's not right."
A man calling himself Paul and claiming to be Nelson's doctor in the critical care ward,
started sending texts to Marie throughout the night.
When he rang in the morning, she heard a familiar voice at the end of the line.
I recognised the guy's voice
to be like a Mexican accent,
but no American accent.
Yes, it was our conman, still trying it on.
Still pretending to be a doctor,
he emailed asking for money to help with treatment costs.
But for Marie, the penny had well and truly dropped.
There was no doctor.
And there wasn't, and never had been, a soldier called Nelson who loved her.
Marie was conned out of £800, but she's not alone.
Others have been stung for much higher amounts by romance scams.
We have had a victim that's lost
nearly a quarter of a million pounds.
The real perpetrators can be anywhere.
They are sitting at the end of a laptop plugged into a Wi-Fi system.
We have managed to devise methods where we can intercept
the links between the criminal and victim.
½But for the victims of these robbing Romeos, such as Marie,
it's the emotional cost rather than the money that's hardest to bear.
You feel like you've let people down.
You've let your family down.
When my mum found out, she was devastated.
-Marie, you haven't done anything wrong. You know that?
All you've done is trust somebody
because their business, and it's a horrible, cruel business,
is to gain people's trust
because they're very good at it.
And you're so lovely!
There's no reason why you shouldn't have a great fella
at some point. This is nothing to do with that. You know?
It's all right.
So how can you avoid being suckered into the world of romance scams?
The first thing I say to anybody in anything like this,
I would say, number one, "Don't send any money."
It may sound obvious, but no matter how much these people tug at your heartstrings,
how much it feels like a real connection, they only want one thing.
Secondly, never give your own details out.
That means mobile phone number, address and email.
Also check your privacy settings when using sites like Facebook.
Many dating websites actually look for scams,
but they only see what's happening on their own site.
So be wary if someone wants to chat elsewhere. To repeat...
Third, don't send any money.
I know it was number one, but it's that important!
I mean, it may be annoying, but mostly it's harmless.
But then there's scam mail, completely different.
In one year in the UK alone,
we got scammed out of £3.5 billion thanks to scam mail.
And this is how it typically works.
A letter comes through the door with exciting news you've won a huge cash prize.
The letter suggests all you need to do is pay a small fee and you'll receive your winnings.
So you pay the fee but your cash prize never comes.
Instead, the scammers will just send you more and more letters.
Scam mail, or mass marketing fraud as it's also known,
is often targeted at elderly people.
The effects can be all-consuming.
These shocking images were filmed by Marilyn Baldwin.
Her mother Jessica was tormented by scam mail for five years.
This distressing footage shows her in the grip of the scam.
She received a letter telling her she'd won a competition.
All she had to do to claim it was send off a small fee.
and basically she got bombarded with scam mail.
The scam mail started to increase
until probably about a year down the line,
or maybe not even that, she was getting around 30 pieces a day.
The house started filling up with scam mail. It was everywhere -
cupboards, drawers, the shed.
Under the bed. Everywhere.
Marilyn wanted people to see this footage
to show the devastating impact scam mail can have.
We tried to stop her and explained that this mail wasn't genuine.
But she just couldn't see it. It was almost like they'd trapped her.
She was in this fictitious world that they'd created with the mail.
She'd got this air about her that, "I've won the money and it's just
"a matter of time before it comes."
She actually thought she was rich, in a strange way,
even though she hadn't received anything.
Jessica remained under the spell of the scam artists
until just before she died in 2007.
When my mum was going through this I would have gladly given them the house, everything.
They could have taken everything, just to get my mother back.
They stole her from me.
At the time of her mother's problem, Marilyn didn't know who to turn to.
Suspecting the issue was far more widespread than being reported, she started the Think Jessica campaign.
She's helped to set up events across the country to let people know.
These criminals are sneaking in through the letterbox.
There are elderly people behind closed doors
being attacked and being mugged every day.
Mass marketing fraud is a nationwide problem.
In Portsmouth, Trading Standards Officers Laura Small and Holly Shelbourne
recently seized a huge haul of scam mail which they're now trying to wade through.
These two boxes here are completely unsorted mail.
The other boxes are sorted into categories.
Sifting through the mail revealed the devious methods used to
relieve people of their cash.
It's been checked and verified by the NLC disbursement officer.
So there is a sense of authority,
you don't think that is someone you shouldn't trust.
Anything that you open, you think, oh, I have won!
A prize certificate,
so straightaway you get this mind-dazzling amount of money,
-Your name is in lights.
-Most of them will be time-deadlined as well, so "urgent".
"You've got four days to reply."
It takes away your thought processes and you are more likely
to react quite quickly and not consult with your friends or family.
You know, just clever. Really, really clever.
All these boxes were found in one private house
belonging to a pensioner called Mrs Knox.
When it comes to mass marketing scams, most of our victims are socially isolated.
Unfortunately, they don't have friends or family visiting every day.
It's just carers come to see them. That's when they fall through the net.
They can't check with anybody to make sure they're not replying to things they shouldn't be.
When Laura and Holly first visited Mrs Knox's home,
they were stunned at what they saw.
As soon as we walked into the house, you couldn't get in the hallway
because they were all to the right-hand side.
She could no longer get her shopping trolley down there, which is her walking aid.
I've never won anything in my life, and the fact that I was told I'd won something,
I thought, "Oh, great! It's going to help me out of a mess."
-So you were in need of the money, weren't you?
-I was in need of it.
They said to me something about you've won so much money.
"If you send a bit to cover the costs of dealing with it,
-"we'll send you your money."
Unfortunately they didn't, not unless they used invisible cheques, because I never saw them!
It's estimated that in the past few years,
Mrs Knox has given away £2,000 to the scammers.
I've got my pension and nothing else.
To think I chucked away the money when I badly needed it...
I'm a right sucker that way!
Fortunately, Laura and Holly have got to Mrs Knox
in time to make a difference.
To solve Mrs Knox' scam mail problem,
we signed her to the Mail Preference Service and Telephone Preference Service.
They are like filtering systems that help filter through the junk mail
that comes through and junk telephone calls as well.
The thing about investigating it is finding out where they're from
and who are sending the mailings.
There are many different perpetrators.
They don't all come from one person. There are thousands of companies.
Some of the letters sent to Jessica and to Mrs Knox
were blatant examples of illegal scam mail.
But it's not always so clear cut.
There are companies that send out mass marketing letters that use clever wording and small print
to try and stay on the right side of the law.
In 2009, a lady called Doreen was sent this letter
by a firm called UK Incentives and Promotions Ltd.
At first glance, it could have given the impression
that she'd won £625,000,
by using words like confirmed, guaranteed and sole recipient.
But on closer inspection, the letter was simply inviting Doreen to enter a prize draw
and there was no guarantee of winning anything.
Doreen decided to report it to East Sussex Trading Standards Officer Tom Cook.
What made you report this to us in the first place?
Quite honestly, it was too good to be true.
What about this? Here it says they've been conducting a nationwide search
and you have been identified. Lucky you(!)
It's not a mistake. You are confirmed and guaranteed to receive £625,000.
To enter the prize, Doreen had to buy a £20 watch.
She wasn't the sort of person to be taken in by this kind of misleading marketing.
But she was reporting it to us because she was concerned
about other people receiving a letter and falling for it and would be misled.
And Tom agreed. He thought the letter was highly deceptive
and designed to confuse people into buying the £20 watch.
He began investigating and found that unlike many mass-marketing firms
who are based abroad, UK Incentives and Promotions Ltd were in Stockport near Manchester.
We contacted the local Trading Standards.
They had been in contact with the company.
But they had not been able to prevent a second wave of letters being sent out.
The company had already been warned about the wording of their letters
and although they'd made some changes, the mail was still highly misleading.
Tom decided he'd try to get them in court.
But weeks into the investigation, the company went into liquidation,
owing £280,000 - mostly to the tax man.
The company was our initial target, if you like.
They disappeared, so we were left with going after individuals.
Tom continued pursuing two of the key figures involved with the business,
the company director and the marketing manager.
He wrote letters to the two of them asking them to stop sending out misleading and deceptive mail.
The company director replied and agreed to Tom's demands.
What we hadn't got was the marketing manager. He hadn't responded in a similar way.
So he had not, at this point, told us he'd stop dealing with this type of letter.
So in November 2009 they took the marketing manager to court and won.
He was told to sign a general undertaking that he would stop sending out misleading material
for a minimum of one year.
It was Doreen's original complaint about the company's scam letter
that sparked the investigation.
Well done, Doreen!
If she'd replied, this is what her £20 would have got her.
-That is what they were selling you.
With the size of my bone structure, I'd be lucky if it went round my wrist!
It's not a particularly nice watch.
Tom also gives her the good news.
This is the outcome. They've given a promise to the court
that they will obey the law, and they understand if they don't,
they could go to prison.
We asked representatives of UK Incentives and Promotions Ltd
to comment, and this is what their former marketing manager had to say.
The types of letters received by Jessica and Mrs Knox from foreign countries were deceptive.
Some could amount to fraud.
This is being taken ever more seriously.
The Metropolitan Police has set up a special unit, Operation Sterling,
to deal solely with this type of crime,
both at home and abroad.
It is difficult, but it's not impossible.
We're working with law enforcement agencies throughout the world
and also postal providers throughout the world
and we're having significant successes.
Earlier this year, we undertook some enforcement activity
which had a major impact reducing some of those letters to victims
It's a very long road.
We've turned a corner, but we're not at the end of the road.
This needs to be ongoing.
For more information about the Mail and Telephone Preference Service, and advice about scams, go to:
Scammers are constantly coming up with new and clever ways to get at our cash.
So it's important to know what are the latest scams out there
that could affect you.
Today, we're looking at scams where conmen pretend to be from a government department.
Cheeky little tinkers!
We've got fraud reports from people pretending to be from HMRC, Ministry of Justice officials.
One scam we've seen is saying that you're a model citizen
and you're to be rewarded
for the good life you're living.
I've always said that.
As a result, you're entitled to a £500 reward for your good service.
-"We can secure this. We're acting on behalf of the Ministry of Justice.
"Please pay us £50 now and we will send you this money you're entitled to."
However nice you are, there is no such thing as a good citizen award
or any other award from the Ministry of Justice.
Maybe there should be, but there isn't. Sorry, it's a scam.
-HMRC, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs.
How does that scam work?
The same principles. They are saying you've overpaid your taxes.
"We have looked into this
"and we've determined that you're entitled to a tax rebate of £5,000.
"All we need is an administration fee."
Anyone who's ever had any dealings with HMRC
will know you don't get anything genuinely from them.
Again, it would be wrong to say you don't get things back.
There are accountants who get money back for people and individuals get money back.
We can all overpay our taxes. But the point is,
HMRC deal with you directly. They don't do it through an agent.
And they certainly don't ask for fees in advance.
If you are entitled to a refund,
HMRC will never call or email you.
They'll notify you with an official letter through the post.
You can be sure that conmen and fraudsters
will keep coming up with new and sophisticated ways of getting your cash.
But armed with a bit of knowledge, you can stay one step ahead.
Stay safe. See you next time.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Matt Allwright uncovers the secrets of the sophisticated scams that target millions of Britons each year. Matt meets the ordinary people whose lives have been devastated by these scams, and hears how they were cleverly but cruelly manipulated into handing over their cash. Plus, how the authorities are fighting back against the conmen and bringing them to justice. Also, information about the latest scams out there, who they target and how to avoid them.
Matt meets Mirielle, who lost hundreds of pounds and her dreams of finding love, when the man she had met online turned out to be a ruthless conman. Matt also hears how the authorities are tackling the growing problems of scam mail, and could you be a target for the debt management scam?