One in ten adults in the UK has been the victim of mass marketing fraud, it was claimed today.
More than 3.2 million people have handed over cash after being approached by scammers by email, letter or telephone.
The total cost of such scams and swindles is more than £3.5 billion every year, according to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT).
The figures were revealed as the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) announced it has set its sights on the organised criminal gangs behind these frauds in the UK and abroad. Officials said they had seized fake cheques, postal orders and bank drafts worth more than £8million.
Criminals are increasingly turning to sophisticated fraudulent financial documents to lever money out of unsuspecting victims.
Paul Evans, director of intervention at Soca, said the UK has become a staging post for the illegal international trade. He said police have closed thousands of British bank accounts linked to mass fraud and used by criminals to give their work legitimacy.
He said: ‘We are using new methods to tackle what is actually a very old fraud.You may take the view that there is ‘one born every minute’ but in some of the emails we have intercepted there are appalling examples of quite vicious exploitation, including threats of violence.’
Mr Evans said many of the bank accounts, often opened with false or stolen identities, are also used to defraud the tax credit system. He said one high street bank had already returned £750,000 to the government after acting on information from Soca.
A large proportion of mass marketing fraud originates in English-speaking West African states. A recent month-long operation in Nigeria resulted in the seizure of 4,500 false documents including passport and identity cards.
Mass marketing fraud uses mass communication tools to reach large numbers of people cheaply and easily. The most notorious scams centre on an advanced fee, where prizes or large sums of money are offered but to access them the victim must pay money upfront.
Sometimes victims receive the promised cash in the form of a cheque and only discover it is fake after paying the fee by un-refundable bank transfer.
Mike Haley, head of consumer protection at the OFT, said scammers will send out thousands of letters or emails and then zero in on the most vulnerable recipients. He said police have uncovered ‘sucker lists’ of people who have responded to scams in the past and said some have gone on to lose their life savings.
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, said: ‘This type of fraud is a despicable crime that is costing UK victims huge sums of money every year, many of whom are elderly or vulnerable, and causing emotional and financial harm to them and their families. It will not be tolerated.’
Consumers who fear they have been targeted by a fraudster should contact Consumer Direct on 08454 040506 for advice and information.
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