Rise of con artists a scourge on society

Scams come in many shapes and forms, from con artists at the door to dodgy offers in your mail. Picture: Toby Williams
Scams come in many shapes and forms, from con artists at the door to dodgy offers in your mail. Picture: Toby Williams
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THE knock on the door brings the kind offer to carry out some vital repair work right away at an impossibly good rate.

Then there’s the worrying phone call from the bank. Don’t panic, just hand over your savings and everything will be just fine.

E-mails from friends stranded in far-flung places and in desperate need of a quick loan, or others offering a lottery fortune in exchange for, strange as it sounds, a large payment.

How about the helpful caller who offers to fix the computer you didn’t know was malfunctioning, just let them take over remote control of it, don’t worry that your bank details and passwords are all on there, and everything will be fine?

Put like that in plain black and white, it seems ludicrous that anyone might be tempted to fall for the bogus workman, the devious conman caller or e-mail scammer.

But every year more than three million of us fall victim to scams, losing hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds. It is thought around 48 per cent of us in the UK have been affected and yet only around five per cent of cases are reported. Most despicably, many of those hardest hurt are the most vulnerable.

For them, sadly, the impact of being robbed and tricked in their own home can have devastating consequences. Home Office research found in 2003 that elderly victims of distraction burglary – another name for bogus callers – declined in health faster than their non-victimised peers.

Since then the tricks and scams have evolved dramatically as con artists take advantage of our increasing reliance on the internet and phone to conduct our financial business: online shopping and auction scams were the most common fraud reported in 2013 at the cost of £63.6 million.

One of the most prevalent cons at the moment involves a smooth-talking caller claiming to be from the victim’s bank and cunningly convincing them to simply deposit their savings into a bogus account. That’s what almost happened earlier this month to a 93-year-old Edinburgh woman, who was convinced into believing she had to withdraw a four figure sum from her own account and place it in a ‘safe’ account. She was only stopped from doing so after speaking to her bank and her family.

Less fortunate was the Falkirk man a few weeks earlier, who deposited more than £15,000 into the conman’s hands.

In that case, the caller had a polite Edinburgh accent and claimed to be from the Royal Bank of Scotland situated at ­Gogarburn.

But it’s not only over the phone that innocent and vulnerable people can be caught out. E-mail scams which offer investment deals, often diverting people to glossy and seemingly valid websites are causing increasing concern.

It makes door-to-door ‘rogue traders’, who appear unannounced and smooth talk householders into getting unnecessary work done seem almost dated in their methods. Yet they still successfully defraud thousands of people every year.

Katie Docherty, head of charity services at Age Scotland, warns: “Scams can come in many forms, from rogue traders on your doorstep to phone scammers trying to steal account details. People don’t only lose money and time as a result of this criminal behaviour, but can also face diminished self-esteem and a loss of dignity.” The sums of money lost by innocent victims can be considerable. At one point the police doorstep crime strategy in Edinburgh, dubbed Operation Aristotle, was looking into ten cases which alone had resulted in £400,000 of losses to the victims. According to DC Ben Leathes, who oversees Operation Aristotle, the west of the city can be a hot spot for rogue traders. However, they can strike at anywhere at any time of the year.

“These crimes have a very negative impact on victims’ quality of life,” he says. “To the extent that even their life expectancy can be significantly reduced as a result. Most prevalent is the person that offers to carry out roof work.

“They exploit the fact the most people can’t usually see what is going on up on the roof and so if they are told there is something badly in need of repair and there’ll be further damage if it’s not repaired.

“If you are not expecting anyone to carry out any work on your property and the caller is totally unannounced, do not enter in to any discussion with them,” advises DC Leathes.

“Just thank them for pointing out the problem and tell them you will look into it.

“And don’t be persuaded to join them at the end of the garden to look up at the roof or the overgrown trees – just in case they are operating with another person who might go inside while you’re distracted.

“If in any doubt about a caller or if you see someone acting suspiciously, call the police on 101.”

n Age Scotland has advice for people concerned about rogue traders and scams. Contact their advice line Silver Line Scotland on 0800 4 70 80 90.

For advice and to request free guides for staying safe and avoiding scams.