past four months, readers of the Guardian and Observer have reported losing more than £1m to frauds as an epidemic of scams sweeps the country. Since the start of June, we have heard from more than 30 readers who have been tricked into handing money over to criminals and have written to ask for our help. Individual losses have ranged from a few hundred pounds to £245,000, and in total come to £1.05m. Some of the frauds date back many months, and readers are still trying to get their money back, but many have happened since the Covid pandemic started and reflect rising levels of fraud across the country.
According to the banking trade body, UK Finance, more than £750m was stolen from consumers in only the first six months of this year, with fraudsters using increasingly sophisticated means to part people from their cash.
Each of these crimes leaves a victim. They are devastated at having been duped and, in some cases, are left struggling to get by, having seen their life savings disappear. Banks, building societies and other financial organisations are adding automated warnings and interventions to try to get customers to think twice about payments and to report suspicious calls and emails before they act on them. But our readers’ stories show that more needs to be done. Transfers appear to be too easy, fraudsters too plausible and refunds are hit and miss. Here are some of the stories we heard during the summer.
Lloyds Bank Online cyber security page on laptop
Victims of fraud: how to get your money back from your bank
Groomed for eight months and persuaded to hand over £160,000
Retired nurse Mabel Jennings* had spent most of the year shielding from Covid when her phone rang. An articulate stranger claimed he was calling from a financial firm, Harrell Securities LLC, about her BP shares. Jennings owned 300, worth about £1,000, and she was told that clients of Harrell may be interested in buying them for more than their market value.
High angle view of a red phone receiver
Mabel Jennings was persuaded to sign up with a company to sell her shares and then over eight months was groomed with weekly calls and emails. Photograph: the_burtons/Getty Images
The 82-year-old, who had been recently widowed, was persuaded to sign up with the company to sell her shares. Then, over the next eight months, she was groomed with weekly calls and emails, and bombarded with official-looking letters and contracts requesting payments for associated costs.
Jennings made 13 payments totalling £159,918 to an account in Indonesia. Her bank, HSBC, questioned the first £5,292 transfer and a later sum but accepted that she was paying a company to sell her shares and allowed the remaining payments of up to £31,000 a time to go through uncontested – even though she had previously fallen victim to a different scam.
Jennings only realised there was a problem when she was unable to contact Harrell after she had emptied her savings accounts and borrowed £2,800 from her nephew for what she hoped was the final payment. “She was too ashamed to tell me what happened – she had to write me a letter,” her stepson says. “I think lockdown made her even lonelier and more trusting than usual. Now she has to survive solely on her monthly pension with no savings left for a holiday or car repair.”
HSBC managed to recover the final payment of £2,676 and returned it to Jennings but it but refused to reimburse the rest. It says that the contingent reimbursement model (CRM) – a voluntary code outlining when defrauded customers should get back their cash – does not cover payments overseas.
However, banks can still be held liable for overseas transfers if they are deemed to have failed in their duty of care, according to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS). The CRM requires signatory banks to refund all customers categorised as vulnerable, and it was for this reason that HSBC reimbursed Jennings after she lost money to a courier fraud six years earlier. After we questioned HSBC’s level of protection for vulnerable customers, it repaid the £159,918.
Tricked into giving criminals access to his bank account
Gareth Wilcox*, 86, was called by a man purporting to be a BT security engineer and persuaded that his internet connection had been compromised. During a two-hour call, the scammer tricked him into allowing remote access to his computer and asked him to open his online NatWest account to check the security settings. Immediately, £5,000 was stolen from his account. Wilcox spent £56 trying to get through to NatWest’s fraud department but the bank refused to refund the stolen money despite having cancelled his debit card two weeks earlier when Wilcox was tricked into authorising payment to a fraudster impersonating HMRC.