By Richard Fleury
Mr and Mrs B – they don't want their names revealed – are a retired couple who live in a modest but immaculately-kept terraced house. Faversham residents for most of their lives, they are devoted to each other and their family.
One Friday in late June this year, a tall, casually but expensively-dressed young man rang their doorbell. Eyes darting, he was visibly anxious.
“He looked scared, really nervous,” said Mrs B. “Looking back I think another few seconds and he would have run away.”
He whispered a password and she handed over a well-wrapped parcel. The young man placed it under his arm and walked away. Sensing something was wrong, Mr B began to follow. A voice on the phone told Mrs B to call her husband back.
By the time they realised they had been tricked, it was too late. The parcel contained £10,000 in cash. They would never see it again. “We felt like we'd robbed ourselves,” said Mrs B.
The couple were the victims of a cruel con, an elaborate charade which began with a phone call claiming to be from Hammersmith Police Station and ended with them giving savings intended for their grandchildren to a criminal gang.
Sadly, their story is not unusual. Nationally, more than £1 million a day is lost to organised fraud gangs who con their victims into transferring or handing over money. Called Authorised Push Payment fraud or APP, it is a huge problem and Kent is very much on the front line. Posing as police officers, bank personnel, court staff or tax officials, perpetrators deliberately target the elderly or vulnerable.
“People that are targeted by these sorts of criminals are of the generation that will trust the police,” says Detective Sergeant Marc Cananur of Kent Police's Serious Economic Crime Unit. “They will trust Trading Standards or any of these other official agencies they purport to be, because they were brought up to do so, and why would you question someone of authority?”
“Kent has got one of the highest percentages of elderly residents in the UK,” he says. “And we are on decent arterial routes to and from London.”
A particularly cruel kind of APP, so-called 'courier fraud' is when the criminal gang send someone to the victim's doorstep to collect a cash parcel. Why cash? Because some criminals are switching away from bank transfers to avoid leaving a digital footprint. In some especially loathsome cases, smooth-talking scammers will actually drive their victims to a bank or bureau de change to withdraw the money.
“A lot of people aren't familiar with this type of crime,” says DS Cananur. “But along with rogue traders, it's our core business at the moment.”
Faversham residents are regularly targeted, as are neighbouring towns. One victim in Whitstable lost £130,000 to a courier fraud; her entire life's savings, according to DS Cananur.
“In Kent we take a real hard line against this sort of crime,” he says. “It is a priority for us and we are making significant steps forward.”
Kent Police are making arrests. Last year conman Hamza Ali was jailed for five years after admitting fraud offences in Faversham and Sittingbourne. Ali, from North London, played a leading role in a gang who specialised in ripping off the elderly and vulnerable. One victim, a 90-year-old woman, handed over £20,000 of jewellery and £3,790 in cash after receiving up to 95 phone calls per day. Posing as police officers, gang members persuaded victims to withdraw significant sums from their bank accounts and hand packages of cash and valuables to 'police' couriers.
In July this year, Ahmed Yasin from East London was sentenced to 15 months imprisonment after admitting his part in a courier fraud. The 18-year-old was arrested in May after police stopped a car and found cash Ahmed had taken from a Faversham couple.
“I'd like to think we're slowly beginning to win the war,” says DS Cananur, cautiously.
But despite the arrests, gangs are still targeting Faversham residents – as Mr and Mrs B discovered to their cost. And the aftermath of these crimes can be shattering. “When victims find out they've been duped, it's humiliating, embarrassing and financially impactive,” he says. “They always say to us 'How could I have been so stupid?'. But it's not through greed or stupidity that they become victims of crime. It's them picking up their phone in the privacy of their own home and doing what they think is the right thing because someone from law enforcement has instructed them to do it.”
And also because the caller seems to be acting in their interest. The patter often begins with the victim being told there's been some suspicious activity on their bank account – someone's bought a washing machine in the West Midlands, for instance. To reassure them, the victims are then asked to call back on a number such as 101, 999 or 161 to verify the caller's identity.
But in reality, the caller never puts the phone down. They're still on the line with another scammer posing as a receptionist.
“They way they word it is “We're worried about your bank accounts, we're worried that you're going to lose more money. We've identified you've been the victim of a crime', says DS Cananur. “And they think 'They're on my side. Of course I'll help. Why wouldn't I?'”
Persuasive and sophisticated, fraudsters sometimes obtain personal details about their victims which they drop into the conversation to build credibility. But although details may change, the patter is remarkably similar from one case to another.
“It's almost as if they've read a script and bought it off another gang,” says DS Cananur.“When you've got someone who's purporting to be a police office who's very slick and well-versed in police terminology, they seem plausible and you're not going to doubt them or you go along with it because you feel compelled to do it.”
Nevertheless the crime leaves victims financially devastated and often overwhelmed with feelings of shame and self-blame. Like Faversham's Mr and Mrs B, many are too embarrassed to tell friends or family what has happened.
“We assure them that they have not been stupid,” says DS Canaur. “They're one of many, many people who have fallen for this because these criminals are so good at what they do.”
Across the UK last year more than £354 million was stolen from 83,864 people: a 44 percent increase on the previous year. Victims have included retired police officers.
Typically, the gangs responsible are London-based. The couriers used to collect the cash are often teenagers, recruited from colleges via Snapchat group messages and paid between £50 to £500.
“These are often young, impressionable kids. They're adamant, every single one of them, that they didn't know what was in the parcel. They want to buy new trainers, new designer clothes and it's a quick buck, an easy day's work for them, naively, stupidly,” says DS Marc Cananur. “They don't think about the consequences, they don't think about the circumstances, they just think about the money.
“It probably hits home when they're visiting these elderly victims - 'What have got I involved with here?' - but it's too late by that point because they've met the person above them in the organised crime group. They're then compelled to do it, probably with an element of intimidation.
“And they're always instructed – which is why the victims always have to wrap it up – 'don't look in the parcel, don't touch it, just deliver that parcel to this person'. But ignorance isn't a defence to these sort of crimes.
Courier fraud is big business. “They are making significant amounts of money on the back of this which is why we take it so seriously and it's classed as organised crime,” says DS Cananur.
The criminals involved are cash-rich, spending the spoils quickly on a luxurious lifestyle, designer goods, expensive watches and flashy cars. They often have little money to their names, which makes it difficult for police to claw back victims' money via confiscation under the Proceeds of Crime Act. Meanwhile victims can be left dealing with profound emotional and financial distress.
“This is money which is there for their retirement,” says DS Cananur. “They've worked hard for it all their life. Or it's for siblings, grandchildren and to enjoy their final years, not for some criminal in London to spend on fancy cars and mobiles and clothes.
“It's vile,” he continues. “For them to be able to sleep at night knowing that they're robbing elderly people of their hard-earned cash is just sickening and an incentive for us to do everything we can to catch these people. Our department is passionate about doing just that.”
Those who fall prey to this kind of crime are often left not knowing where to turn for advice or who they can trust. Which makes a recent investigation by a national newspaper into an official fraud help line all the more disturbing...
Action Fraud is a Government-funded national body set up to deal with reports of fraud and cybercrime. In 2014 it was transferred to the City of London Police, then outsourced to US firm Concentrix.
A journalist from The Times who took a job at an Action Fraud call centre revealed most caller's cases were dismissed, either by Concentrix employees or an algorithm, while being assured their reports would be investigated. As well as misleading victims staff were witnessed describing callers as “morons”, “screwballs” and “psychos” for falling for scams. And inexperienced call handlers, some allegedly just 16 years old, were taking victims’ reports after just two weeks of training.
City of London Police Commander Karen Baxter played down Action Fraud's problems, describing them as “a small number of isolated incidents” and adding: “We would not want this to deter members of the public from coming forward and reporting fraud.”
But according to The Times, just 10,000 of the 270,000 crime reports Action Fraud filed led to a suspect being caught.
If you are the victim of this type of scam, report it to your local police, then contact your bank immediately. A new fraud code introduced this year mean most banks agree to compensate customers who fall prey to APP cons within 15 days, provided they have taken reasonable care or are vulnerable. The scheme is voluntary however, and not all banks have signed up.
Is someone phoning you purporting to be a police officer? If in doubt, put the phone down.
Cold caller at the door? If you're not sure, don't answer.
Are you in the phone book? Do you really need to be in it? It's predominantly the older generation that are in the phone book. If no, get yourself out of it.
Do you think its appropriate to receive withheld numbers? If not, get call-barring whereby you can't receive withheld numbers. Or even better, use something like a Truecall device that scans who's ringing and callers have to introduce themselves before you accept the call.
“Hairs should prick up the moment you hear 'Fraud Squad', 'New Scotland Yard' or 'ring me back for reassurance'” says DS Cananur. “The names of the 'police officers' involved are often changing but that's because its different gangs operating. But the whole patter or terminology is similar. It starts with 'you've had some suspicious activity, spending on your account', or the courts, or you had some work done a year ago...”