More than 40 people have been arrested in the first nationwide crackdown on courier fraud.
Around 3,000 victims across England and Wales, most of them elderly, have been tricked into handing over large sums of cash to thieves disguised as couriers or police officers, says the BBC.
“This is a despicable crime,” said Commander Karen Baxter of the City of London Police.
What is courier fraud?
Courier fraud cons people out of money by tricking them into thinking they are dealing with genuine officials, such as police officers.
Fraudsters call victims on the phone and pretend to be from their bank or the police. Under this guise, they convince victims to hand over money to an in-person “courier” on the pretext that they are assisting an investigation into corruption.
In October, a couple from Dorset lost almost £1m, including their pensions and life savings. They were left with just £187 after the fraudsters stole from them multiple times.
In November, a 74-year-old victim lost £400,000 and an 80-year-old £180,000, says the BBC.
“Courier fraudsters are nearly always part of broader criminal gangs: they are persuasive and can be aggressive,” says Baxter. “This can be particularly intimidating when they turn up on a victim’s doorstep.”
There has been a steep rise in courier fraud in the past six months, with losses reported to police totalling more than £12m. Instances of courier fraud increased by 50% in the past year, with two-thirds of the victims being women aged over 80, says The Telegraph.
Because victims are often elderly and vulnerable, the psychological damage of courier fraud can be severe. “In the worst-case scenarios people will try to take their own lives,” said Baxter.
The police crackdown saw 24 people arrested in January alone. Of the 44 people who have been detained so far, 14 have been charged and two have already pleaded guilty.
A total of 18 premises have been searched by police, who found large sums of cash, jewellery, high-value designer goods and luxury luggage, bank cards used in fraudulent transactions, four fake passports, and phone scripts used to help fraudsters hoodwink their victims.
One offender has been returned to prison, where he had already been serving a sentence for courier fraud, after absconding last April.
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How can you avoid it?
Fraud prevention experts have advised people to end cold calls early, and seek advice from trusted friends and family. They should also call their banks directly using the telephone number on their bank cards.
Police and banks will never ask for whole passwords or PINs, and they won’t ask for cash to be handed or transferred to them.
People should explain the risk to elderly relatives, who are more likely to become victims.
“Fraudsters specifically target older people by exploiting their trust in the police and their bank, to bleed them dry,” said Baxter.
And in a message to fraudsters, she said: “We will disrupt your activity, prevent you targeting victims, bring you before the courts and ultimately send you to prison.”