Hard-hitting investigations on the major stories affecting life in Northern Ireland. Chris Moore reports on how scammers conned a pensioner out of her life savings.
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Tonight on Spotlight...
A pensioner scammed out of £180,000.
I just felt devastated, completely,
because I knew all the money was gone.
Scams cost Northern Ireland an estimated £100 million every year.
I think that is a major epidemic in the United Kingdom.
Yet the authorities don't seem capable of stopping it.
Money is moved, and it is dissipated and dispersed many times over
through multiple bank accounts which eventually become untraceable.
'We follow the letters trail to Holland.'
Hi. I'm from the BBC.
This is Elizabeth. She's a 75-year-old widow,
and she's lost her life savings.
She's been conned out of £180,000 by scammers.
These letters started to come, you know, from different places,
I thought, "Well, it's international, and it must be OK."
Elizabeth - we're not using her full name -
first fell victim to a mail scam.
Here's how it works.
You receive a letter like this one
which appears to guarantee you a cash sum of £20,000.
It could be as much as a quarter of a million pounds
or, in this one, £3 million.
It's all yours for £25,
which you're invited to send in a pre-addressed envelope provided.
This envelope's addressed to a PO box in Holland.
So, of course...
temptation got in the way.
-And were you paying money to these people?
-Yes, I was.
-At every stage?
-I couldn't afford to.
But I did do quite a few now, to tell you the truth.
How much money were they asking you to give them?
Some was £20, some was £25.
In return for these payments,
she was led to believe she had already won large cash prizes.
Police call this an advance-payment fraud,
and anyone who pays it is being scammed.
How much do you think you were spending in a week?
How much were you sending away?
Well, I keep enough for the petrol for the car
and some for my food for myself, but the rest I spent on...
..on that there.
Well, it's just like being hypnotised.
You're going to win and you're going to win this big amount of money
and you'll be able to buy what you want when you get it.
And what Elizabeth wanted to buy was a new house.
The letter scams began after her husband died.
She felt isolated and depressed,
both factors that can make people vulnerable to scams.
Anyone can fall victim to a scam.
If you've got something to lose,
there is someone out there who's trying to take it off you.
Professor Stephen Lea from Exeter University has never met
Elizabeth, but he has studied the psychology of scam victims
Certainly, they detect that someone's kind of lonely
and looking for activity, then they'll play on that.
Often, the excitement is financial.
You know, they're dangling a very large financial reward out there.
The volume of letters grew rapidly.
Elizabeth was becoming busier and busier, filling in forms
and posting off cash.
When she exhausted her pension, she started to use her savings.
I'd bring an envelope in,
and one by one, she'd do the cheques for me.
-So did she write the cheques?
It was printed out on the printing machine or the computer thing.
She got my book and then she printed out the cheque.
And then you put them into the envelopes?
Yes, and went and posted them.
Elizabeth's books from the Progressive Building Society
tell their own story. You can see how the scams took over her life.
In the years before, there were virtually no
withdrawals from her account.
But that would soon change.
On one day in March last year, her building society issued 24 cheques.
Two days later, 21 cheques.
The next day, another 21 cheques.
In just a few months, she'd spent £42,000.
And she's far from being the only victim.
Now it's time for Money Box, with Paul Lewis.
Hello. In today's programme, beware of this man.
On the BBC's personal finance programme,
the lead story is on the latest scam.
Like most scammers, he's very convincing.
Presenter Paul Lewis says they are hearing about ever-increasing
numbers of scams.
It's one of the fastest-growing crimes,
and I suspect one reason is people realise they can make far
more money far more safely sitting in their bedroom defrauding
people than going out committing violent or burglary-type offences,
and I think that is a major epidemic in the United Kingdom.
Scams cost the UK economy £3.5 billion a year,
and in Northern Ireland they're growing all the time.
The estimated cost here is £100 million every year.
We discovered a scam operating within Northern Ireland
and we went in and we seized the post.
Now, there was over 22,000 letters.
When we opened those letters, there was over £300,000.
Now, that was just a couple of weeks' post gone off to one scam.
'Trading Standards is the body responsible
'for helping local scam victims.
'Beverley Burns has the job of trying to keep on top of the problem.
'It's not just the elderly and the vulnerable who are taken in.'
Retired teachers, university professors, accountants, nurses.
I have to say, it's people from every single walk of life.
And the amounts lost by people in Northern Ireland
to scammers are astonishing.
We know of four people who've lost even more than Elizabeth.
One person was conned out of £1 million,
two others half a million pounds each.
The criminal gangs share details of their victims,
putting them on what they call a "suckers list".
As soon as you've been defrauded, you go on the suckers list,
because they think once you've been defrauded, you might think, "Well,
"I'll go with this, because I might get some money back," and, secondly,
having been conned once,
you're probably gullible enough to be conned again.
A consequence of being on the suckers list is that criminals will
keep targeting victims,
and they have an imaginative range of scams.
And that's what happened to Elizabeth.
Only this time, it was in a relentless campaign of phone calls.
And in the second scam, the amounts she was giving them got higher
The criminals had convinced her she was owed a large
sum of money from an old mortgage.
I'm owed how much?
But first, they asked her to send them money to release the cash.
Erm, well, what mortgage are you talking about?
The phone-call scam started last September.
The scammer said he was called David and used the name of a real lawyer.
He said he was a judge working on behalf of what
he described as the Ministry of Justice.
One of the very well-known persuasive techniques
that legitimate and illegitimate marketers -
if we can put it that way -
use is to try and surround themselves with authority.
The man, it was a sort of an Indian, sort of Pakistani accent,
but the English was quite good.
'I thought, "Well, £5,000 would be great."'
The man calling himself David was persistent
and demanding on the phone.
Elizabeth was soon wrapped up in his world.
This is one of the persuasive techniques
that we know that scammers use,
of trying to get you committed to a project,
and when you look at the kinds of language they use,
they start talking about "our joint project" to try
and give you ownership of it
so that you'll feel responsible for it and feel you ought to keep it up.
She was persuaded to withdraw large sums of cash
and sent it to David, the man she believed to be a judge.
She sent it using money transfer systems
that operate anywhere in the world.
I went to the money shop, filled in the form,
and it went through on the computer, whatever they do.
Soon, she was sending as much as £2,000 in a morning.
Her scammer would ring her with instructions.
She followed them all in the belief that he would one day
pay up the money he'd told her she was owed.
'He would phone me on a mobile number...'
to ask me had I done the transaction, and I would say I had.
Then he would want the number on the bottom of the form.
Once they had the serial number,
criminals on the other side of the world could retrieve the money.
'That's the number I would tell him.'
And he said, "That's OK."
So that money went through to them.
OK, thanks very much. Bye.
'But there was no end to his determination
'to extract every penny he could.
'He kept her interest by promising to visit
'and personally deliver £90,000.
'But on the day he was due, he said she first had to send £4,000 to
'cover the costs for him and an assistant.'
I says, "Well, why not leave your assistant at home
"and come yourself, cos it'd be cheaper for me?"
He says he couldn't do that, seeing the amount of money was so big.
'But that, too, was a lie.'
-So you paid the money.
-And what happened after that, that day?
-He didn't turn up.
-He didn't turn up.
-No. No, didn't turn up.
The situation becomes a sort of enclosed world which people
then believe in, and when you stand outside it,
when you come to stand outside it and you realise what happened,
you almost wonder, "How could I have believed that?"
But when you're inside it, it seems entirely persuasive.
And, of course, that's what the scammers are trying to do.
Why do you need to deliver it?
Elizabeth's pursuit of the money she had been told was hers by right
had left her broke and exhausted.
You owe me a lot of money. I need that money.
'The guy says, "Look,'
"there's no more money left. I can't send you any more."
Well, I thought to myself, "Well, you've had it,
"the money's all done, and that's it."
In just seven weeks, Elizabeth paid out £103,000
from her bank account to a man she believed was her friend.
All she had left was £440.
It must have come as a bit of a shock, then,
when you learnt what was happening.
It did. A big shock. And I felt I'd been so stupid, as well...
..that I should have cottoned on, like, that...
..that the whole thing was a fraud, really,
because I had said to that first man there, I says,
"That there's a fraud that you're doing to me."
"That's a scam." He says, "It's not, it's real."
When did you first realise that...
that you'd been involved in scams?
..when the police came to the house
and told me that this is all a scam, you know,
different things like that, and...
I just felt devastated, completely, because...
I knew all the money was gone.
But even when she was broke, there was no end to the scammers' greed
and cruelty. They persuaded Elizabeth to borrow £14,000.
A year on, and she's still paying that off.
But there was worse to come.
They then made her part of their criminal enterprise by getting
Elizabeth to open a new bank account.
And this time, they did lodge some money.
They paid £5,000 directly into the account.
He convinced me they could help me,
so he said he'd lodge money into my account
and then I could withdraw it.
But they had an ulterior motive.
It looked as if I had a healthy enough balance.
At one time, you get the statement, it said you had £5,000 in it.
No sooner had she got some money in her account
than she was asked to move it on again.
Then he'd ask me to draw maybe out of that 5,000,
he asked me to withdraw 2,000 maybe today
and another 2,000 maybe tomorrow.
So that's the way it went.
She didn't know it, but Elizabeth had started working for the criminals.
The money lodged in her account had been scammed from other people,
and a police force in England
started to investigate her for money laundering.
You'd never...even thought you were involved in anything like that?
No, no, sure, I never...
I hear tell of it, but you never thought, y'know, that they
used you for laundering money, of all things.
-I didn't know it.
-A bit of a shock?
It was, that I'd been used, connected with crime. But...
It was a shock...
to tell you the truth.
The scams lasted for nearly a year.
When she finally stopped talking to the scammers,
on one day alone she had 26 missed calls.
Elizabeth kept notes on her callers and their telephone numbers.
We searched for the numbers online
and discovered they'd been used in identical scams,
even down to the same detail about a man called
David at the Ministry of Justice.
Meanwhile, at Elizabeth's branch of the Ulster Bank,
her spending had started to cause concern.
'Well, there was a lady.'
She asked me into her office one day.
And she said,
"You're coming in here very often to withdraw large amounts of money."
I said, "Yes."
And I told her I was doing repairs to the house, which I wasn't.
In all, bank staff took Elizabeth aside on five occasions.
The Ulster Bank would say that they did intervene
and that they did ask you about what you were doing with your money
and that you basically said it was your money,
you could do with it as you pleased.
Do you accept that you did tell the bank...?
Well, I just can't remember for sure, but I must have had.
I must have had when they say so.
You said you were going to get house repairs,
-but that wasn't strictly true.
-No, it wasn't.
-It wasn't strictly true.
-What do you think the bank should have done?
Well, I think they could've froze my account and just said,
"Look, we know that you're not telling the truth."
So I feel that they could have stopped me earlier.
'Elizabeth's money had gone by the time her family found out
'what had been going on.
'According to the rules, where someone has given away their money
'voluntarily, the banks don't have to pay compensation.'
If the customer says, "Look, leave me alone, it's my money,
"I can do what I like with it,"
then really the bank is in a very difficult position.
Even if the customer's elderly, in their 70s,
they still have a perfect right to make decisions
and to spend it as they see fit!
'But for the people who have lost out to scammers,
'there's little hope of any type of investigation.
'To cope with the growth in fraud crime,
'the Government has established ActionFraud in the City of London.
'If a scam is reported,
'the details will go to ActionFraud to be analysed.
'But the harsh reality for Elizabeth
'is ActionFraud told her in writing there was nothing they could do.
'And that's not unusual.'
When you look around to try and find someone to take
responsibility as to how you fight fraud,
it's difficult to find someone who'll put their hands up
and say, "Yes, we're the people to come to."
I do think - and it's one of the most common complaints that I get -
that people who have been defrauded or potentially defrauded say,
"Well, we reported all this, and no-one seems interested."
And that is the position we have.
We have this huge crime, two million people defrauded every year,
and it is not really being tackled effectively at a national level.
'Successful prosecutions into this sort of crime are rare.
'And here's why.
'Scamming is a global business.
'The criminals behind marketing scams
'spread their work across the world,
'so no-one police force is responsible.'
The plan will be devised in one country,
the scam letters printed in another.
The victims are picked off the suckers list and targeted elsewhere.
They send off cash to yet another country.
It's delivered to PO boxes, where mail companies process the letters.
But the big question is, once it's delivered,
where then does the money finally end up?
'We understand that most of Elizabeth's money
'from the phone scams ended up in the hands
'of organised criminals in Thailand.
'But it's clear once your money leaves Northern Ireland,
'there's little the police can do.'
We will follow the money trail, but very often, nearly invariably,
that money is moved and it is dissipated and dispersed
many times over, through multiple bank accounts,
which eventually become untraceable.
And they do find themselves very often
certainly at least across Europe, and into Asia and the Middle East.
The PSNI investigation into Elizabeth's case is now closed.
So the banks, ActionFraud and the PSNI weren't able to help her.
The Financial Ombudsman investigated her case
and ruled that the Ulster Bank was under no obligation to refund her.
But the Progressive Building Society was told to refund the 96 cheques.
So out of the £180,000 she's lost,
she's recovered just a few thousand pounds in compensation.
'Elizabeth's money is all gone,
'but a year on, the scammers haven't gone away.
'They still keep in touch.
'We asked Elizabeth to keep hold of some of the scam letters
'she's still getting.
'The scale of the deliveries is startling...
'..and most of this in just a few weeks.
'We asked Royal Mail
'why they don't simply stop delivering unsolicited mail.'
One thing that Royal Mail cannot do under any circumstances
is open people's mail.
The outside of an envelope may give us some concern.
It's the content that will actually tell us
whether there's a scam taking place or not.
So mail has to be delivered.
Now, we've sorted out all of these letters into the countries
of origin, and we find that there are 15 countries where scamming letters
are being sent into Northern Ireland.
Philippines, Samoa, the United States, Romania, Fiji -
but the biggest number originate in Holland.
We know every single one of these letters
requesting an advance payment fee is an attempt to defraud.
MUSIC: Eye Level by the Simon Park Orchestra
'With no organisation appearing to investigate the scams,
'we wanted to see where Elizabeth was being asked in recent months
'to send her money.
'I'm getting help from a former detective.
'Cees Schep spent 35 years in fraud investigation
'and now works for a fraud help desk that promotes prevention.
'We want to visit the PO box addresses on the envelopes.
'We eventually track one down to a retail
'park on the outskirts of Utrecht.'
This is Postbox 1225.
It's on the white envelope here.
'We found out this PO box is registered to a company
'called Trend Services, owned by this man.'
Mijn naam is Erik Dekker.
Erik Dekker's company, Trends, does printing and packaging.
It also provides mail delivery and collection services for people
who prefer the convenience or secrecy of this type of service.
This is one of the postbox numbers
that's registered to Mr Erik Dekker's company, Trends.
He's got a number of others at different post offices in this area,
but this is number 1225.
It's one of an estimated 114 PO boxes registered to his company.
When we opened the recent mail sent to Elizabeth,
we found that 59 of the letters
had return envelopes addressed to his postboxes.
There's no evidence that Mr Dekker knows anything about the content
of the envelopes that are being delivered to his postboxes -
but he does presumably know who he's collecting this mail for.
We wanted to ask Mr Dekker what happens to the envelopes
after he's taken delivery of them.
'We e-mailed him to say we'd like to talk about direct mail from Ireland.
'He replied to say he didn't want to speak to us,
'so we decided to visit his offices
'to see if that provided any clues
'and to see if we could change his mind.'
Hi. I'm from the BBC.
Erm, well, it's about mail that comes through his company from Ireland.
Yes, he doesn't want to speak to me, I understand that,
but I'm explaining to you that I have information about mail
that comes through these post office box numbers
that are registered to this company and it comes from Ireland.
I wanted to ask him a few words about that.
-OK. Thank you.
the people inside this company don't want to talk.
And in fact, that lady has underlined the fact that the director
we've tried to get in touch with, Mr Erik Dekker,
doesn't want to talk to us, either.
It was clear our presence was no longer welcome.
We don't know what happens to the money posted in the scam letters
or what Mr Dekker knows about the people whose mail
his company is collecting, but he wasn't interested in helping us.
In a statement, Mr Dekker said,
"It's a mystery to me why you approached me in this matter."
But the question remains, once it's delivered,
where does the money finally end up?
It seems the Dutch police aren't investigating that question,
as there have been no complaints from police in the UK.
For now, what happened to her money remains a mystery.
For Elizabeth, life goes on.
I was used as if I was hypnotised,
thinking I was going to get money back along with the money I'd spent
and didn't get anything, not even a penny.
She's paid a high price for her involvement with scammers.
I'd just like to warn others, anybody else that's elderly and...
..you think you know it all, but you don't,
just to warn them, and not to happen to them,
because it's happened to me.
And it's completely devastating.
It does affect your health, as well.
How do you plan to get over this, then? How will you recover from it?
Well, I just plan to live one day at a time,
be active and take an interest in outside stuff rather than...
Presumably you've got friends and family to help you.
You need good friends and family to help you, yes.
But you feel you've let everybody down.
The shocking story of how scammers conned a pensioner out of her life savings. Chris Moore reports.