Thaeft, blackmail and coersion on a vast scale

GawliczekI’D BE pressed to imagine anyone as hard, laid-back and cynical as my old pal Max. He was a veteran reporter when I first worked with him and he’d been there and done it. He’d tramped the rough edges of London and then Manchester and Liverpool. He knew les flics and he knew the villains.

Max retired a few years ago but we kept in touch, not as often as I’d have liked but that’s the way of the world these days, I’m afraid. The last time I saw him, a few months ago, he was excited as he opened the front door of his apartment. He could hardly contain himself. “Guess what? I’ve just won ten grand on some big European lottery!”

He showed me the letter congratulating him on his good fortune. I’d seen them before. A lot of them; all similar, all gushing, all too good to be true. Max would be in his late 70s and I suddenly realised that my old pal was no longer the cool, tough hack I used to revere. He was a lonely and vulnerable old man. Just the sort of prey that world-wide scammers like to get their claws into. I realised that if Max could get hooked then anyone can. You can. And, yes, I can.

It wasn’t easy explaining that, actually, Max, old pal, it’s just a rip-off. “They’re asking you to send ’em a few quid first and then they’ve got you. It’s big business – and nobody is safe. These boys are good. Very good.” He looked crestfallen and embarrassed but he perked up over a few pints down at his local.

Max was lucky. Throughout Europe the elderly and the lonely are being systematically conned out of many millions of pounds. It’s been going on for years, but now the fightback has started – launched by an unlikely heroine in Marilyn Baldwin, an attractive blonde woman in her 50’s and an equally determined lass at the Lancashire police headquarters at Hutton, near Preston.

Det. Insp. Janet Baldwin of the Force Intelligence Unit told me: “It’s theft, blackmail and coercion on a vast scale. Gangs are raking in millions throughout Europe but it’s a crime wave that is seldom reported and if it is reported it isn’t always recorded. Frankly, no one knows just how vast the problem is. And, unfortunately, it’s not a high priority for most national police forces throughout Europe.”

It is not “sexy” – unlike bank robberies, armed sieges, helicopter chases and terrorist plots. And tackling the scammers takes a lot of time, effort and resources.

Officers from the Metropolitan Police force have been over to Holland and Belgium, where many of the scammers are based, but found little interest from police in those countries. “Not a problem,” was the usual response. Oh yes it is. Just ask some of the old dears who have lost many thousands to mass marketing scams such as lottery “wins”, psychics and clairvoyants.

Det. Insp. Baldwin listened as Marilyn gave a talk at a national fraud conference a couple of years ago. There must have been 500 officers there, but only Janet took hold of the reins and began to get things moving.

“Fraud is a difficult area for police forces,” she conceded. “Vast sums of money can be involved but investigations can be very time-consuming. And often the sentences handed down are derisory.” Anyone planning a life of crime these days should perhaps forget drugs and mug up the many fraud options, it seems.

However, the fightback is under way in earnest and various training initiatives are being reviewed. A new National Fraud Authority has been set up and their Action Fraud department is the place to go to for anyone wishing to report fraud. One problem is that it has to be the victim who reports it. But at last, a national picture of mass marketing fraud will be built up and it will have the backing of the City of London Police whose expertise in economic crime is second to none. Sadly, any money which has been sent off to the scammers, is unlikely ever to be recovered due to the complexities of obtaining evidence from offshore jurisdictions.

Meanwhile, in Lancashire, Det. Insp. Baldwin is encouraging her colleagues to point people with concerns to Action Fraud. “In the past we haven’t had a co-ordinated response. It was often easy for the bobby on the beat to look at this sort of fraud as simply a civil matter. This approach has to change,” she says. “We are doing our best to make officers well aware of the misery mass marketing fraud can cause, not just financially but from a health perspective. These people have no qualms. They have no consciences. They are nasty and vicious.”

Lancashire Police held an important training conference last February at their HQ. It was attended by officers from several government organisations. The Metropolitan Police were just one of the forces represented. There were also members of various groups whose input into the training scheme was considered vital. A successful follow-up to the conference was held in September when progress was reviewed.

A vast array of organisations have been drawn into the fight, among them groups looking after the elderly and the infirm; health visitors and carers; trading standards departments, neighbourhood watch and local housing officials. Says Janet: “Everyone has to be aware of the problem and everyone has to be prepared to do something about it.”

Metropolitan Police officers have been talking to the Royal Mail and to organisations who are more than happy to post on letters to give the impression they have been sourced in the UK – for a hefty fee. Police have a handy weapon which they aren’t afraid to wave around – money laundering. It’s just the sort of thing to get attention.

But the big problem in this country is that the Royal Mail point to their duty to deliver letters – whether it’s a birthday card or a lottery scam. And the ordinary postmen and women who can deliver 30 and 40 letters a day to one house, well knowing that nearly all of them are from scammers, aren’t allowed to blow any whistles. This has to be tackled at Government level, say the police.

Banks could also do more, they say. Sudden, regular payments of large amounts of cash should trigger suspicion among branch staff. But of course legislation such as data protection and human rights are holding people back from getting involved. One lonely old lady who lost thousands in regular payments abroad told police that all she ever wanted when she walked into her local branch was for someone to put a kindly hand on her shoulder and ask if they might be of some assistance. “I’d have poured my heart out,” she sobbed.

Training postmen and women and staff at bank branches to be alert and ready to respond is another initiative that it being pursued. But it all takes time.

The rise in social networking sites on the Internet has allowed scammers to move in on target groups such as the deaf, many of whom rely on the web for their social life. Lancashire Police are working with organisations who look after the hard of hearing and have been training them to be alert for the dangers. One young deaf lad lost GBP 40,000 which he sent off happily believing that he had found a girl friend in the USA. He sent “her” money for presents and for her air fare over here. When his mother found out and asked the girlfriend to set up a web-cam link she – a  male scammer from Nigeria, it turned out – had one last squeeze. The lad was asked to send more money – to pay for the web-cam!

“Their shameless cheek; their blatant disregard for their victims is almost unbelievable,” says Janet. She couldn’t resist a smile when she told of being given one scam lottery letter congratulating the recipient on winning the “Lancashire Police Lottery”!

The Internet is probably responsible for the steady growth in mass marketing fraud. Gathering information on possible victims has never been easier while lists of everyone from the old, the sick, the lonely, the gullible – and. yes, the greedy – are readily available and are passed round from one gang to another. And once they get you – they don’t let go. Everyone has to be alert. Responding to a “prize win” might cost you just a few pounds for a premium rate phone call and another few pounds for “post and packaging” but the damage is done. You are on the list. You are susceptible. And they know where you live.

Victims often buy into a dream. Psychics and clairvoyants promise the earth to the recently bereaved. It’s not long before they are on the phone and things soon get menacing. For others, old and lonely, a letter or a phone call is often the highlight of their day. All too often they just won’t listen to the entreaties of family and friends.

Marilyn Baldwin’s mother Jessica was a victim. She sent off thousands of pounds until there was very little left. She was in the very early stages of dementia and just wouldn’t listen to reason. Since her death Marilyn has dedicated herself to fighting the scammers. Look at her Think Jessica web site. It paints a frightening picture of the ruthless, cunning and determined scammers and of the millions they have been making all over Europe and further afield. Groups that have an interest in the welfare of older people are using the site to develop their own training and awareness programmes.

Police cutbacks in these difficult economic times are likely to mean that forces throughout the UK have to concentrate on the basics. Fraud, even on a vast scale, is unlikely to attract the resources needed to tackle it. Training officers to respond positively to the problem is all they can hope for in the short term, Det. Insp. Baldwin concedes. “But we can teach vigilance. We can make people aware of the problem and, in time, we hope to bring some of these evil scammers to justice.”


Harold Heys has been a journalist for more than 50 years. He worked for several British newspapers and spent 20 years on The People, a national Sunday. In the past 25 years he has taken a keen interest in newspaper technology and editorial training and retired as Editorial Systems Manager of Newsquest Lancashire. He now runs management seminars on written English and writes features for magazines.



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