Widower Thomas Wyness is fighting back after being targeted by scammers
For nine years, widower Thomas Wyness was bombarded with letters telling him he’d won high-value cash prizes, televisions and cars. All he needed to do, the letters told him, was send a small sum of money to an overseas postbox to claim it.
But while the prizes never arrived, his losses quickly added up. Thomas, now 90, estimates he sent around £11,000 to countries including the Czech Republic, Sweden and Hong Kong.
But now he is fighting back. Thomas is one of more than 1,700 scam victims recruited by National Trading Standards (NTS) to dish the dirt on scammers.
Tips from ‘Scam Marshals’ such as Thomas led to more than 389,000 scam letters being intercepted in the past year — saving victims and authorities more than £22million. Thomas discovered he had been conned by cruel criminals only when officers from his local Trading Standards visited him.
The former navigator with the Merchant Navy says: ‘I had been at sea all my life and had no idea about scams. ‘I take everyone as being honest; I thought they were genuine people. It made me feel like a real idiot.
‘Because I’ve been on my own, you’re quite lonely, and you’ve got no one to talk to. Receiving those letters, I felt someone was taking notice of me.’
Thomas, who lives in Ellon, Aberdeenshire, now sends dozens of scam letters he receives each month to NTS officers to analyse and hopefully stop. Scam Marshals such as Thomas also share their experiences to help others report and recognise scams.
Recruits are given training to teach them how to spot scams. And they are armed with Freepost envelopes to send any bogus letters they receive to Trading Standards. Scam Marshals usually have to retire after two or three years, as once they stop responding to the scam mail, the fraudsters tend to move on to other targets. But Thomas says the letters are still coming.
Last month he got one from Austria telling him he had won £1million. All he needed to do was send £35 in cash. He says this is the sixth missive he has received from Austria in the past few months.
Some 53 per cent of people aged 65 and over say they have been targeted by fraudsters, but the figure is believed to be much higher with only 5 per cent reporting the con.
Typical mail scams claim you have won an attractive prize, but to claim it you must send an administration fee. Others appear to be from charities requesting donations, or even from clairvoyants asking for a fee to contact a lost loved one.
Some 53% of people aged 65 and over say they have been targeted by fraudsters
NTS is expecting to receive a spike in scam mail this month as criminals typically ramp up their activities over Christmas to take advantage of those who may be spending more money or feeling more isolated.
Mail scams are understood to affect more people in vulnerable situations, including the elderly, those living alone or with longterm health conditions. And during lockdown, with more people isolated from friends and family, experts fear many more may have fallen victim.
Louise Baxter, head of the NTS scam team, says: ‘Criminals often groom their victims over a period of time, capitalising on loneliness by providing a form of contact via mail. This includes fake prize draws, lottery and clairvoyant scams, defrauding people into sending money.
‘Many of us have felt anxious and lonely during the pandemic, and criminals will not hesitate to prey on our emotions by sending us fake stories of hope.’
Scam letters will perhaps look authentic — sent on good-quality paper with official-looking stamps and addressed to the recipient. But any correspondence you receive that asks for money in exchange for a prize will not be genuine, says Ms Baxter.
Mail scams are understood to affect more people in vulnerable situations, including the elderly, those living alone or with longterm health conditions
The fraudsters tend to be based overseas and it is unclear how they initially get your contact details. You may have signed up for something in the past, or your information held with an organsation could have been breached.
Thomas believes fraudsters got his details after he placed an order with a company in France for French food. It started taking £55 out of his account each week, and then he received a letter saying he’d won a Peugeot, but he had to send money to claim.
Once you’ve responded to one scam letter, your details are placed on a so-called ‘suckers list’. These are then traded with other criminals to target you repeatedly.
Ms Baxter says: ‘Letter and mail scams have always been a hidden crime. Those who are targeted are typically older and may live alone. This generation learned to trust the post as a legitimate form of communication and are more likely to respond by letter.
‘They are told not to share their news with anyone — otherwise they will not win the prize. They become very secretive and less likely to confide in people because they feel ashamed and embarrassed. It is why we need more people to talk about it, so others know they are not alone.’
Thomas says: ‘Being a Scam Marshal makes me feel I am doing something good for other people. It gives me a sense of justice.’
To sign up as a Scam Marshal, visit friendsagainstscams.org.uk/customer
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