Why I willingly handed over my credit card and PIN to a fraudster

If scammers disguised themselves as your bank's fraud protection team, would you fall for it? Andy Welch did.

"Hello Mr Welch. Visa Card Services here." That was the line with which my nightmare started one Sunday morning, hungover, sitting on the sofa trying to piece together the night before. The landline rang. I was surprised because I’d only given the number to about three people.

The person on the other end of the phone – Mark – told me there had been a number of fraudulent transactions on my bank account since midnight, adding up to about £1,100. I’d never heard of Visa Card Services before, but then I’d never had money stolen like this before. Maybe this is what happens?

He then confirmed the last genuine withdrawal I’d made – at the Barclays opposite Highbury & Islington station – gave me a reference number and told me to ring the number on the back of my bank card.

I did just that, quoted the reference number and spoke to someone who knew all about the supposed fraud. These cunning tricksters had apparently cloned my card at the ATM I’d used and then treated themselves to a few things in the Apple Store on Regent Street. Something didn’t ring true about the whole thing – why would someone with a stolen bank card only spend £400 in the Apple Store, for starters? But I watch enough bullshit consumer TV, the kind of thing presented by that estuary gargoyle Dominic Littlewood, to know that these things happen.

The person now helping me, Rajesh Khan in HSBC’s card protection department, had all my details; full name, date of birth and, crucially, my address. That was the clincher for me, and when he said a courier was on the way to collect my bank card for further examination, I didn’t need to tell him where I lived. I initially flinched at the idea, but when he explained it was needed to properly analyse the chip, it seemed to make sense. After all, I’d called the bank myself, this was no cold call, and he had all my details already. That’s probably the same reason I typed my PIN number into the keypad of my phone.

“It’s OK, Mr Welch, we can’t see it, but we need to perform a PIN block." “I’ve never heard of that," I said, “but fair enough." I packaged the card up as requested – wrapped up snugly in kitchen roll, packed into an envelope so it didn’t look like a bank card – and waited for the courier to arrive. Rajesh called back twice, once to say the car was five minutes away, and again to say it was outside, quoting the car’s number plate and describing the driver.

My mate Rajesh called again later that afternoon to say they’d received the card and that I’d have my money back in a few days. “Great," I thought. I recall saying to one of my housemates how difficult it was to like banks, what with them ruining the world and everything, but you couldn’t argue with efficiency like this. So sucked in to the efficiency, I went through exactly the same process the following day with my credit card. The same fraudsters had somehow hacked into my online account, got my credit card details and maxed it out. Good old Rajesh told me this time there was a shred of hope the criminals would be arrested as they’d made the mistake of buying Eurostar tickets to Paris on a specific train. The police would be waiting for them at St Pancras. Amazing news!

A few days went by and Rajesh stopped calling. Worried – by this point I was, to my estimations, about £4,000 out of pocket – I called the bank, this time from my mobile. After explaining the situation to two or three people, my nightmare stepped up a notch with the most chilling phrase of all. “But Mr Welch, your cards haven’t been reported stolen."

I’ve never been speechless before. I’ve never been able to feel the colour drain from my face either, but I was and I could. It ran from me like water down an open drain, replaced by all-consuming feelings of stupidity, anger and fear. Quite the cocktail. Realisations kept hitting me as I relayed the conversations, over and over and over. Why had I given my card to a stranger? Why had I typed my PIN into the phone? How did they know my mother’s maiden name? How did they have my address? And, most of all, why in the name of all things holy hadn’t I checked my balance to see for myself what the damage was before I even called the bank that Sunday morning?

Well, to answer the last question first, I suppose I didn’t want to see what was happening. When I did check, things were far worse than I’d expected, and my rent had bounced to cap it all off nicely. The Apple Store story was all a lie – they’d in fact spent thousands in clothes shops, some really shitty clothes shops, and best of all, treated themselves to a Dixie Fried Chicken each evening. Forget the fraud – what kind of savage spends £95 over three days in a Kentish Town takeaway?

The rest of it comes down to good faith. Once you call the number on the back of a bank card and go through security stages, you enter into a world of trust, where you’re no longer the boss and the person on the other end takes over. “My National Insurance number? Sure, stranger I’ve never spoken to before, here you go…" By now, I was really panicking. Most of the money, I must add, was credit or overdraft. What if I didn’t get a refund? That was a possibility, according to the security expert at the bank. It would take me years to pay off debt like this.

I called the police, who put me on to their dedicated fraud line. After explaining my idiocy once again – it’s pretty humbling, repeatedly telling people you’re the type of person that gives both your bank card and PIN to the first person that asks for them – they went through the likely series of events that led to this theft. By now the total was about £5,500, and even though, unofficially, the police told me the banks always refund the first-time defrauded, I was a bit of a wreck. It all started, said the police, on the Saturday night where one of this gang will have watched me take money from the cash point. That’s details of my last transaction taken care of. Sinister enough, the thought of being spied on while you’re trying to enjoy yourself at a Norton Records garage night at the Buffalo Bar, but not the worst of it. The police then believe I was followed home, which is how they got my address. It could be worse, they could’ve just stabbed me, so every cloud and all that, but followed home? Christ.

As for the call, well, credit where it’s due, it’s pretty clever. If you call a landline, it’s up to you to end the call. If the other person, the person who receives the call, puts down the receiver, it doesn’t hang up the call, meaning that when I went to find my bank card, the fraudster was still on the other end, waiting for me to pick up the phone and call ‘the bank’. As I did this, he first played a dial tone down the line, and then a ring tone, making me think it was a normal call. He will have been sitting next to the first person that called me, no doubt laughing their heads off at how stupid I’d been. Well, Mark and Rajesh, I hope you’re happy with your lives. To Hades with you.

I was right to praise the bank’s efficiency, though. They got me all my money back within 10 days, although I did have to get new bank accounts and cards. It was a pretty lean spell, and by the time I got my money back, I’d spent my last 60p on a tin of beans. My family and friends offered money, but two things; I didn’t have a bank account for them to pay money into, and with cash, well, there was a chance I had the sharp end of six grand to pay back, I didn’t need to owe out another £50 on top of that. The feeling of total financial ruin, of utter helplessness, isn’t one I’ll forget in a hurry. If I momentarily forgot what was happening, I’d remember and then start panicking all over again.

Setting up all new direct debits was an unholy pain in the arse and, five months on, problems are still arising and my credit rating has taken a serious knock, while getting the various bank departments to talk to one another and not try to charge me a few hundred quid in overdraft charges was no picnic either. I’ve since had to sign up to a number of other bank schemes and government services to add further layers of protection. I get a monthly statement of credit checks in my name, for example, so I know if these people are using the information they have on me again. It took a few weeks to stop worrying about the same people coming back to my house, too, although spending hours online researching the link between bank fraud and violent crime – virtually non-existent, it would seem – helped with that. If I’m wrong about that, I don’t want to know otherwise.

Out of everything, accepting that it had happened probably took the longest. I’m still coming to terms with it now, I think, but being a bit more suspicious isn’t a bad thing. Being paranoid, well, hopefully that’ll just wear off in time. I like to think I’m a tech savvy, culturally aware person. I read about internet security, I know about phishing and all that seemingly tedious shit we’re told about every five minutes, yet the knowledge left me when it counted and I handed over all my money like some wet-behind-the-ears yokel buying magic beans at a county fair. I’m surprised I didn’t offer to help them spend the cash as well, get the job done properly, like.

Bank fraud is a bigger problem than I had ever realised. Experts suggest one in four of us will be directly affected by bank fraud at one point or another, while millions and millions of pounds is pumped into funding departments such as the ones that sorted out my problem and insurance it took to cover the money stolen. That’s our money, paid in extortionate overdraft arrangement fees in order to finance the whole industry.

Financial fraud is often deemed a victimless crime because, ultimately, it’s only huge companies footing the bill, not individuals. Having suffered myself, the stress, upset and countless hours spent sorting it out tell me it’s anything but.

A credit card. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue