A grieving widow told yesterday how she lost almost £50,000 to fake taxmen fraudsters who made her feel like she was being ‘held at gunpoint’.
Linda Butler was terrified into making repeat payments to aggressive criminals posing as HMRC officials who warned her she faced a huge fine and being arrested at her home if she refused to pay non-existent tax debts.
The Government pledged to take action this week after a Daily Mail investigation revealed how as many as 10,000 Britons a day are being hit by the scammers, who work from call centres in India.
But despite the promised crackdown, the fraudsters continue to operate with apparent impunity.
One mother described how she was left in tears after being targeted on the school run only yesterday morning. Meanwhile, scores more readers have contacted the Mail about the scam.
Linda Barker pictured with late husband David, she was the victim of a scam when crooks asked her for £50,000, purporting to be taxmen
Undercover footage from inside an Indian call centre where scammers posing as HMRC staff terrorise thousands of Britons every day
Mrs Butler, 56, described how she came home last December to find a stern voicemail from a man purporting to be an HMRC officer ordering her to call back urgently or face legal consequences.
When she did, she was told she had been avoiding tax. The scammer said she owed HMRC £4,000 and if she failed to pay up she would face a £30,000 fine.
Mrs Butler, who had recently lost her husband David, said she felt frightened because the man was so aggressive.
Assuming that there had been a mistake with her tax bill, she logged into her online bank account and made the £4,000 payment he demanded. But the fraudster then claimed the transfer had not gone through and ordered her to make the payment again.
This continued repeatedly for almost two hours.
Mrs Butler could see her account balance going down but the fraudster was adamant the payments were not going through and assured her any overpayment would be refunded.
At one point the man made her call her bank, NatWest, to confirm she was authorising the payment. He said that if she mentioned HMRC the bank would freeze her account and she would be unable to pay her mortgage.
Mrs Butler said: ‘I felt like I was being held at gunpoint.’
Eventually she hung up and contacted her bank, to discover she had lost almost £50,000.
Mrs Butler said: ‘I was so frightened. He said he had come to my house before and I had no idea if they were waiting around the corner.’ After investigating, NatWest managed to retrieve £2,700 but refused to refund the remainder because Mrs Butler had authorised the payments.
Chancellor Philip Hammond has promised to do more to stop the telephone scammers.
Despite this, however, the fraudsters continue to operate. Amy Diamond, an administrator who lives near Bromley in South-East London, told the Mail she was targeted yesterday morning.
Miss Diamond was one of ten Daily Mail readers who contacted us to say they had received intimidating calls yesterday, just a day after the Government promised a crackdown on the fraudsters.
She said: ‘I completely believed it until something told me to call HMRC direct. I was in the car on the school run with my children and it had me in tears. It was so aggressive and demanding. It was petrifying.’
A spokesman for NatWest said last night: ‘We sympathise with Mrs Butler, who has been the victim of a scam and appreciate this has been a very distressing time for her.
‘We take our responsibilities in preventing scams seriously and will always try to help customers to recover their funds.
‘Unfortunately, as she made the payments herself and confirmed a number of them as genuine when we contacted her, we are unable to refund her loss.’
Ex-pensions minister: They tried to con £20k from my Mum
by Ros Altmann
When my mother phoned, she was in a terrible state. I could hear from her voice that something had left her petrified.
My mother is a strong, independent woman of 86 with a sharp mind. But she has had some serious bouts of ill health and it was obvious that, at that moment, she was on the verge of panic.
Gradually, she managed to explain what had upset her so badly. A phone call had come out of the blue from an official claiming to be from Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs.
According to the caller, she owed £20,000 for years in unpaid taxes — and if she didn’t pay them the money straight away, she faced a visit from the police and immediate arrest.
It was a scam, a blatant fraud, one of the type that the Mail Investigations Unit has done so much brilliant work to expose this week. But my mother was beside herself with worry, so she phoned me.
I’m so thankful that she managed to reach me to share her worries, and was not frightened into just handing the money over to these shameless conmen.
The vicious hoax began with an answerphone message. My mother lives alone: she has always valued her independence, and she is adamant that she will never impose on anyone, even those who love her most dearly.
She knows that, if she decided to move in with us, we’d welcome her gladly. But I respect her independent spirit and I would certainly never want to take it away from her.
Ros Altmann, the former pensions minister, says her mother was the victim of an HMRC scam, when crooks told the elderly lady she owed £20,000
Sadly, to some evil people, the fact that she lives alone makes her vulnerable — and a perfect target for their criminal schemes. The first phone message came at a time when she was not feeling particularly robust. She has had treatment for lung cancer, and was recovering from heart surgery.
So when the message with its official tone informed her there was an issue with her tax payments, she felt she had to call back on the number the crooks had left.
That was a grave mistake. The man who answered the phone immediately began to hector and bully her. He accused her of attempting to evade her taxes, and warned that she had placed herself in serious trouble.
If she didn’t make a bank transfer straight away, and pay the £20,000, he would send police to her house to arrest her. ‘I know where you live,’ he said aggressively.
What a horrible ordeal for anyone, but especially an octogenarian in fragile health. It makes me very angry that these scammers have such contempt for people and are prepared to inflict such mental torture to steal from them.
Frankly, it disgusts me.
My mother protested that her accountant handled all her affairs, and he had said nothing about tax arrears.
She had always paid all her tax bills. The crook accused her of ignoring repeated written demands and, when she insisted that she had seen nothing in the post, he said the letters had been going to the accountant — who was either incompetent or worse, he added.
Thank goodness my mother was not harried into parting with money there and then. It wasn’t possible: £20,000 is a very large sum, much more than she had access to that day. She insisted that she had to speak to her financial adviser, and put the phone down, shaken and confused.
She tried calling her accountant, only to discover he was on holiday, and she really became distraught.
That’s when she called me. I immediately guessed what was going on and tried to assure her it must be a scam. I said I would find out what I could. I called the fraudsters’ number from my mobile, to see if I could find out more about how they operated — information I intended handing to the police.
They didn’t answer my call but, when I tried ringing again with my number withheld, a man picked up.
I said I was calling on my mother’s behalf, and asked him what this was all about. He put the phone down.
This type of crime is so calculating, callous and immoral. It is targeted mainly at the elderly, those from a generation that respects authority and has always believed in doing their bit for society.
The thought of avoiding paying taxes, to my mother and her contemporaries, is abhorrent. They settle their bills, and they’re proud of it. If, by some administrative error, my mother really did owe anything to HMRC, she wouldn’t rest till it was paid — and these contemptible thieves think that they can take advantage of that.
There’s something else about my mother’s generation: they are polite. They speak patiently and courteously on the telephone, even when the caller is being rude and disrespectful.
The idea of putting the phone down on anyone, even a scammer, is almost physically painful.
It is hateful that these organised criminals treat human decency as weakness. They have no compunction.
When I read the Mail’s outstanding investigation on Monday, in which reporter Tom Kelly infiltrated a fake call centre in the Indian city of Ahmedabad and revealed these scammers target a staggering 10,000 Britons a day, my blood boiled.
Research by the Money Advice Service suggests that there could be as many as eight scam calls every second — the equivalent of 250million calls per year.
More than that, the British police and Whitehall departments should be doing their utmost to prevent the gangs from accessing the private phone numbers of British citizens.
It would also make a huge difference if the scammers were stopped from buying and using bogus UK phone numbers, even copying the HMRC phone number, to make the scam seem authentic.
The telecoms industry and the Government should introduce measures to prevent people from being able to hide their identities behind these bogus numbers.
Clearly, the technical issues involved are complex. I have been campaigning for a long time to put a stop to cold-calling pension scams that deprived many of funds for their retirement. In January, these fraudulent practices were outlawed — the culmination of the work that I began as Pensions Minister.
But there is more to do and crooks will always attempt to find a way around any safeguards. Registering your phone number with ‘Telephone Preference Service’ to screen out cold calls, for example, doesn’t make a scrap of difference in most cases.
What would work is if banks were to freeze all accounts that have been used in transferring scammed funds. Scammers never con only one person: there will always be more. The sooner banks are alerted and can shut down or freeze accounts being used by these criminals, the more people will be protected.
There is clearly more to do to protect the public and to co-ordinate responses across the banking system, so all banks are alerted when a scam is discovered.
Most of all, we all need to be aware of the risks, and to make sure that our loved ones know never to transfer money to spurious callers.
A few weeks after the scare, my mother had another scam call. She hung up. Lesson learned.