Phone scammers preyed on retirees' vulnerability


Four men have been found guilty at the Old Bailey of taking part in a scam targeting pensioners across the south of England.

This was a fraud which preyed upon people's vulnerability and in some cases their frailty and isolation to net a gang what police believe could be more than £1m.

They called more than 3,700 phone numbers as they trawled for victims focusing on the places where people retire - counties like Dorset, Devon and Cornwall.

The victims were in their 70s, 80s and 90s, and the scam was always the same.

Pretending to be police officers, the fraudsters would phone an elderly person's home and lie to them that their bank account was being defrauded and they should call 999 or their bank's fraud department.

What the victim didn't realise was that the fraudsters stayed on the line after they hung up. The elderly people who thought they were reporting crime were in fact speaking to the criminals.

'Very plausible'

Another five members of the gang had already pleaded guilty in relation to the phone scam before the trial started.

The cases of 18 pensioners who suffered losses of £600,000 were put before the jury. But Scotland Yard says there were at least 140 victims in total.

The pensioners were instructed to go to their banks and withdraw or move thousands of pounds of their savings.

The bogus police officers convinced their victims that they had to take possession of their money to check whether it was counterfeit, saying bank staff were involved in the fraud.

One victim, Patricia Burnham, 76, told BBC News: "They were very plausible, very believable and I wanted to do my bit for England. I have to admit that in a funny sort of way it was actually quite exciting 'working for the police'."

So believing she was helping officers with a fraud investigation, Mrs Burnham withdrew a total of a £135,000 from various accounts.

It was as she attempted to make a final withdrawal of £20,000 that the manager of her branch of RBS began asking a lot of questions.

At the same time Mrs Burnham read a leaflet warning about the "bogus police" scam. That was when she realised she had been duped.

"I said to my husband, 'Oh my God what have I done. I had better ring fraud line and check'. And then the person who answered said 'It's a scam' and I remember saying 'It can't be'.

"I just felt devastated, stupid embarrassed. How could I have been so taken in?"

Landline change

Mrs Burnham's 85-year-old husband, Anthony, who was already very ill, died shortly after.

"I don't think it contributed to his death," she said. "But I just feel very sad that he had this worry and concern at a time when he was very frail and really couldn't cope with what was going on."

Before Mr Burnham's death, his wife had told the gang she had to have her money back, partly because her husband might have to go into a care home.

The gang remained unmoved and the trial heard about their cruelty to other victims:

  • One man, suffering from cancer, was instructed to cancel a doctor's appointment and go to his bank immediately to withdraw thousands of pounds
  • A female victim broke down in tears during her police interview after she described the relentless nature of the calls
  • Another pensioner was informed a grandchild was caught up in the fraud and that was a reason to co-operate.

In an additional callous twist, the victims were instructed that when they handed over their savings, the courier would use the password "Charlie".

The gang told the pensioners to have a plausible story to tell bank staff why they needed such large amounts of cash.

The High Street banks say while they work hard to protect customers from fraud - particularly the elderly and vulnerable - they cannot stop people withdrawing their own money when they say they need it for something specific.

That is why some of the pensioners in the case may struggle to be reimbursed, and police estimate only £18,000 will be recoverable from the gang.

Meanwhile, in the drive to stop the phone scammers, the regulator Ofcom says changes to networks have reduced to a couple of seconds the time the majority of landline phones can now be kept open.

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