Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Scamsters

My bank account has been drained twice. The first time, I was trying to pay a restaurant bill and my debit card was declined, despite the fact that I knew there was money there. After several frustrating calls to my least favourite Indian callcentre we established that it had been cloned after a visit to a pub cash machine on London's South Bank a few hours earlier. The restaurant, bless 'em, allowed me to leave without paying. (I went back the following day and paid. Honest!). The thieves had cleared out all the funds in a matter of hours but I was insured and got it all back.

The other time, I got a call in a Knightsbridge restaurant from Amex, a mysterious call because they simply wanted to establish that I was me, and since we were eating in posh territory, I thought it was all going to be embarrassing ("Rip his card up") But no such thing. The sommelier didn't need to take the armagnacs back. I then went abroad for a week while a bunch of thieves spent £2,000 on my card in a mobile phone shop in NW10. My card had been cloned before I got to the restaurant and the spending spree had started, but Amex were being cautious. Their loss. I got the money back.

But that's kid's stuff, the real scamsters are out there preying in the most surprising places.

Last year my partner had a stall at a Christmas Fayre selling stuff and in the myriad of paperwork that accompanies this kind of enterprise in London (this is not village fete territory, it's serious business) there was one letter which appeared to come from the organisers which recommended renewing a free online ad. Which she did.
Except it wasn't from the organisers. And it wasn't free. It was a scam operating from a Vienna PO Box, (previously they had been in Spain and Switzerland) whereby a bunch of thieves scooped up several thousand pounds a week just by simple deception. They're well known, they form different companies and adopt a variety of nationalities. The Christmas Fayre Company know who they are, the police know who they are, Trading Standards Authorities in Europe and the USA know who they are and the Daily Mirror has even exposed them. But they just plod on, changing company names, conning small businessfolk.

The bill was three grand and they got really heavy with us, and while we would have defended ourselves in court, I suggested that they might like to take their interest elsewhere. Or myself and my friends would come and pay them a visit.

The latest one, going on right now, is the most fascinating. A friend put an ad in Craigslist seeking an apartment in London and was contacted by a variety of people offering all manner of flats and accommodations. One in particular stood out, not by its friendly manner and pigeon English, but because it appeared to be from a couple offering a virtually free apartment ("pay us what you want"). It all sounded very jolly. My friend answered and was told by "the couple" that they were leaving the country and they'd like to send the keys round by DHL and trusted my friend, an honourable person, to look after their apartment for a very long time.

"The couple" then sent apartment details of a place in Baltimore, Maryland, by mistake.
In an apologetic followup they explained that they were also letting out an apartment there to a friend and the emails had got mixed up.


The next email, slightly more urgent in tone, demanded that my friend hand over his address and banking details "so that the keys can be sent immediately with all documentation" and a banking address was attached from Lagos, Nigeria, which would accept the peppercorn rent. Once my friend had handed over his banking details too.

So, in exchange for a free house in central London, this anonymous couple who turn out to be from Nigeria and also have an apartment in Baltimore, only needed an address, a name, and some banking details.

All pigs fuelled up and ready to fly sir.


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