WATCH OUT FOR THIS ONE!
A 999 call and the credit card scam that cost thousands: How an utterly plausible con-trick left John Andrews £7,000 poorer and feeling a total mug
By JOHN ANDREWS
We feel so stupid: how could my wife and I have been conned out of more than £7,000 by one phone conversation? The answer is that the scam was brilliant in design and execution.
It began with a phone call after dinner on a Friday night. My wife answered the phone and the caller announced herself as ‘DCI Jane Seymour of the Serious Fraud Office’.
The inspector was polite and matter of fact. She asked my wife if she had been in the Apple Store on Regent Street that day or the one in Covent Garden? My wife replied that she hadn’t.
But DCI Seymour reported that someone had bought expensive items from these stores using my wife’s debit card — and the transactions had been within four minutes of each other.
Anyone who knows central London knows it is almost impossible to get from Regent Street to Covent Garden in such a short time — something was definitely amiss.
The inspector then broke the news that someone had cloned my wife’s card and was using it to make major purchases. Panicked by this information, my wife called me over to the phone and asked me to speak to DCI Seymour.
The inspector explained that the Serious Fraud Office had been monitoring Apple Stores, conscious that the launch of the latest iPhone would make it a target for criminals.
‘Do you have all your cards with you?’ she asked. Yes. ‘Are you sure?’ Yes.
In the background I could hear hubbub that made me think of TV’s The Bill or Prime Suspect: the faint sound of people chatting, the sense that DCI Seymour was at one desk and other detectives were hard at work on the case, too.
Having established that neither my wife nor I had been to the Apple Store, she asked if I had noticed any strange transactions on my cards. No, I replied.
‘But we’re worried,’ said the inspector. ‘We think all your cards have been compromised. It may be that someone has hacked into the National Database. We need to block all the cards now.’
Inwardly, I shivered. Does this mean identity theft? ‘Yes, it could be. You’ll need to take part in a police investigation later. But we need to block your cards first.’
Immediately, I was suspicious. Why would she want all our cards? Was DCI Seymour who she said she was? How could we know she was really working for the Serious Fraud Office?
Her ANSWER turned us from cautious sceptics into credulous fools. ‘Call 999 and check me out,’ she urged. So we did. I put the phone down, picked it up again and dialled 999. The dialling tone was normal, the phone rang and the response was as prompt and efficient as a law-abiding citizen could wish for.
Which service did I want? The police. I’ll put you through. When a constable picked up the phone, I asked: ‘Do you have a DCI Jane Seymour of the Serious Fraud Squad?’
‘Yes, I’ll connect you.’ DCI Seymour picked up the phone — her identity verified. In fishing parlance, we were hooked — and were about to be sunk.
‘We can have your cards blocked immediately,’ said DCI Seymour to reassure us. ‘New cards can be delivered to your house in three working days, or five for the foreign cards. But first we’ll need your PIN numbers.’ That should, of course, have rung alarm bells.
How many times have we all been told, ‘Never, never give your PIN number to anyone. Your bank will never ask for it’? We hesitated — and this is where DCI Seymour scored again. ‘Don’t tell me the codes,’ she said. ‘Tap them into the phone and they will be sent straight to our technical team.’
And so, stupidly, but trusting that the digital wizardry was in our interest, we did. And, as we later discovered, using specialist technology, she recorded the numbers.
By this time, we had been on the phone for at least an hour, in a state of shock and growing despair over the hassles that apparently came with ID theft.
DCI Seymour kept reassuring us that all would be well. ‘Are you OK? Do you have enough money for the weekend? We can get you emergency funds of £300 delivered to you by 3pm tomorrow. We’ll debit it from your HSBC account and I’ll call you again tomorrow at noon.’
It was all so comforting. Her manner was solicitous, reassuring and practical. When I asked my wife to pour me a glass of wine, DCI Seymour heard me on the other end of the phone. She laughed and said she could do with one, too — but not on duty.
Almost as if we had been hypnotised, we did as we were told. ‘The driver’s on his way. He’ll be with you shortly.’ And when she said she would send a courier round to pick up our compromised cards, it seemed so reasonable. ‘Put them in a sealed envelope inside another envelope, and don’t tell the driver what it’s for. We’ll contact him ourselves.’
He was and, within minutes, as we later discovered, our accounts were being plundered, mostly, it seems, by withdrawals from ATM machines at Euston station.
Meanwhile, DCI Seymour kept me on the line, supposedly keeping us abreast of the activities of the criminals who had cloned our cards.
‘There’s been a withdrawal in South London. Someone’s at Euston. We’re watching the CCTV. There’s another withdrawal . . .’
On and on it went, as my wife and I became increasingly tired and desperate, but DCI Seymour kept us hanging on, saying: ‘Don’t put the phone down. Stay on the line.’
I realise now, of course, that this was to stop us ringing the banks of our own accord. At around midnight, my wife collapsed into bed, but DCI Seymour kept me on the phone until 1.30am.
I had been speaking to her for two-and-a-half hours. To say we slept badly is an understatement. We tossed and turned, fretting about the money being siphoned out of our accounts.
'Hypnotised': The couple did everything 'DCI Seymour' asked of them after they were taken in by the con.
Breakfast and the cold light of day brought me to my senses. ‘Perhaps, I should call 999 again, just to check,’ I thought.
The operator who answered was annoyed. She told me my case was not an emergency and I should dial 101 for my local police service. With mounting anxiety, I explained that I had dialled 999 the night before and that my call had been put through to an officer.
‘We have no record of a call,’ she said. ‘Ah, hang on a moment. I’ll talk to a colleague.’
And then, with the help of bona fide officers, the truth about the scam was revealed.
It all hinged on a clever technical trick. Quite simply, if you put the phone down, but the other party does not, they stay on the line.
Even if you dial a new number, you remain connected to the original caller. So when I dialled 999, it went back to ‘DCI Jane Seymour’. She must have had an accomplice posing as the emergency services operator and, as easy as that, we fell into their trap.
We lost around £7,000 of our savings.
The police — the real police — have been sympathetic and tell us that the con is targeted at the well-to-do and the elderly who may not be as techno-savvy as younger account holders. Mercifully, most of the money has since been credited back to us. The banks conceded we were victims of an understandable gullibility.
Naturally, my wife and I feel embarrassed and a little sheepish at having been fooled so easily.
In our defence, I can only say that the woman who played ‘DCI Jane Seymour’ was a brilliant actress and this particular bit of financial con-artistry was new to us.
We are lucky the damage done wasn’t permanent and that most of the money has been returned. Others may not be so lucky.
I may feel shame-faced about having been so easily deceived, but let my gullibility be a very modern cautionary tale to others.