Jackie Brambles: Scammers were raking in fortunes long before cybercrime

The biggest con in UK history was to sell people a new life in a foreign country - which didn't exist, writes Jackie Brambles

The advent of the online world has offered scammers a chance to greatly expand their activities.

If I asked you to guess what the biggest scam in UK history was, you might understandably assume it was a cybercrime, especially in light of last week’s ransomware attacks on the NHS, not to mention several thousand other organisations in 60 other countries. After all cybercrime figures are rising 55 per cent year on year. But actually the truth is so much more interesting than that and it was home-grown. This spectacular scam took place almost 200 years ago.

In 1822, Gregor McGregor of Loch Katrine began an extraordinary con that netted him the equivalent of £3.1 billion in today’s economy. Now to put that into context, last year’s total cybercrime figure was £1.1 billion, that’s the sum total for all the cybercrimes in the UK, so the tale of Gregor McGregor, raking in nearly three times as much with one scam - and eight years before the telephone had been invented, let alone the internet - certainly piqued my professional interest, having just finished filming the third series of Stopping Scotland’s Scammers. I was fascinated to learn that diabolical scams didn’t start with the advent of technology.

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Returning from military service overseas, McGregor claimed that a king in South America had been so impressed with his swashbuckling heroics, he had gifted him a small neighbouring country near the Bay of Honduras, called Poyais. McGregor depicted Poyais as an undeveloped promised land, rich in natural resources with a mild climate, fertile soils and rivers literally running with chunks of gold, he claimed. At a time when emigrating to America meant an arduous sea voyage with no guarantees of what lay beyond that, eager investors, the majority of which were his countrymen from Scotland, sunk their savings into McGregor’s bonds for a stake in Poyais. Not only that, but many of them paid for a one-way ticket on one of seven ships that McGregor packed with wide-eyed adventurers looking to settle and prosper in a new country.

There was just one tiny problem. That country didn’t exist. Poyais was entirely fictional, McGregor had made the whole thing up. It was a spectacular scam that netted him a fortune and a couple of months in a French jail when he tried it out across the channel. He ended up fleeing to Venezuela but the victims of his scam were not so lucky. Within months of arriving in an uninhabitable South American jungle, 75 per cent of the 240 investors who set sail for a new life had died of tropical diseases and malnutrition.

Thankfully, the ringleader behind Scotland’s biggest ever cybercrime did not successfully flee to a far off land. Feezan Choudary and his associates are currently serving 11 years in prison having netted £113 million by posing as banks, and scamming people out of their life savings. One of those fleeced was Keith, a jovial B&B owner from Fife who I met in the course of filming. He’d been saving up to pay for his daughter’s wedding but Choudary, utilising phone-number spoofing technology, was able to make it appear that he was calling from the phone number on the back of Keith’s bank card, thus convincing him that he was indeed from the bank’s fraud department and helped himself to £10,000.

Technology has also enabled fraudsters to imitate text numbers too, so if you get a text from your bank with an unusual request, call your bank directly - not from a supplied link - and double check.

The standout takeaway that I have, from filming this series, is that scams leave their victims with a unique emotional scar.

There is a misplaced sense of shame that somehow, those who have been duped are to blame for their own misfortune. It’s something that bothers me greatly and something I wanted to explore further. Although time constraints on the TV programme didn’t allow for that to happen, this year I am producing a series of four podcasts to supplement the television show that have been a fantastic vehicle to go deeper into issues such as the residual effects of being scammed. I was able to bring on board Dr David Modic, a research associate in the Computer Lab at Cambridge University who specialises in online deception and the psychology of persuasion. His research revealed that IQ has no bearing on the likelihood of an individual falling for a scam. That was good to hear, and supplied me with good ammunition the next time I interview a victim of fraud who tells me how “stupid” they are. So, why then do people fall for these cons? Apparently, it’s all down to five key personality traits … but you’ll have to tune into Episode 2 of the podcast to find out what they are!

Stopping Scotland’s Scammers: Friday at 8pm on STV. Stopping Scotland’s Scammers - the Podcast: now available on iTunes and on Royal Bank of Scotland’s online security centre: personal.rbs.co.uk