The public were today warned about the threat of international criminal gangs who are targeting growing numbers of Northern Ireland people with sophisticated money scams.
Detective Constable Stephen Crooks, of the PSNI’s Economic Crime Bureau, said the UK economy is losing at least £14bn a year due to fraud, equating to around £265 a year per person.
This is just the tip of the iceberg however, as the £14bn does not include under-reporting — pushing the true cost of the fraud much higher.
“Everybody is paying for fraud, everyone is a victim. The more we can prevent fraud occurring the more money as a community we can save,” said Mr Crooks.
Of all recorded crimes in Northern Ireland fraud and forgery is the area with the highest increase over the past year.
The PSNI’s annual crime statistics have shown that fraud and forgery have risen by almost 30% in just 12 months.
Email and internet scams are a big concern to the Economic Crime Bureau. Due to the international level of this type of crime it is difficult to catch the criminals and the money is rarely returned, with some victims losing their life savings.
One person in the province recently lost over £1m after being duped by an email scam.
One of the longest running email scams is the so-called “Nigerian scam” which comes in numerous versions.
Although many originate out of the African country, it is not only Nigerian-based criminals that send the emails.
The mail comes in the guise of a business proposition, request for assistance, notice of a potential inheritance, or opportunity to help a charity.
The messages all claim that help is needed to access a large sum of money for various reasons.
The messages offer to let the recipient keep a significant percentage of the funds in exchange for assistance.
However, in order to receive the money the recipient is asked to pay “fees” for processing costs, tax and legal fees, or bribes to local officials.
In one of the most extreme cases a Co Clare man was kidnapped in Ghana in 2007 after travelling to Africa to try and recover money he had paid into an investment trap.
He was taken hostage in a hotel room for five days until rescued by police.
Lottery scams, where recipients receive an email saying they have won a major prize in an international lottery, are also a common way of duping people out of a lot of money.
In order to claim the prize the ‘winner’ is asked to provide banking details, personal information and a sum of cash to cover expenses.
“On one occasion we were able to stop a money transfer going to Canada in a lottery scam due to the time difference,” said Mr Crooks.
“We went to the victim, an elderly woman, and told her about the scam and that we had stopped the transfer. The next day she attempted to go to the Post Office to send it again. Luckily, the Post Office was aware and stopped the transaction. But that didn’t stop her, she got on a bus and went to another Post Office and resent the money because she was convinced she had won money on the Canadian Lottery even though she didn’t play it. Some people really are convinced they have won.”
It is not just individuals who are being targeted by fraudsters. Many businesses are the subject of “cash back” scams – where the fraudster offers payment in advance for goods or services by cheque, credit card or bankers draft for an amount substantially in excess of the agreed cost. The fraudster instructs the business to transfer a sum to an agent in a bid to induce the business to forward money before they discover the credit card details are stolen.
Earlier this month, a guesthouse owner in Co Antrim was targeted by cash back fraudsters who made a reservation for four priests from Greece. The cost of the accommodation was £260 but the fraudster emailed the owner telling him to charge an additional £5750 to a credit card and asked to send that balance to a nominated translator who would be covering all travel costs for the priests. The owner realised it was a scam.
Head of the Economic Crime Bureau DCI Kim McCauley said the international level of these crimes makes it difficult for police to track down the fraudsters.