£3.5 billion 'scammed' from UK citizens each year
Fraud prevention detectives have seized a haul of scam post in a bid to tackle the UK-wide fraudulent mail blight.
In the first operation of its kind, officers from the Metropolitan Police Service's Economic and Specialist Crime Unit (Operation Sterling) took possession of a bulk delivery of scam mail intended for vulnerable victims across the UK and searched and closed five virtual offices used by the scammers.
Sent by professional fraudsters, the letters are designed to con recipients into investing in bogus schemes such as fake lotteries, share frauds and inheritance scams. They depend on persuading victims to transfer money to the criminals based on promises of valuable goods, services, or benefits that are never delivered.
After replying to the first 'tempter' letter, victims' names are put on a 'suckers' list which is then sold to other criminals all over the world. Sucker lists are comprised of some of the most vulnerable people in society, namely the elderly and those suffering from illnesses such as dementia.
Chronic victims of scam mail end up being hounded by numerous criminal organisations and an estimated £3.5 billion is 'scammed' from UK citizens each year. Around £2.4 billion of this is believed to be as a result of mail scams.
The operation - which is being run in partnership with Royal Mail and international mail service provider Spring Global Mail - is part of a long-running police investigation into the organised criminal networks behind these scams.
The investigation began earlier this year when detectives, with the help of Trading Standards and other police forces, contacted 11 scam mail victims from across the UK who had been repeatedly targeted. These people were receiving more than 100 letters each week, the majority of which originated from outside the UK.
The 11 victims were asked to collate their post over a four-week period. This post was taken to New Scotland Yard where it was analysed. It was then sent to the Crown Prosecution Service, where a senior lawyer deemed it to be illegal under the Fraud Act 2006.
Postal marks printed on the envelopes - known as a postage paid impression (PPI) - were then used to trace the post back to source. This was done with the help of Royal Mail and Spring Global Mail.
In one case, a total of 27 scams were linked to one PPI. In a bid to crack down on the criminals behind these scams, Royal Mail and Spring Global Mail agreed to alert police when the next shipment of post bearing this PPI arrived in the UK.
On 25th January detectives visited a UK sorting office where they seized the freight and impounded it.
The letters will become exhibits in a criminal investigation, providing detectives with an opportunity to identify chronic victims of crime, and the perpetrators of that crime, and to take appropriate action.
At the same time, five return addresses or 'virtual offices' in London identified as part of the scam process were shut down and searched for criminal evidence. These addresses are privately rented mail boxes.
As well as stopping hundreds of items of scam mail from reaching vulnerable targets, detectives hope the operation will send warning messages to both the victims and perpetrators of this crime.
Working in partnership with Royal Mail, Spring Global Mail, other UK mail providers and the virtual office industry, the police will continue to look at measures to disrupt and frustrate scam mail entering and leaving the UK and to prevent the exploitation of legitimate services by organised criminal networks.
Detective Superintendent Mark Ponting, head of prevention and disruption for the MPS's Economic and Specialist Crime Command, said: "The individuals behind this type of crime are cynical and pernicious, making their living by targeting and exploiting some of the most vulnerable and needy people in our society.
"For many of these victims, the bombardment of scam mail results in fear, severe financial difficulties and ultimately a decline in both physical and mental health.
"In at least five cases in the UK, it has ended in suicide.”
The police hope that their latest action “and the action that we will take in the future, will raise awareness of this crime amongst all sectors of society and prevent more people from falling victim to it. We also hope to send a warning to the perpetrators, that their actions will not go unhindered. Working with Royal Mail, Spring Global Mail and other members of the postal industry, we aim to clamp down on this crime and make it as hard as possible for the people responsible for it to operate.
Iain McLure, CEO of Spring, said: "Targeting the senders of the mail is the correct action - the police have got this right. Raising awareness is also a key part of the solution to this problem."
Gary Simpson, International Director, Royal Mail, said: "We don't want any of our postmen or women handling or delivering mail that causes harm or is criminal in intent. Royal Mail is working hard with the police to clamp down on this type of distressing activity."
Marilyn Baldwin, of victim support group Think Jessica, said: "My mother Jessica was in her late seventies and suffering from (undiagnosed) age-related declining mental health when she was hunted down by scam mail criminals.
"For five years I tried to convince my mum that she was being scammed, but criminals claiming to be clairvoyants, lottery officials and solicitors led her to believe the family were against her - she would not co-operate.
"The only help I could find was lip service. I believe that the 30,000 scam letters we removed from her home contributed to her death in 2007.
"I started the campaign www.thinkjessica.com three years ago and during that time we have been alerted to thousands of elderly and vulnerable silent victims who are being tricked, 'befriended' and threatened by criminals worldwide. Some receive up to 100 scam letters a day, many have sold their homes and emptied their bank accounts to keep up with the criminals' demands.”
If you are a victim of mass marketing fraud contact Action Fraud to report it or to get advice: www.actionfraud.org.uk. Alternatively, report the fraud to your local police station.
Further advice can be found at www.met.police.uk/fraudalert/index.htm