Postal scams could be costing consumers up to an estimated £10bn a year, according to the National Trading Standards Scams Team (NTSST).
Figures released by NTSST this week also reveal they’ve prevented more than £5m from falling into the grasp of scammers over the past three years.
The specialist team has so far identified nearly 200,000 potential victims who appear on so-called ‘suckers lists’ – lists of addresses used repeatedly by scammers.
The team also identified more than 10,000 individuals who have fallen foul of mail scams with losses totaling more than £13m.
Scam mail is sent with the intention of obtaining money through deception or fraud, and we’ve identified five scam letters you should tear up and toss away.
You can also read our guide to help you identify and avoid postal scams.
1. Lottery scams
This scam starts with a letter claiming you’ve won a large sum of money in an international lottery, sweepstake or other prize draw, and all you have to do is pay a small upfront fee to claim your prize.
Reports to Citizens Advice show that two in five of all postal scams are lotteries or prize draws, inviting people to claim a prize for a competition they haven’t entered.
One caller to Citizens Advice reported that a relative had been repeatedly targeted with prize draw scams, parting with more than £10,000 in fees to claim prizes that didn’t exist.
2. Work from home scams
Business opportunity fraud involves an offer to become financially independent, or to generate extra income. But any products or services you are asked to sell will be worthless and you won’t be able to sell them.
You’ll usually be asked to pay money upfront to register with the scheme or to cover ‘expenses’ such as buying customer leads or setting up your website.
Many of these so-called opportunities are straightforward pyramid schemes, where you will earn money only by introducing other people to it.
3. 419 letters
The West African letter or 419 fraud is an advance-fee scam where you are asked to help transfer money out of another country – such as Iraq, South Africa or somewhere in west Africa – in return for a percentage of the money you helped to transfer.
They will also emphasise the need for secrecy, warning you not to tell anyone else about the deal while hurrying you into a hasty decision by stressing the need for urgent action.
But there is no money to transfer. And if you respond to the fraudsters’ request, they will ask you to pay various fees that are supposed to release the money, such as legal fees, transaction fees or taxes.
4. Fake inheritance notifications
You may receive a formal letter purportedly from a lawyer based overseas claiming that someone very rich has died and you’re in line to receive a huge inheritance.
If you respond to the fraudsters, they will ask you to pay various fees, for example taxes, legal fees or banking fees, so they can release your non-existent inheritance.
5. Clairvoyant scams
Criminals claiming to be clairvoyants hunt down the socially isolated, superstitious, bereaved or troubled.
They try to ‘befriend’ you by showing false concern, then demand fees to keep danger away or direct happiness towards you. Many will swear you to secrecy.
It’s important to bear in mind that these so-called clairvoyants or mediums don’t know you – they’re sending identical letters to thousands of people.
Help stop mail scams
Never send cash, disclose personal details or buy goods to claim a prize. Watch out for secret deals, get-rich-quick schemes, claims and inheritance notifications.
Team Leader of the NTSST Louise Baxter said: ‘We really need the public to help us with this by being vigilant about mass-marketing scams themselves, but also looking out for relatives or neighbours, particularly those who are elderly or vulnerable.
‘We often find victims who have lost hundreds of thousands of pounds over several years. The impact on individuals and consumers is devastating.
‘I would urge anyone who receives potentially fraudulent mail or who knows someone who might be receiving it to report it to the Royal Mail helpline on 03456 113413 or to email firstname.lastname@example.org.’