IT WAS the largest order that independent businesswoman Pippa Ball had taken.
The entrepreneur set up The Organic Hamper Company three years ago and thought things were finally starting to take off when an order for £5,228 came in from her website.
But her joy was short-lived as it transpired that the Fareham company had been targeted by fraudsters looking to use the small business as a way to money launder thousands of pounds.
Mrs Ball, 41, said: ‘I had the most amazing Christmas and for the first time I had broken even. It was great. Then I got an email on January 6 saying they would like to order 38 top-of-the-range hampers. I was over the moon.’
Mrs Ball, who runs the company from home and is mum to three young children, proceeded to take the details of the hampers, including buying stock. As she works by herself, an order so large would take time to prepare so she got to it straight away.
‘I pride myself on excellent customer service,’ said Mrs Ball.
‘So I could send them their order on time, I spent days packing the hampers.’
When the customer sent through the delivery address, along with using a generic hotmail email address, Mrs Ball said that ‘alarm bells started ringing’ as the invoice address was in Finland and the delivery address was in Scotland.
Luckily for Mrs Ball, after raising her concerns with her husband, she rang her bank Natwest and they gave her advice and put an alert on her account.
She said: ‘I was emailing the customer every week asking if there was any news and they said it was a third party and that’s when I though “oh my god”.
‘I hadn’t realised there was anybody else involved. Shortly after they said they had overpaid me and asked me to refund the money.’
The fraudsters paid in a cheque for £68,000 into Mrs Ball’s account and asked for the £63,000 to be refunded.
Mrs Ball said: ‘I phoned the bank straight away and said “is this money laundering?” They said “yes” and it was a stolen cheque from Dubai. If I refunded them, I would’ve lost that money.’
Despite narrowly avoiding being caught up in a crime, Mrs Ball’s business now faces a tough time as she needs to sell the stock before ordering more.
Mrs Ball said: ‘All my cash flow is tied up in stock which I have got to sell.
‘This business is my baby, I’ve worked hard for three years setting it up. I need to sell the stock or I could go under.
‘I’m gutted that I started the process and now I’m in debt. It’s a challenge. I’m selling the hampers at cost as every detail they’ve given me has been false.’
Mrs Ball warned other businesses not to outlay money until the confirmation was secured. She advised people to contact their banks at the first sign of anything suspicious.
A Natwest spokesman agreed: ‘There are sophisticated fraud gangs, using a whole range of techniques to convince people to part with money and personal details. It is easy to fall into a fraudster’s trap, even when you think you’re doing the right things as they are very convincing. If a customer has any concerns we would urge them to get in touch with us for advice.’