‘VICIOUS and malicious’ scammers who have been conning people out of their cash with Covid-themed tricks during the pandemic are being hunted down by a dynamic duo.
Some of the scams which have done the rounds in Oxfordshire in the last six months include people offering to do shopping for elderly neighbours and running off with their money, conmen offering fake coronavirus cures (there is no vaccine yet), and fake council tax rebates.
Shelley Edwards and Maryam Hussain are two of Oxfordshire’s community engagement officers with the county council’s trading standards team; they work to educate people about scams.
In ‘peacetime’, they would be able to go out and knock on doors to help people who have been done out of their hard-earned cash by scammers.
But when lockdown began, they were prevented from visiting the victims of scammers.
55-year-old Shelley from Wantage said: “During lockdown, we couldn’t visit most of the residents who we knew had been exploited.
“We had ‘think outside the box’, arranging a letter campaign with tips and advice, including door stickers stating: ‘We won’t deal with unwanted traders. It is a criminal offence if you persist.’
But since lockdown restrictions eased, the pair have been able to get back out to their usual work, which includes visit those most vulnerable to scams, fitting call blockers, removing criminal access to home computers and arranging agency support from charities like Age UK.
And as they’ve returned to working across Oxfordshire, the duo has taken to wearing face masks and keeping their distance to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Fraudsters have taken many guises in the last few months, including ‘Helga’, the 21-year-old Russian beauty who befriended a lonely pensioner, as well as ‘banks’ and ‘police’ menacingly demanding personal information through door-knocking and cold calls; Shelley and Maryam have seen all the tricks.
“It’s vicious and malicious,” said Shelley.
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“These scammers are criminals, robbing people of their life savings, if they can get away with it. They don’t care about the destroyed dreams and ruined lives. They’re simply motivated by greed.”
Shelley added: “We were invited to present scam awareness advice to a local Rotary club, using computer screens to communicate remotely. That’s where we heard about ‘Helga’, the Russian beauty!
“Her 85-year-old boyfriend, who I met through the Zoom event, was so excited by his ‘catch’ and, at her request, was planning to pay her flight to the UK for a romantic visit.
“We were sorry to break the news; and his heart, that Helga probably wasn’t who she seemed, although her guise was very convincing: befriending him on a dating website, photo of herself; even of her passport.
“The love-struck gentleman emailed a few weeks later, thanking us for our advice. He might have lost the woman of his dreams, but he still had a full wallet, ready to spend on his next date. Hopefully genuine next time!”
Her 25-year-old colleague Maryam is a resident of East Oxford.
After graduating from Birkbeck College, University of London with a BSc in Criminology and Criminal Justice, she wanted a career helping and supporting victims of crime.
She recently helped a pensioner who took two convincing calls from his bank and the police: or so he thought.
In reality it was an elaborate scam, resulting in him giving control of his computer to criminals, who then loaded bank transfer software; extracting money from his online account.
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Maryam explains: “He was devastated when he realised what had happened. Who wouldn’t be?
“My role was to reassure; working with a colleague who successfully negotiated with the bank to refund the stolen money. The bank transfer software was also removed; and we installed a telephone call blocker so these scammers couldn’t reach him again.
“He told me he felt he’d got his life back.
“I’d entered his property safety, making sure I carefully social distanced whilst I worked. Thanks to my visit, a vulnerable resident now has an extra level of security, and enhanced awareness, to protect against any future con.”
The two describe themselves as a ‘dynamic duo’, and have warned scammers to watch their backs now trading standards team are able to get back out to their work.
The top scams in Oxfordshire through lockdown
Here are some of the top scams in Oxfordshire at the moment, according to trading standards:
• Be aware of people offering miracle cures or vaccines for coronavirus – there is currently no specific treatment for coronavirus (Covid-19).
• People impersonating healthcare workers, claiming to be offering ‘home-testing’ for coronavirus – this is a scam and these kits are not currently available to buy.
• Emails offering a refund on council tax, utility bills, or similar are usually bogus and they are just after personal and bank details.
• There are lots of fake products available to buy online that say they can protect against or cure coronavirus. These will not help and are designed to take your money.
• There are new mobile phone applications that claim to give updates on the virus, but instead they lock your phone and demand a ransom.
• People offering to do shopping or collect medication, asking for money upfront and then disappearing.
• People offering home cleaning services.
• Remember: Banks or the police will never ask for account details over the phone.
Tips to avoid being scammed
• Be cautious and listen to your instincts. Do not be afraid to hang up, bin it, delete it, or shut the door.
• Take your time; do not be rushed into making a decision that you will probably regret.
• If someone claims to represent a charity, ask them for ID. Be suspicious of requests for money up front. If someone is trying to tempt you into accepting a service, they are unlikely to be genuine.
• Check with family and friends before accepting offers of help if unsure.
• If online, be aware of fake news and use trusted sources such as gov.uk or NHS.uk websites. Type-out email addresses. Don’t click on links in emails.
• Only purchase goods from legitimate retailers and take a moment to think before parting with money or personal information.
• Protect your financial information, especially from people you do not know. Never give your bank card or PIN to a stranger.
• Know who you are dealing with. If you need help, talk to someone you know or use the contact numbers provided below.