Best-selling financial author Rodney Hobson has advice for older people to protect themselves from scammers
OUR MODERN communications have produced a golden age for scammers. Never before has it been possible to target so many people so quickly, so easily and so cheaply ? and so anonymously.
As the hacking of various websites such as telecoms group TalkTalk demonstrates, everyone is vulnerable, but unfortunately it is often older people who are specifically targeted, because:
- They are more likely to be alone and therefore more vulnerable
- They tend to be more trusting
- They are generally less knowledgeable about modern communications
- They are more easily scared or bullied.
Although many scams have been widely publicised, people must keep falling for them as they crop up time and time again. Yet most scams are easily avoided if you follow simple precautions. (For the purposes of this article I will refer to a scammer as he, because the majority are male.)
The doorstep scammer
This is the hardest scammer to deal with as he is in your face. Typically a doorstep scammer will tell you that you need work doing on your house or driveway. Either he has spotted something wrong, such as a tile that has slipped, or he just happens to be in the neighbourhood and has materials left over from a job he has done up the road. Such people claim to be recommended by a neighbour ? but one conveniently far enough away for you not to know them personally. They will claim that the job they propose is urgent and failure to fix the problem will have disastrous consequences.
There will often be two scammers working together, so one can gain access to your home and rifle through your valuables while the other keeps you talking. If they do any work, it will be substandard and overpriced.
Consider these points:
- Are you accepting material that someone else has paid for and is therefore entitled to?
- Has the material been stolen rather than left over? n What quality is it? Is it fit for purpose?
- Are you paying an excessive price for the labour involved?
The perpetrators will make sure they get paid by demanding cash upfront. They will not take cheques that can easily be cancelled. They are prepared to march their weak and vulnerable victims to a cash point or a bank branch to get cash.
It will be impossible to trace the perpetrators when the work turns out to have been done shoddily or not at all. There will be no warranty guaranteeing the work and no after-care service.
You may feel tempted to have the work done because paying cash evades VAT. Remember that if you act illegally you will be in no position to report any unsatisfactory work. You won?t get a proper receipt with the company?s name and registered address on it so you will have no proof you paid anybody anything. As with all scammers, it?s best not to get caught in their web in the first place.
Have a chain on the door and keep it on, even if you are expecting a friend, while you establish who is on your doorstep. It is harder for a scammer to wheedle his way in through a door that is only a couple of inches ajar.
Ask yourself this: Why would you take the word of a complete stranger that you need work doing on your house? And why would you trust the work to someone you know nothing about? Get a builder or handyman you have used before and whom you can trust to give you an honest assessment.
Don?t hesitate to tell the caller he will have to come back when your husband or son is home (I know that?s sexist but a man is more likely to be scared off by another man) or that you have no money even if it is a white lie. Scammers have no compunction in preying on vulnerable people so you are entitled to use any tactics to get rid of them.
Ask for identification and write down the name, address and telephone number of anyone calling at your door. Get a business card if you can.
Genuine door-to-door callers, such as meter readers and council officials, have badges dangling from their necks. This is not a guarantee that the caller is genuine, since fake badges can easily be printed from a computer, but if the caller refuses to give identification, you know there is something dodgy about him.
The telephone scammer
The scammer on the end of the line is, in theory, much easier to deal with than one on your doorstep: you just put the phone down. Yet there is something beguiling about the silver-tongued charmer who has rung you ? especially if you are lonely.
Telephone scammers can be like chameleons, changing their colours. They switch effortlessly between friendly, bombastic, cajoling and bullying. Some operate through endless patience, gradually wearing you down, while others try to panic you into hasty action.
They will often claim to be acting in some kind of official capacity and may try to give the impression that they work for, or on behalf of, a government department. This is almost certainly untrue. You should assume that anyone who cold-calls claiming to represent the government is a scammer. Genuine government officials rarely ring individuals. It is better to miss out on a possible handout than lose your life savings in a fraud.
Do not give personal information to a caller posing as an official. You are not obliged to do so and it could be used against you. Similarly, callers who claim to be ringing from Microsoft because there is something wrong with your computer are 100 per cent bogus. There is no way that your computer can send signals to Microsoft.
A caller claiming to be a computer expert will ask you to log on to your computer and follow his instructions. He will claim that what comes up on your screen indicates a fault whereas what you are seeing is perfectly normal. You will then either be charged for putting right a non-existent fault or the scammer will download a malicious programme on to your computer to extract personal details. Do not follow his instructions, even if you really are having problems with your computer. Find a local expert to fix it.
Scammers may pretend to be ringing from your bank or the police to say that your credit card has been cloned or someone is trying to withdraw funds from your account. Do not be panicked into action.
Do not give information to the caller. In particular, do not divulge any passwords or PIN numbers. And do not agree to hand over your card ? neither the police nor your bank will ever ask for this.
Do not transfer money from your account to one the telephone caller designates. Your bank will not ask you to do this. If you are worried, contact your bank?s security department, preferably using a different phone. If you must use the same phone line, wait for three minutes to make sure the caller has not kept the line open ? if he has, you will be ringing the scammer, not your bank.
Some scammers phone offering you the chance to snap up what is supposedly the investment opportunity of a lifetime. They run what are known as boiler rooms, because they turn up the heat and the pressure.
These callers are not regulated by the relevant authorities in the UK or anywhere else and the investments they offer will be obscure. If you buy, you will never be able to cash in your investment because it will not be traded on any market, and in any case you will have no means of contacting the caller. He will be able to contact you, though, and he will phone continually to wear you down until you agree to buy more worthless assets. Ask yourself these questions:
- Why have you been selected?
- Why are the people offering this opportunity not snapping it up themselves?
- Is the person who is calling, and the company he works for, regulated? If so, by whom?
- How can this person possibly know what your investment needs are, how much you can safely invest and what degree of risk you are willing to take?
- Who says this investment is underpriced? Has it been valued independently and by whom?
- Do you know anything about the asset on offer?
Some telephone scams come in the form of an automated message asking you to press a button on your keypad. Never do so because you will then almost certainly be paying for the call at premium rates.
The internet scammer
The classic scam coming via your e-mail is surely the letter from Lagos, so called because in early versions it purported to emanate from the Nigerian capital. It can, however, be linked to any country, preferably one with a dubious political regime and tight foreign currency controls.
The basic theme is that someone has money trapped in a country and your help is needed to get it out. You will be amply rewarded for your assistance. You are asked to provide details of your bank account, such as the name of the bank, the name on the account, the sort code and your account number.
You are told the money will be transmitted into your account and you will subsequently be asked to transmit it, minus your substantial percentage of the proceeds, on to another account. In reality, the scammer uses the details you have helpfully provided to empty your bank account, not put money in.
In this scam, as with several other e-mail frauds, the perpetrator openly admits that what he proposes is illegal but claims there is no fear of getting caught. Never get drawn into anything that is clearly not above-board. You will have no chance of gaining redress if you knew you were taking part in illegal activity.
The letter from Lagos scam can operate as what is known as an advance fee fraud, where you are asked to make an upfront payment as a gesture of good faith.
The advance fee fraud exists in many forms, but the basic principle is this:
- You pay upfront
- You don?t receive what you expected
- There are then further fees to pay
- You face the dilemma of whether to cut your losses or throw good money after bad.
Typical lures are lottery prizes, money transfers from abroad and compensation claims. It is amazing how easy it is to believe you have won a lottery when you didn?t even buy a ticket! Or why would you be entitled to compensation for something that has never happened to you?
Rogue e-mails may come from an apparently innocent or familiar source such as a friend, your e-mail provider or your bank. You may be asked to confirm your account details or track an item that has been posted to you. These e-mails always have a link to click on or an attachment to open. You must ignore the temptation, as this is where the malware will be.
Instead, note down any reference number in the e-mail if there is one, close he message and delete it, then try to track down the sender through your own search engine. You may find other people have reported the message as a scam or are questioning its authenticity, in which case you can assume it is not genuine.
If the message gives the name of a company, access that company?s website through your browser and see if it is a genuine site. Then type in any code given in the message in the appropriate box or enter the subject matter into the site?s search facility. If the contact is genuine, you will find out what the message is all about.
If you are conned
If you have been targeted by a scam, or know someone who has been, contact Action Fraud, the UK?s national reporting centre for fraud and internet crime.
If credit or debit cards, online banking or cheques are involved in the scam, your first step should be to contact your bank or credit card company.
If you think something may be a scam, phone the Citizens Advice Consumer Service. It passes details of cases to Trading Standards officers responsible for protecting consumers against rogue traders.
Above all, warn family, friends, neighbours, your local Neighbourhood Watch scheme and anyone else who will listen.
Aggrieved account holders feel, understandably, that they are innocent victims, but banks are very reluctant to reimburse any money lost, especially when it is you, not the bank, who fell for the scam.
The bank may also feel that account holders who are reimbursed will feel no need to take greater care if they are subsequently approached by another scammer.
If you contacted your bank before transferring money to a scammer and can show that the bank led you to believe that the call was genuine, you are far more likely to get your money refunded.
Also, if you fall for this scam but realise you have been conned, alerting your bank as quickly as possible may limit the amount that is stolen and may mean cash already transferred can be recovered before the scammer moves it out of reach.
If your bank refuses to refund money taken fraudulently, you have the right to appeal to the Financial Ombudsman Service.
Top tips to thwart scammers
- Never do business with people who call you. If you want a job done, find someone you trust to do it
- Don?t do business on your doorstep
- Put the phone down on cold callers (people who ring you uninvited). Don?t worry about being rude. They are the ones invading your space
- Don?t sound interested in anything a cold caller tells you. It only encourages them
- Never press a button on your telephone keypad when prompted todosobyacoldcall
- Don?t allow a cold caller remote access to your computer
- Never click on a link in an e-mail unless you are absolutely certain it is genuine
- Never hand over your credit or debit card to a stranger. If you use it to pay a bill in a shop or restaurant, do not let it out of your sight
- Never divulge any password or PIN number
- Always check monthly statements such as those for bank accounts or store cards as soon as you receive them to see if there are any items you don?t recognise. If there are, raise a query immediately. It doesn?t matter if it turns out to be a genuine item
- Log on to your bank?s website to check for information on the latest scams
- Don?t allow yourself to be panicked into taking hasty action
- Don?t respond to offers to remove yourself from a database by pressing a button on your telephone
- If you buy anything online, don?t agree to an unusual payment method n Remember, above all else: if it looks too good to be true, it?s a scam.