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The Scambusters: Meet the secret army of OAPs who go undercover to catch mail fraud gangs tricking the elderly out of their life savings

04 Jul 2018, 14:49 ... gangs.html

Band of enforcers, with average age of 75, have all been victims of postal fraud
They are turning the tables on scammers who cheated them out of their savings
They were recruited by Trading Standards and police forces to go undercover

An undercover army of pensioners is catching the crooks behind scam letters and fake prize draws, Money Mail can reveal.

The band of secret enforcers - with an average age of 75 - have all fallen victim to postal fraud in the past.

Now they are turning the tables on the scammers who cheated them out of their life savings.

They have been recruited by Trading Standards officials and police forces to go undercover.

The goal is to provide the authorities with leads to catch international fraudsters who dupe vulnerable people out of their cash.

Earlier this year evidence gathered by the 250-strong group, dubbed Mail Marshals, led to hundreds of arrests by U.S. and Canadian authorities.

The U.S. Department of Justice alleges that the criminals have cheated mainly elderly victims in Britain and the U.S. out of at least £23million.

Since the Mail Marshals scheme was set up by National Trading Standards in 2015, recruits have aided in the arrests of scores of other crooks, Money Mail understands.

Retired Army nurse Barry Atkins, 80, lost £1,000 after responding to a scam letter claiming he had won a Spanish lottery.

He was told he just needed to pay an administration fee to access his winnings. But after he sent the money, the prize did not materialise.

His details were then sold to other fraudsters, who inundated him with up to 12 letters a day about similar scams and cost him a further £2,000.

Eventually a friend encouraged him to report his losses to National Trading Standards and he was recruited as a Mail Marshal.

Barry, a widower from Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, says: 'If I can stop just one person being scammed, my work is complete.'

Overseas criminals send an estimated 3.2million scam letters to people in Britain every year. Officials estimate that they cost victims billions.

Is it a scam?

Typical ploys include luring people into investing in fake money-making schemes or convincing them they have won a big prize which they can claim by sending cash in the post.

Other scammers target the bereaved by claiming to be clairvoyants who can speak to their dead loved ones for a fee or impersonate charities asking for donations. Some even try to persuade victims to buy unlicensed medicines.

Once someone falls victim to one of these scams, their personal details are put on 'suckers lists' and traded online.

So it is not unusual for elderly victims to be bombarded with around 70 pieces of scam mail each day.

Trading Standards carefully selects its Mail Marshals from the suckers lists it obtains as part of its investigative work.

Recruits are given specialist training by fraud experts on how to identify and avoid scams. These sessions can take place face-to-face or online.

They then continue to pose as unwitting victims.

But instead of responding to the letters, they put them into pre-addressed envelopes and send them to National Trading Standards. The authorities then analyse the letters and use them to identify patterns.

The Mail Marshals are sent certificates thanking them for their work, and a monthly newsletter which may specify particular bits of mail to watch out for in order to help the police with a case.

As well as helping the police, the scheme is set up to help victims recover from the emotional distress of being duped.

Crooks often use psychological tactics to keep victims hooked, for example by sending them trinkets, such as pens, small cash sums or key rings.

Scammers prey on the vulnerable

Many victims are lonely or recently widowed; interacting with the scammers may be the only human contact they have for days.

Sigrid Hambley, 79, was bereft after losing her husband John when she began responding to scams two years ago.

She had received a letter from a fake law firm telling her that a distant relation had left her £2 million in their will.

To get the 'inheritance', Sigrid just had to send £1,000 to cover administrative fees. She sent a cheque but never received any money.

Sigrid then began receiving letters from other crooks and lost £1,200 to a fake clairvoyant.

When she plucked up the courage to report the fraudsters to the police, Sigrid was contacted by her local trading standards office in Leeds, which explained about the Mail Marshals scheme.

Since then, Sigrid has passed on scores of scam letters which the police have used to help catch other fraudsters.

She has also placed postboxes around her sheltered housing complex for other residents to leave their scam mail.

Sigrid says: 'When I realised I had been scammed, I hit a real low. To be able to fight back and help others is very rewarding. I am only a little person doing a little thing, but I hope it will help others.'

Report when you've been scammed to police

Many victims are reluctant to come forward because they feel so embarrassed about being duped. Experts fear that as few as 5 per cent of crimes of this type are reported.

Lou Baxter, head of the National Trading Standards scams team, says: 'Often, when you visit the home of mail scam victims, everything looks in order.

'But then you go into one room and find it filled with letters.

'Usually there is a desk in there as well, which shows how replying to scam letters gives many victims a sense of purpose — as though it's a job.

'The Mail Marshals scheme allows the victims to turn the tables and fight back.'

Mail Marshals also provide witness statements to the police, which makes it easier for the authorities to prosecute criminal gangs.

Some also go out into the community — in bank branches and libraries — and educate other vulnerable people about scams.

In 2016, the Daily Mail exposed how Royal Mail was making millions of pounds by delivering postal scam letters from criminal gangs.

In a major undercover investigation, the international network of conmen was filmed laughing at their 'suggestible' and 'uneducated' victims over lavish dinners.

Royal Mail has since vowed to crack down on the conmen and 'block and impound' scam letters sent by overseas firms.

A Royal Mail spokesman says: 'We actively encourage our people to report any concerns they have about households they suspect are vulnerable to postal scams.

'Since our enhanced anti-scam drive in 2016, we have successfully stopped more than 3.5 million scam mail items from reaching our customers.'

National Trading Standards says it is keen to hear from any potential volunteers who receive scam mail and would like to sign up as a Mail Marshal.

Call Trading Standards on 01323 463 484 or write to: Mail Marshals, NTS Scams Team, 5th Floor St Mary's House, 52 St Leonards Road, Eastbourne, East Sussex BN21 3UU.

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