Con artists targeting 3m Britons, says watchdog
MORE than three million people are potentially at risk from scams in Britain, as experts warn that billions of pounds could be lost during the worsening economic downturn.
The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) said Britons were sucked in by more than 7,000 different scams committed last year, costing the public around 3.5 billion.
The government watchdog called for the public to be vigilant as it began a month-long awareness campaign of fraudulent mailings, e-mails, internet scams, phone calls and text messages, all used to lure victims.
The OFT said the most common scams last year were deceptive prize draws and sweepstakes, followed by bogus foreign lotteries.
The third most common scam was advance-fee fraud, under which people are asked for help transferring money from overseas, and are promised a chunk of the cash if they meet the "charges" involved.
This was followed by frauds relating to homeworking and business opportunities, and property and land investment scams.
The figures were released at the beginning of the OFT's Scams Awareness Month, which marks the launch of a campaign with 90 trading standards services across the country.
Several Scottish council departments are taking part, although not Glasgow, Edinburgh or Aberdeen city councils.
The OFT is calling on consumers to drop off any scam mailings they receive in designated "Scamnesty" bins at local libraries and other public areas across the country to help combat the worst frauds.
John Fingleton, OFT chief executive, said: "Scammers are sophisticated at targeting people who are often the most vulnerable in society.
"As we enter tougher economic times, it is more important than ever for people to be alert to prevent themselves, or friends, families and neighbours, from falling victim to these heartless money-making schemes."
The cost of scams to UK consumers has trebled since the OFT estimated a 1 billion price tag just four years ago. The average amount lost per scam is 850.
Gareth Thomas, minister for trade, development and consumer affairs, said: "Scammers cause deep anguish to their victims. Anyone can be targeted by these criminals, but with the whole community keeping a look out, we will be better able to beat the bogus sellers that give honest business a bad name and cost the UK billions of pounds each year."
Ron Gainsford, chief executive of the Trading Standards Institute, urged the public to be on their guard all year round for unexpected letters, e-mails, text messages or telephone calls. He added: "We ask you to stop, think and ask yourself, 'What's in it for them?'"
Top ten scams
1 PRIZE DRAW AND SWEEPSTAKE SCAMS
Consumers receive a letter or e-mail notifying them that they have already won a large cash prize. But to claim the win, they must often send a fee.
2 FOREIGN LOTTERY SCAMS
Consumers are told they have won a major cash prize in an overseas lottery, but an administration fee is due. The winnings do not exist and are never received.
3 WORK AT HOME AND BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY SCAMS
A work or business opportunity is advertised which claims to offer a quick way to make a lot of money from home. The catch is that before starting any work the victim has to pay money up front.
4 PREMIUM RATE TELEPHONE PRIZE SCAMS
Consumers are asked to phone or text a number to find out what "major prize" they have won. Calls to the number cost up to 1.50 a minute.
5 MIRACLE HEALTH AND SLIMMING CURE SCAMS
These pills, lotions, creams and other products will supposedly cure ailments. But it is unlikely that they have been proven medically effective.
6 AFRICAN ADVANCE FEE FRAUDS/FOREIGN MONEY MAKING SCAMS
Consumers receive a message from someone who says they need help in transferring money overseas. The scammers will empty the victim's account.
7 CLAIRVOYANT AND PSYCHIC MAILING SCAMS
Consumers are promised predictions that will change the course of their life forever. Sometimes these mailings are aggressive in tone, saying something bad will happen to the recipient or their relatives if they do not send money.
8 PROPERTY INVESTOR SCAMS
Consumers are invited to attend a free presentation about making money from property investment. At the event they are persuaded to hand over money.
9 PYRAMID SELLING AND CHAIN LETTER SCAMS
Victims are promised commission earnings if they recruit others to the scheme. But there would need to be an endless supply of newcomers.
10 BOGUS HOLIDAY CLUB SCAMS
Consumers are approached on holiday and given a scratch card which reveals that they have won a "free" holiday. Victims find out the holiday is not free, as they must pay for extras.
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