Mail order scam from Belgium targets elderly people
Joan Watkins lives in a London council flat on a small pension. She can ill afford the cosmetics and other mail order goods she has been buying from a mail order company.
But when the letters started arriving in the post offering her amazing cash prizes she thought she was only a small purchase away from a fortune.
"I'm careful really because I've only got my pension and I thought, well it's a name and they've got an address and they are sending the stuff, so how can it be a scam?
"For years we've been trying to save for a mortgage but we didn't get that far and I thought this would help, the boys could get their new car out of it."
Father and son
Mrs Watkins was led to believe that if she sent cheques to the company for health and beauty products she would win a cash prize of more than £130,000.
But it was a scam and she was duped out of hundreds of pounds like many other vulnerable or elderly victims across the country.
The parent company behind the letters is Agence de Marketing Appliqué (AMA) based in Belgium.
But it relies on a Hampshire-based company, Emery of Romsey, to process the orders.
The company is run by father and son Nick and David Gebbett.
Their firm collects the cheques and disposes of the letters from confused customers.
The BBC's Inside Out programme has obtained copies of correspondence that was destined for bins marked confidential recycling.
One read: "Dear Sir/Madam. How much longer do we have before you pay this winning money out? It is getting that I am ordering as much as three times a week and that's a lot on a pension, I don't want to lose this money you say I have won."
A whistleblower at the company told reporters how she had become upset reading the customers' pleas.
"I started working there and opening these letters and thinking wow, so many people have won.
"I mean they had me convinced and the more I opened, I kept thinking this can't be right, it can't be that everyone is a winner."
Her job was to take out the cheque and bin the rest.
Among those tricked into spending thousands of pounds was a former West Yorkshire policeman, John Chappell, who cares for his 88-year-old blind mother.
Despite countless warnings from his family he thought he had definitely won.
When confronted at his Southampton waterside home, David Gebbett declined to answer any questions but claimed: "If we didn't do it someone else would."
Det Supt David Clarke, from the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, said: "My message to companies working as a third party to a criminal enterprise is that you are on borrowed time.
"My job and that of law enforcement is to close in as quickly as we can to stop you operating, to bring you to justice and to make sure you are seen as part of that criminal conspiracy."
An Office of Fair Trading spokesman added: "Prizes must be genuine and not involve people being hit with additional costs to find out what they have won, or to claim it, or take possession of it."
AMA could not be reached for comment.
You can find out more on Inside Out on BBC One on Monday at 19:30 GMT in BBC South, South East, West, West Midlands, London and the North.