Stay safe from scammers who prey on vulnerable people in our communities

June Markwell
June Markwell

Trading standards chiefs are urging people to stay safe from scammers who aim to cash in on vulnerable people.

Hartlepool Borough Council’s Trading Standards team are urging residents in Hartlepool to stay vigilant during the festive period to avoid falling victim to scams, thefts and other criminal exploits.

Ian Harrison, the council's trading standards & licensing manager.

Ian Harrison, the council's trading standards & licensing manager.

They say that while minds are occupied with festive chaos, it can be easy to overlook the most vulnerable in society who may have been targeted by dangerous scammers.

Ian Harrison, the council’s trading standards & licensing manager, said: “Rogue traders are using increasingly sophisticated ways to scam people out of their hard-earned money.

“This festive season, we are calling on Hartlepool communities to look out for one another.

“Whether it’s stopping by a neighbour’s home that you have noticed doesn’t often have visitors, reporting a nuisance doorstep caller that seems to be regularly doing the rounds, or simply keeping an eye out for unusual activity, everyone can play their part in making someone’s Christmas that little bit safer.

Large amounts of post can be a sign of potential scams.

Large amounts of post can be a sign of potential scams.

“Hartlepool Borough Council’s trading standards team can offer confidential advice, support and personal home visits upon request.

“The council’s Community Safety Team can provide crime prevention advice to vulnerable residents and victims of crime where the case has been referred by another agency.”

It comes as one brave victim has spoken of her ordeal to help prevent others being scammed.

June Markwell found herself targeted after ordering health products from a foreign firm, which targeted her while she was emotionally vulnerable.

Stock image

Stock image

“When my husband was dying, I got involved with this company - they are registered in Belgium,” she said.

“I was extremely vulnerable. I started ordering stuff from one company and started getting messages from other companies in the same group.

“I was sending off for all sorts of things. I was spending money over a period of time.”

The firms used promises of non-existent prizes and incentives to keep June spending on items she could have been buying for much less at home.

She even told staff at the home where husband Eddy was being cared for that she was a winner.

“They kept telling me that I had won a television,” said June.

After receiving threats of legal action and debt collectors, June turned to Hartlepool trading standards officer Daniel Briggs for help, who issued a warning to the public, complete with a photo of the letters June had received.

June’s case was featured anonymously in Hartlepool Mail but now June has decided to give up her anonymity in order to back the latest warning from trading standards.

“I did not want people to know I had been such a fool.

“That is how I got involved with Daniel. He wrote to get them to stop the threats, but he could not do anything about me getting my money back.

“He wrote and said to them not to write to me any more - they were going to get debt collectors coming to my house.”

June believes the firms target elderly and vulnerable people, using a mix of threats and false promises to keep them spending money.

“They were telling you were winning things and you actually weren’t,” she said.

“If you look at the website, nobody actually wins a prize. They seem to prey on the elderly.”

She added: “I have lost hundreds of pounds,” she said.

“I must have spent about a thousand pounds with them over a period of time.

“I was buying a lot of health products, thinking they would help me. I did not realise at the time that I was getting fleeced for what I was receiving.”

To speak to a member of the team call 01429 523362 (telephones will re-open following the Christmas break on Tuesday, January 2 2018 at 8.30am).

Silence is a scammer’s best friend:

Christmas is a time of fun, food and family. Visits to loved ones are a whirlwind of gift exchanging and a rare opportunity to catch up. On the surface, all may appear well.

However, particularly with older or vulnerable family members, it is important to look for signs that darker forces are at work behind the scenes. They could be a victim of a mail scam, and may not even be aware that they are being conned. They may know and do not want to burden family with their worries.

There are several tell-tale signs you can look out for to help identify if they are responding to mail:

Large amounts of letters may be present at their home. Some victims have been known to receive up to 60 letters a day.

There may be items present which have been purchased from scam catalogues. Common items include confectionary, small collector’s items such as trinkets or coins and health products such as creams or tablets.

They may receive a large amount of nuisance phone calls and/or appear hesitant when the phone rings. Criminals request telephone numbers from their victims and then pass the information onto their associates.

By acting vigilantly you can help protect the person you care for. With basic knowledge, you can identify a scam letter, realise a victim and take steps to help stop a victim responding:

The envelopes are eye catching and contain phrases such as “Congratulations you’re a Winner” or “Winner’s Cheque Enclosed”.

The letter will be unsolicited and state they have won a large prize for a competition they have never entered.

The letter will advise they need to pay an ‘advanced fee’ or purchase an item from their enclosed catalogue in order to claim the prize.

The letter will give a reply deadline or the prize will be given to someone else.

The letter will appear personalised. The fraudsters use computer technology to input their victims name into the letter multiple times.

In the majority of circumstances the originating and return addresses will be from outside the United Kingdom.

It is important to assure the person that they may have been a victim of a sophisticated crime.

Encourage them to talk to someone about it as silence is a scammer’s best friend.

Alternatively, encourage them to talk to Hartlepool trading standards who can provide personal home visits and confidential advice.

Leave unsolicited callers out in the cold:

Cold calling is the favoured method of rogue traders, visiting residents with the aim of taking as much money from their victims as possible.

By using pressure techniques and putting the householder on the back foot, they are persuading people to buy into scams, switch utility suppliers when it is not in their best interest, or using the opportunity to distract and steal personal belongings.

Follow these key tips to shut the door on rogue traders:

Always be wary of visitors claiming to be from the utility companies such as the water board, or the police or council.

Callers from utility companies (water, gas and electricity) maintain registers of customers who require extra support. If a resident asks join such a register, one of their legitimate callers will provide a secure password to give peace of mind as to their identity.

Don’t be afraid to ask a caller to return when you have someone else present.

Rogue callers will often have a story that tries to justify them gaining access to homes. Do not allow anyone entry unless you are fully satisfied as to their credibility.

If you have serious concerns about a cold caller contact the police on 999.

Evidence shows that unsolicited callers are more likely to target properties that they suspect belong to vulnerable and elderly people. One of the signs they look for is a poorly maintained or overgrown garden, so keeping the entrance to your property tidy may deter some criminals.

If the caller is from a genuine company, then the company will typically arrange an appointment and agree to give you prior notice ahead of a visit.

A genuine caller will understand your reluctance to speak to the over the doorstep.

You are under no obligation to speak to them and should not feel bad for not doing so.

Devices that can provide additional home security:

A door peep-hole and a door chain enable you to check who is outside before deciding whether to open the door to them.

If you do not know the visitor, it’s advisable that you do not open your door.

However, you must ensure however that you do not leave the door chain on all day as this prevents legitimate callers like family and friends gaining entry when they need to.

Call-blocking device: There are a range of devices that can filter unwanted telephone calls.

Some devices sit between the telephone wall socket and your handset whereas some telephones themselves contain the call blocking technology such as the BT4600.

Outdoor lighting helps deter visitors at night. Having one that switches on when movement is detected is more energy efficient although there are cheap solar powered options available.

Visible burglar alarms will both deter potential burglars and warn you of an intruder.

You may find your home insurance premium decreases if you have additional security devices installed. 

Anti-Virus and Firewall software on computers and mobile phones. Cyber crime is at an all time high, and so it is important than ever to have effective internet security.

Set up strict filter settings on email accounts, move suspicious emails to the junk folder and take extra care when opening any email that promises a financial incentive such as tax refunds. Criminals create spoof websites that can be linked to scam emails - the purpose of which is to obtain your personal data for fraudulent activity.

Hartlepool Borough Council’s Community Safety Team can provide crime prevention advice to vulnerable residents and victims of crime where the case has been referred by another agency. It is important that if you have been the victim of crime in your home that you raise this matter with an agency such as Cleveland Police on 101 or th4 copuncil’s trading standards team on 01429 523362 (telephones will re-open following the Christmas break on Tuesday, January 2 2018 at 8.30am).