The day I fell foul of the bank card scammers
Opening a newspaper recently, a headline about rental fraud caught my eye. A new survey by 192.com's revealed that one in ten people have fallen victim to rental scams, with corrupt landlords making £755million a year by taking deposits from unsuspecting would-be tenants for properties that either don't exist, or are already occupied.
It seems that new scams are cropping up on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Whether it's cold callers pretending they're from your utilities company, or fake emails claiming to be from HM Revenue & Customs, asking for your bank details because you're owed a tax rebate.
Last month it was reported that adverts for jobs at Harrods, which appeared on Gumtree, had actually been posted by fraudsters. When job-seekers downloaded the application form, it enabled the criminals to extract personal details from their computers and then rinse their bank accounts.
Last year, research by Which? revealed that one in ten people has fallen victim to some sort of financial scam in the past five years, while other figures suggest that as many as one in four have been hit by credit card fraud.
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It's much easier to fall prey to a con artist than you might think. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way earlier this year, when I became the victim of an elaborate scam.
Happily watching TV at home one Sunday morning, I received a call from "Visa Card Services". The person on the other end told me there'd been a number of fraudulent transactions on my account since midnight, adding up to about £1,100.
I'd never heard of "Visa Card Services" before, but then, I'd never had money stolen like this before.
The caller confirmed the last genuine withdrawal I'd made – which reassured me that they were genuine – then gave me a reference number and told me to hang up then ring the number on the back of my bank card.
I followed his instructions, and spoke to someone who knew all about the supposed fraud. I was told that, apparently, my card had been cloned at the ATM I'd used, and then used to purchase items from the Apple Store.
The person from "HSBC's card protection department" now helping me had all my details – full name, date of birth and, crucially, my address. When he said a courier was on the way to collect my bank card for further examination, I initially flinched at the idea, but he explained that it was needed to properly analyse the chip. It all seemed quite legitimate – after all, I'd called the bank myself. So when I was told to type my PIN number into the keypad of my phone, I did.
Later that afternoon, I had another call telling me they'd now received my bank card, and that the money I'd lost would be back in my account in a few days.
There were several other calls updating me, and I was relatively content. But, a few days later, I hadn't heard anything.
Worried, I called the bank, this time from my mobile, and explained to the person on the other end what had happened. My nightmare stepped up a notch with the most chilling phrase of all: "But Mr Welch, your cards haven't been reported stolen."
The people I'd been dealing with initially, trusting with all my details and hoping would return my money, were in fact the criminals. To say I felt stupid, as well as humiliated, angry and upset, is an understatement.
This happened in February and I've since come to terms with it. It's a matter of good faith, I've decided. Once you call the number on the back of a bank card and go through security stages, especially when the caller has all your details, you enter into a world of trust where you're no longer the boss, the person on the other end takes over.
When everything seems to add up, as it did to me at the time, you don't expect to be taken advantage of.
The police were very helpful. Once I told them the story, they went through the likely series of events that led to the theft. By now, they'd taken around £5,500 from me, and even though, unofficially, the police told me the banks always refund the first-time defrauded, I was a bit of a wreck.
It all started, they think, on the Saturday night – the evening before the first phone call – where one of the gang will have watched me take money from the cash machine, which is how they'd obtained details of my last transaction.
The thought of being spied on while you're enjoying a night out with friends is sinister enough, but then the police told me that the gang probably also followed me home, making a note of my address.
The scammers might also have had a dossier on me, containing other details. There's a huge black market – or grey market, as it's not always illegal, just immoral – with companies selling people's personal information to other companies.
As for the "legitimate" call to the bank I'd made, to the number on the back of my card – well, credit where it's due, what happened here is pretty clever...
Due to the way the phone system works in the UK, when somebody calls a landline, it's only the caller who can end the call. If the receiver hangs up, but the caller doesn't, the line is still technically open. So when I hung up, then dialled the bank's number, a fraudster was actually still on the line, waiting to pick up.
He first played a dial tone, then a ring tone, making me think it was a normal call.
Fortunately, I got all my money back within about ten days, although I did have to get new bank accounts and cards and, belt and braces, I've since changed my passwords for just about everything I have a log-on for.
It was a massive pain, and it's easy to think there's no harm done, but really, we're all paying for this. The elevated bank charges and high interest rates we all pay on loans and credit cards fund this industry and, as the statistics show, scams are happening all the time.
I'm now on my guard more than ever, and I'd like to think it won't ever happen to me again. But then, I thought that before – I never thought I'd be the sort of person to fall for a scam like this.
You might think that too. But, be cautious. Not everyone out there's as nice as you are.