One afternoon this month, Jim Browning listened as a 97-year-old man answered a phone call from someone claiming to be his bank. “They wanted him to withdraw cash and post it to them. The man explained to them that he couldn’t go to the bank because he couldn’t walk and he was waiting for a call from his doctor, as he had less than a year to live. But they were still saying to him, ‘Couldn’t you just get a taxi to the bank?’”
His voice wavers. “I don’t know how scammers like that can sleep at night. I do get a bit emotional when you hear people in genuine distress — and that happens every single day.”
Browning (not his real name) has been called a modern-day superhero and it’s not hard to see why. The “ethical hacker” spends his days scamming the scammers — using his tech skills to spy on the people trying to steal your money.
And plenty are. Fraud now accounts for 40 per cent of all crime in the UK and last year Ofcom research found that about 40.8 million of us received a suspicious call or text in a three-month period. In the first half of this year, according to UK Finance, scammers managed to steal £580 million. The true figure may be higher, as many vulnerable and elderly victims never report it.
Browning, a former software engineer from Northern Ireland, stumbled into the scamming world a decade ago after someone claiming to be from Microsoft tried to defraud his brother-in-law. Intrigued, he made a YouTube video about the scam; today he has more than 4.1 million subscribers on his channel and last year he quit his job to run it full-time. He turns the same technology scammers use to infiltrate our phones and computers back on them to gain access to their illegal operations and stop people being defrauded.
So successful has he been that the BBC has snapped him up. In 2020 he worked with Panorama after hacking into the CCTV cameras of a scam call centre in India, which was then raided by local police and the owner jailed. Now he’s part of a team on the Bafta-nominated series Scam Interceptors, which eavesdrops on genuine scam phone calls in real time and races to contact the victims before it’s too late.
It’s addictive television, but Browning thinks of it more like a public service. “It’s a reflection of exactly which scams are happening in the UK at the moment,” he says.
The most common are fraudsters claiming to be from Amazon, impersonating your phone provider or pretending to be your bank. Most scam phone calls to the UK come from India — a by-product of European companies outsourcing their call centres there and providing the infrastructure and expertise — but scams also occur via text, email, pop-up adverts, social media and, increasingly, dating apps. Indeed, dating app scams rose by 29 per cent in the first half of this year, with scammers luring victims into digital relationships over several weeks, before persuading them to hand over money.
“If you think you’re immune to scams, think again, because the circumstances just need to be right,” Browning says. “If you’ve recently had an interaction with HMRC or Royal Mail, suddenly that random call might seem legitimate. Even if you have a bad day and you’re not concentrating, it can happen.
“When I was at an international anti-scam convention last week, the organisers deliberately sent out a fake invitation to the participants promising a free lunch and about 10 per cent of these professionals clicked the link. Anyone can fall victim.”
He should know. In 2021 he was scammed himself, when someone pretending to be from Google, which owns YouTube, persuaded him to delete his own channel — along with millions of followers and seven years of anti-scam videos. The circumstances were right: Browning had a new phone and the email address looked convincing — the penny didn’t drop.
“In some ways, it’s good to admit,” he says. “It resulted in me going cap in hand to YouTube to restore my channel. I know, it’s embarrassing …”
The impact can go far beyond humiliation. One woman in southwest England had a heart attack shortly after being scammed out of £100,000. “I think the stress of getting the police involved and having her family find out that she’d lost all that money couldn’t have done her any good,” he says. “The scammers don’t care about anyone’s health. You’re just a phone number to them.”
Most scams, he says, aren’t sophisticated, with scammers getting a day’s training and being handed years-old scripts to read from. But artificial intelligence could move the dial.
“The thing that puts most people off is when they can hear that the scammer is in a call centre, or their English is bad. But I think eventually we’ll get to a situation where grammatical mistakes or accents might be ironed out by AI. That’s worrying, because if scammers are able to change their voices — and I think they will — they’ll sound even more convincing.”
Some change is afoot: from next year banks will be required to reimburse victims, while the Online Safety Bill — which became law last week — places the responsibility on social media platforms and search engines to remove scam accounts. But it hasn’t always been taken seriously. A 2019 Times investigation revealed that call handlers working for Action Fraud, the police’s national reporting service, mocked victims as “morons” and were trained to mislead them into thinking their cases would be investigated.
At the time of publication a spokeswoman for Action Fraud said: “Any mocking of victims is completely unacceptable. We are horrified and saddened to hear reports that victims are treated disrespectfully when they report to Action Fraud.” It said that it was addressing the concerns urgently. In addition, a company working with Action Fraud said that “it would never support staff sharing misleading information”.
“I think the police aren’t particularly well geared up to the types of scams and fraud that we see day to day,” Browning says. Hence the need for anti-scammers. Browning knows of about 20 others like him in the UK, US and UAE: people from all walks of life — one, with whom he works, isn’t 18 yet.
And he’s made enemies. As well as hacking their operations, Browning likes to wind the scammers up. His YouTube fans rhapsodise over the moment he calls “Jerry from O2” by his real name, sending the Indian call centre worker into a panic. Or the time he tells one scammer, “I bet you’re googling that” — something he knows to be true because he’s hacked the CCTV.
It means keeping his identity secret, not least to protect his family. On Scam Interceptors, he’s the one in the anonymous grey hoodie and black face mask. He could be in his forties or fifties, but he uses a voice changer to make him sound like an elderly woman — a tool of the trade for ethical hackers.
Although Browning “hates” that term. “I would never describe myself as a hacker, I’m more of a social engineer,” he says. “I do this for the right reasons. I’ll never be hacking into the government or anything like that. It’s about exposing people who try to steal money. I think we’ve done our job if we can get that message over.”
Scam Interceptors is available on BBC iPlayer
Detecting a scam comes down to three main things, Browning says:
1. Asking questions
2. Double checking
3. Taking your time
• The sender’s email address: scams won’t be from official sources
• Spelling and grammar: errors can indicate a scam
• What they ask: putting you under pressure to act quickly, telling you not to speak to anyone else, or asking you to download apps are all scam warnings
• Who they are: if you’re not signed up to Amazon, for example, there’s no reason they’d call you
• Money talk: on dating apps, be wary of anyone who mentions financial problems
What to do
• Say “Let me call you back”: get the official number for the organisation — not the one they rang from — and return the call to check it’s genuine
• Don’t click on email or text links: contact the company directly, via official channels
• If you’ve answered the phone, tell them you know it’s a scam and hang up
• If you’re not computer literate, ask someone else for help or advice
If you think you’ve been scammed
• Call your bank immediately
• Delete any apps they asked you to download
• Change your passwords
• Report to Action Fraud online or on 0300 123 2040. In the case of spam texts, message 7726 to report.