Last week 75-year-old John Cornford received a surprising letter. It bore his name and the sender claimed to be a business manager working for the Hong Kong-based Hung Kai Finance company.
This person, who gave his name as Hua Ong, informed Mr Cornford that by a strange twist of fate a very large sum of money – $10.5m to be precise – had been deposited in the Hong Kong bank by someone also called John Cornford.
This person, the letter continued in charmingly broken English, had sadly passed away and now the money was sitting in a Hong Kong bank account, waiting to be claimed.
It contained a proposition; that together the bank employee and the Hampshire pensioner could retrieve and split the unclaimed fortune, which would otherwise become the property of the Chinese government.
Never mind that the letter appeared to have been sent from Nottingham, its author explained, this was just because he had asked a friend to forward it on.
But faced with such an elaborate tall tale, Mr Cornford, of Mark Anthony Court, Hayling Island, could not quite suspend his disbelief.
‘I thought something didn’t seem right about this,’ he said.
‘So I had a look on the internet and discovered it was a famous scam.
‘The same letter, with some small changes, has been doing the rounds for years. I’m glad I didn’t fall for it, but others might.’
And Mr Cornford is 100 per cent right. He learned from the experience of his friend Edward Harmer who, regular Streetwise readers will remember, was caught out by a phoney Microsoft employee who charged him £130 to fix non-existent viruses on his computer.
Both scams are getting on a bit now, but show no signs of going the way of the dodo.
In fact in recent months the number of readers writing in to Streetwise to say they have spotted – or fallen victim to – some swindle or other has rocketed.
According to Consumer Direct, three million UK adults fall victim to mass marketing scams every year – losing on average £850.
And these of course are only the official figures; a large number of victims don’t report their experiences.
Unfortunately, if you’ve fallen victim to a scam, catching the swindlers and getting your money back is extremely tricky.
‘It’s a sad reality that it’s very difficult to get any money back at all, because a lot of the scammers are based overseas and can be incredibly difficult to track down,’ said Frank Shepherd from Consumer Direct.
’If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Exercise a good degree of scepticism.’
Good advice, but knowing what to look out for is another important part of not getting caught out.
Mr Cornford was savvy enough not to fall victim to a variation on the most famous con of modern times: the Nigerian letter or 419 scam.
Untold riches are promised to whoever receives letter if they can just help the sender move money out of some foreign country. This invariably involves handing over your bank details and, after a few e-mails to establish trust, the conmen making a rather large withdrawal, never to be heard from again.
With the help of moneywise.co.uk we have compiled a list of the swindlers’ top tactics:
n They strive to look as professional as possible, even warning people of ‘bogus scams’ to make themselves look more genuine.
n They create a sense of urgency to make victims respond immediately so as not to lose out, and this prevents them from reading through the information carefully.
n They create an air of secrecy to supposedly protect the ‘win’, but actually to protect themselves and make ‘winners’ less likely to tell friends and family who might convince them it is fraudulent.
n They make the victim feel that they have been personally approached or targeted so they believe they are special.
n They offer amounts of prize money or returns that seem feasible. Or they ask for a relatively small admin costs compared with the final prize, making these costs appear very reasonable.
And here are five ways to make sure you don’t get swindled:
n Read the small print on any documentation you receive and make sure you understand it all before agreeing to anything. Don’t rush into decisions.
n Don’t be taken in by the apparent authenticity of a document or professional appearance of a company.
n Check the company is legitimate by asking for full contact details, including the street address and local telephone numbers.
n Never pay for a ‘free’ gift or reveal any personal information; this will be used to bombard you with future scams.
n Trust your gut instinct.