The stranger on the phone claiming to be an inspector from the National Crime Agency and told Geoff Harper* that he was the victim of a complex fraud involving banks, police and, possibly, members of his own family. Harper was asked to help track and identify the fraudsters and to withdraw the money from his three compromised bank accounts for safeguarding. The call was the start of a 16-month ordeal that left Harper homeless, penniless and suicidal.
At least three other elderly victims have been defrauded of their life savings in the same scam – a version of what is known as courier fraud, and two have also lost their homes. Unusually, some appear to have been subsequently coerced into helping to defraud other victims in a nationwide operation that police have equated with modern slavery.
Courier fraud victims are typically told that criminals have accessed their bank account and they need to assist the investigators by handing over their compromised bank card or cash withdrawals for forensic examination. Numerous phone calls from numbers spoofed to match the bank in question may be made to win the victim’s trust before someone is dispatched to their house to collect the “evidence”.
Reports of the crime have risen by 64% in the last 12 months, according to the national cybercrime reporting centre Action Fraud, and coronavirus lockdowns have accelerated the trend.
Harper is a 68-year-old widower with physical and mental health problems that made him especially vulnerable. The death of his wife two years ago left him isolated and depressed, and, with no children, his only social contact was his sister, Laura*, who lives in another part of the country. The fraud looked to have lost him everything, until Guardian Money got involved.
When the first call came in November 2018, the fake inspector knew – or guessed – enough detail about his regular direct debits to convince Harper that the caller was genuine. He persuaded Harper that he might compromise a criminal investigation if he divulged any details to his banks or his sister. Harper made daily trips to the cash machine to withdraw the maximum allowable sums from his Lloyds, HSBC and Halifax accounts, and over eight days he withdrew £6,000, which he was told to keep securely at home until he received further instructions.
In March 2019, Harper was called and told to buy a computer and a smartphone, with a promise that a courier would come to his house to help him set them up. An elderly man arrived with a quantity of luggage and a computer and proceeded to register Harper for internet banking. Harper told his sister that he had invited a friend to stay.
“He started to find excuses for us not to make our monthly visits to see him and he stopped phoning me,” Laura says. “I desperately tried to find out what was going on but he wouldn’t tell me anything and got annoyed and abrasive when we questioned him.”
Laura called one of the banks where she knew Harper held a current account but the staff refused to speak to her without his permission, although they agreed to put a marker on his account. She also contacted the police, and an officer visited the house while Harper was out and questioned the elderly visitor. A subsequent check on police databases showed no criminal record.
Three weeks on, the courier was still lodged in Harper’s house and used the newly registered online banking facility to transfer Harper’s £30,000 Isa into his Lloyds current account. He then accompanied Harper to the bank branch to withdraw the money. Harper had been prepped with responses to deflect questions by bank staff, who, he was told, were complicit in the fraud. When suspicious staff called the police, Harper supplied the same excuses while the courier waited outside. He was told the money would be deposited in a safe account.
He tried to refuse but he was threatened with violence and warned that his family would be in danger
In June 2019 the fraudster, communicating through the courier, told him that his house would have to be sold to raise funds and he was shown photos of a bungalow that would be bought for him when the “investigation” was complete. By this time, Harper’s accounts had been emptied and his suspicions aroused.
“He tried to refuse but he was threatened with violence and warned that his family would be in danger,” Laura says.
The property was sold for £70,000 to an online company that pays cash and Harper was told to open an account with TSB to deposit the money. His furniture was put into storage and he and the courier moved to a series of Airbnb rentals in different towns. He severed all contact with Laura.
It later emerged that there was more to this elderly courier than met the eye – it turned out that he was a victim of this scam, too.
“During this time the courier was going across the country collecting and passing on money,” Laura says. “It seems that the courier had himself lost his house and savings to the same fraud, and had been enlisted by the fraudster to take and deliver money in return for the promise of a new house.”
Laura finally discovered the truth in February this year. “Out of the blue, I had a phone call from a police constable asking me to go to Leeds to pick Geoff up as he was suicidal and had nowhere to go,” she says. “The fraudster got wind of this and had enlisted another victim to call Geoff and tell him to close his bank accounts and go to the airport. When we arrived to fetch him, he was confused and unable to speak to us – a totally broken man.”
A victim in Kent had contacted police and the courier was arrested at a station on his way to collect more money. Kent police referred Harper to a support team for victims of modern slavery and is warning householders to be vigilant after its investigations identified three other victims in Kent, Yorkshire and Northamptonshire.
“Our detectives have worked with other forces to review all the available evidence concerning this particular investigation and, as yet, no suspects have been arrested,” DS Marc Cananur tells Guardian Money. “However, as always, we will explore any new information or evidence that comes to light.”
Laura has spent the last eight months trying to persuade Harper’s banks to refund some of the stolen money but faced refusals or silence. A voluntary scheme introduced in May last year obliged participating banks to reimburse blameless fraud victims. However, the sector has been criticised for refusing the majority of valid claims and for declining to publish what proportion are upheld.
Harper’s case is more complicated because he overrode attempts by at least two of the banks to block suspicious transactions.
However, after intervention by Guardian Money, all of the banks involved agreed to return the stolen funds, estimated to amount to £110,000. This included the proceeds of the house sale.
Lloyds Banking Group, which includes Halifax, says it had initially refused the claim because Harper had proceeded with the transactions despite its attempts to block them and to involve the police. It says it had not previously been told the full details of the scam, or of Harper’s vulnerability, and, as a goodwill gesture, it is also returning the ATM withdrawals, even though these are not covered by the refund scheme.
A bank spokesperson says: “We were subsequently provided with new and more detailed information about the nature of the scam and the customer’s personal circumstances … As a result, we have been able to refund the full amount he lost.”
He has lost everything: his home, his confidence and self-esteem, the few friends he had and even his cat
A spokesperson for HSBC says: “While we’re satisfied we acted correctly in respect of the information we had at the time, including contacting him to check the authenticity of one transaction and proactively stopping another, in light of new information and as a gesture of goodwill, we are reimbursing the funds that were lost from the account he held with us.”
TSB says its decision had been delayed by a multiagency investigation. “We are pleased to be able to refund the customer in line with the terms of our fraud refund guarantee,” a spokesperson says.
The price Harper paid for the ordeal goes far beyond money, however.
“He has lost everything: his home, his confidence and self-esteem, the few friends he had and even his cat, as he couldn’t take it with him when his house was sold,” Laura says. “He has had a total breakdown, is still suicidal at times and still goes to bed hoping he never wakes up.”
* Names have been changed
• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.