Valerie Billing went on the internet in early April after a savings bond had matured. She wanted to enquire if she could get a better return on her money than the meagre 1 per cent currently on offer.
Although unaware of it at the time, she was about to be lured into handing over thousands of pounds to an unauthorised investment website.
The 80-year-old’s curiosity had been stimulated by reading convincing but fake news celebrity endorsements supposedly by Alan Sugar, Richard Branson, and the ‘Dragon’s Den’ TV entrepreneurs.
It promised a money back guarantee and unprecedented returns by trading in the dazzling but volatile stock market movement the crypto digital currency.
A crypto currency is a virtual digital currency that is not issued or backed by a central bank or government.
Valerie was seduced by the website of Tradefintech.com online investment platform where she was invited to provide copies of her credit and debit cards and make a modest trial investment of £250.
However, the following day a team of smooth talking investment brokers she subsequently learned were from brokers Prime CFC’s, made numerous unsolicited calls and set about leaning on her with high-pressure selling techniques.
During the course of the following few days she endured an endless succession of calls to her landline and mobile, talking her into making two further bank transfers totalling £10,000.
After weeks of work, we managed to get all but £500 of Valerie’s money back, after she was terrified she had been scammed.
Valerie explained: ‘I thought I was fairly bright and savvy about these things.
‘The people I spoke to were slick, well- practised, and very well-rehearsed.
‘People really need to experience these phone calls to understand how clever they are. They sound like they want to help you make the most of your money.
‘Problems start with small, initial payments, and that’s a hook to get you trading.’
On sober reflection she decided she was way out of her depth.
Alarmed about the extent of her Bitcoin trading, she rang her bank Santander, to stop the payments.
But the bank’s customer services team confirmed that the money had already left her accounts, the very last payment of £6,250 having vanished from their screens while they were on the phone.
Customer services later informed a distraught Valerie it was unlikely they could find a way to return her money and their efforts had all been exhausted.
A spokesperson from the bank said: ‘Santander advises all customers to be vigilant about providing personal and bank details to third parties and to take the time to consider any financial decisions very carefully.
‘If people feel they are being put under pressure to act we recommend taking some time out to get professional advice and to chat through with family and friends.’
When Valerie turned to Streetwise for help, we first checked with the City watchdog, The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA).
We consulted their public register which lists investment firms that are regulated to trade in the UK.
The register confirmed both firms Valerie came into contact with were ‘unauthorised and potential scammers’.
We traced Prime CFD’s to an address in Sofia, Bulgaria.
When we made contact with them about refunding her money, calls weren’t returned and e-mails opened but unanswered. But after we approached Tradefintech.com for a refund they agreed, after some weeks, to comply.
Action Fraud, the national reporting vehicle for innumerable scams, says that the average loss to investors is £16,000 but many people have reported losing their entire life savings.
While we understood government’s reluctance to impose barriers to innovation in the emerging financial technology sector, we were concerned that so little regulatory action had been taken to protect online investors.
A spokesperson for the FCA told us they wanted the powers to regulate the sector, but representations to the treasury and government had fallen on deaf ears.
He warned: ‘We are particularly concerned about the experiences many consumers report to us when trying to deal with unlicensed firms.
‘We regularly hear about rogue firms suddenly closing consumers’ trading accounts, refusing to pay back their funds, and ceasing all contact.’
Despite the well-intentioned warnings, retired museum curator Valerie was left feeling angry and disillusioned about the threat of losing a large part of her hard-earned savings.
Now, having received £9,750 of it back thanks to our hard work, Valerie says she is over the moon.
She said: ‘I didn’t for a minute think I’d get back the amount of money that I have.
‘I knew after talking to Richard there was a chance I’d get some back – but not all of that.
‘I’ve been religiously checking my bank account to see whether anything has been returned, and when I saw that two separate payments of £6,250 and £3,500 had been given back, I couldn’t believe it.
‘I’m amazingly relieved and very grateful to Richard Thompson and The News.’
Valerie was particularly critical about the lack of protection and assistance from the banks and regulators.
She added: ‘Santander could have been much more positive about it.
‘The bank could have told me they’d had dealings like this before, and with the resource to access the FCA register could have warned me these firms weren’t regulated and I was putting my money at risk.
‘It’s left me distrustful of using the computer, answering the phone and really very angry that nothing seems to be able to be done to catch up with unregulated investment firms causing so much misery to so many people.
‘As far as I can see, only Streetwise has contacted them for me and done anything about it.
‘I’ve not heard a word from any of the others.’