A couple from Edinburgh have spoken out about how they almost got conned out of thousands of pounds by fraudsters posing as tax officials.
Ian and Margaret Meikle are offering advice to others to warn of the convincing scare tactics these criminals use to try to get people to part with their money.
The couple were also thankful to staff in a local PC World who helpfully confirmed the scam after they were instructed to purchase an online gaming voucher to help pay the “debt” they were told they owed.
The couple, both 69, were at their Craiglockhart home back in September when Margaret received the unexpected and threatening phone call.
Margaret said: “The lady said she was from the Inland Revenue, there was a warrant out for my arrest and I was in debt to something like £4600 and if I didn’t pay this money I could go to prison. She gave me a code and her name, Emily Jones. When I asked which station she was based in she couldn’t answer that.
“I then spoke to someone called James Parker. Both spoke with Asian accents. They were so convincing with all the numbers and references and HMRC codes, because you thought they actually did have all that relevant information. They had my National Insurance number as well.”
They told the couple that they had sent two letters advising of the debt back in May, which the couple had not received. The demand was for cash, but when the couple offered to pay at various tax offices this was knocked back.
Margaret continued: “They said you can pay by vouchers and I was saying ‘pay by vouchers to the Inland Revenue?’ You’re so confused and upset, you don’t think logically. The amount they wanted us to pay kept going down until it got to £1000 and that’s when they said we want you to go to PC World.”
The callers told the Meikles to go and purchase Steam vouchers, which are credits for online gaming. Scammers frequently request that vouchers of various kinds, often iTunes vouchers, are purchased and the codes sent on to them to pay off debts. The criminals sell them on again for profit.
The request for the Steam vouchers plus a request to constantly be on the phone rang alarm bells for them.
She continued: “The whole time they wanted us to stay on the line. We couldn’t hang up at all and if we hung up they actually phoned us back, they had to be connected at all times and I couldn’t understand that at all.
“At this time we had realised it was a con and about halfway to PC World we just thought this was just ridiculous but we’ll go into PC World and find out what the Steam cards actually are.”
The staff in the store were familiar with the voucher scam thanks to a Police Scotland publicity campaign earlier in the year.
“The lady in PC World was very good,” said Ian, “she explained what they were for, that they were gaming vouchers that people could use to play games from the internet and she said definitely a con, don’t buy them.”
Latest Police Scotland figures show fraud has risen by a quarter during April-September this year compared to the same period in 2017.
Detective Inspector Gordon Burns of the Economic Crime and Financial Investigation Unit said there are various factors that can contribute to fraud being on the increase. “These include austerity in the last few years; the economic climate is ripe for fraud. There are many aspects of fraud that have become more sophisticated and much easier to commit when you can use the internet, online portals, phones etc. However the tried and tested methods of the conman appearing at the door are still there and still evident – we still have the bogus workmen frauds and romance scams.”
With fraud costing the UK economy £193 billion last year, police are working hard to catch the conmen as well as urging the public to take steps to protect themselves. DI Burns continued: “Social media has a lot to contribute to fraud, as people put a lot of information online about their private lives that enables the fraudsters to gather information on their perceived victims to ensure they get a good bit of knowledge about them before actually contacting them. It makes the scam appear more genuine if they can talk about a real shopping trip and a real purchase before moving onto the con.
“There’s an element of common sense that has to be asked of people – if it’s too good to be true then think about it, take 5 or 10 seconds to consider what you’re doing, how you’re transferring money and who you’re transferring to. Think would I actually have done that, have I spent that money and if I haven’t, I’ll contact you back on my number that I’ve got from the bank, I’m not just going to listen to what you’re telling me.
“A bank will never ask for PIN numbers or security information over and above what is normal. If at any time you’re not sure, put the phone down, go to another phone and ring the bank back from there.”
An HMRC spokesperson said: “We are aware that some people have received telephone calls from individuals claiming to be from HMRC. We have a well-known brand, which criminals abuse, to add credibility to their scams. If someone calls you claiming to be from HMRC saying you are owed a tax refund and asking for information such as credit card or bank details then it’s a scam. HMRC will never request tax debts are paid in payment vouchers or gift cards.
“We recommend that if you cannot verify the identity of a caller that you do not speak to them. We encourage you to check GOV.UK for information on how to avoid and report scams, recognise genuine HMRC contact and make payments to HMRC.”
The Meikles say they have learned from their experience and hope others will too. Margaret said: “We’re not normally that gullible, I was quite shocked that I was taken in. It was quite an experience, I’ll never get caught like that again.”
Ian added: “It was plausible up to the point when they were asking us to go and buy vouchers, that’s when it started to sound iffy but by that point you were caught up in the thing and upset and angry. Before this happened we would have said we would never get caught like that because we are reasonably savvy about these sort of things, but you just get caught up in the moment.”