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Hunting down the criminals who conned Elizabeth out of her £180k life savings

A BBC Northern Ireland Spotlight film has triggered an international investigation that has broken up a gang of scam mail fraudsters. It has been sparked by the story of a 74-year-old widow from here who lost thousands of pounds. Her plight was first revealed by the programme a year ago. In a follow up exposé set to be broadcast tonight, Spotlight's Chris Moore goes on the money trail

It was a year ago when I first met Elizabeth.

Along with producer Lena Ferguson, I sat with the 74-year-old widow and heard her painful recollections about how she was scammed out of her life savings - over £180,000 in a 12-month period.

Most of her money was taken in elaborate telephone scams but over £5,000 went to mail fraudsters in early 2014.

She lost the money not long after her husband died and she was feeling alone and depressed, often key factors that can make people vulnerable to scams.

Elizabeth told the programme: "It's just like being hypnotised, you are going to win this big amount of money and you will be able to buy what you want when you get it. But nothing ever appeared. It was just like a drug."

No one knew it at the time, but Elizabeth's courage in speaking out publicly was to be the catalyst for a major criminal investigation that began first in Holland where she sent all the money she lost in mail scams - and then was extended to the UK and the United States.

By looking at the scam mail Elizabeth was still receiving, we identified PO boxes in Holland - many of them had Utrecht addresses.

And that's where we tracked down Erik Dekker, the Dutch businessman whose company Trends owned many of the PO Boxes.

When in Utrecht, we met up with retired police detective, Cees Schep, who now specialises in exposing fraud. He told us that although the Dutch authorities were aware of the involvement of the mail scams they had no victims. The victims were always outside Holland.

But he said Elizabeth's story changed that.

"That's the hard part with this kind of crime. The fraud is committed in other countries. And in the Netherlands you rarely receive reports of the fraud, because it's very rarely reported. Victims often don't even know that they are a victim of fraud," he said.

After viewing Elizabeth's interview in last year's Spotlight programme, the Dutch tax and fraud investigators - known as FIOD - began an investigation of Erik Dekker. FIOD were delighted when Spotlight established that Erik Dekker was a key link in this mail scam.

When we visited Erik Dekker's mail packaging business Trends Services last year he refused to talk to us and staff pulled down the blinds as we filmed outside. Now we know why.

When armed FIOD investigators arrived at the same premises in June this year they found evidence of mail fraud scams everywhere.

Inside staff were opening envelopes and removing cash and cheques from victims.

An armoured truck came every day to collect the victims' payments. And half a million Euros in cash and in 60 different currencies were found inside.

Cees Schep says the Dutch shared Spotlight's information about Erik Dekker with the United States Postal Service.

They had long suspected Erik Dekker but now they were able to piece together a fuller picture of his involvement in a scam scheme in which $18m a year was being collected at Erik Dekker's office in Utrecht, using the same PO boxes that had been used to con Elizabeth.

After closing down Erik Dekker and his companies, the US Attorney General Loretta Lynch broadcast a warning on television: "Make no mistake, these operations are serious business.

"They are massive in scale and global in scope and they bring in hundreds of millions of dollars. Several million Americans have been harmed by these predatory schemes."

Spotlight continued to work on a follow-up film.

Along with producer Denise O'Connor, I followed the trail of Elizabeth's cheques.

She'd sent around a hundred cheques in a few weeks in March 2014. But how do scammers cash cheques?

We were shocked to find that all of Elizabeth's cheques sent to Holland ended up being cashed in three high street banks in England.

We were able to trace which banks by retrieving information on the back of the cashed cheques which gave us sort codes and account numbers where the cheques were cashed.

We also sent off a few of our own bank drafts in response to some of the same mail scam schemes as Elizabeth - using the scam mail that continues to arrive daily at her home.

Amazingly, one of our bank drafts was cashed. It was to a scheme that promised a payment of £66,000 within 48 hours for the small advance fee of £30. Needless to say we did not receive any money. The police told us once you send off an advance fee payment you become the victim of fraud.

But the Spotlight team tracked down the company that cashed their bank draft. It is the same company that cashed 12 of Elizabeth's cheques. And it is based in Switzerland.

We travelled to Geneva to speak to the owner of the company. But he proved to be elusive.

He is mentioned on company records as the sole owner, shareholder and employee. But there was no trace of him at his company offices.

We tracked down 38 of Elizabeth's cheques - all crossed and made payable to 32 different names - into a single bank account in Chorley. We established that the account belonged to a payment processor - a company that provides financial services, mostly for mail order businesses.

Financial experts tell us that payment processors can be used as a shield from detection by scammers to launder their fraudulently obtained cash. And we discover that the payment processor that cashed these cheques was part of the PacNet group of companies that the US government has designated a transnational criminal organisation that for 20 years has knowingly processed money for a number of different mail fraud schemes in America.

You can see the full story tonight Tuesday, December 13 in a specially extended Spotlight on BBC One Northern Ireland at 10.40pm

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