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
Getty
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How English identity politics will shape the 2017 general election

"English" voters are more likely to vote Conservative and Ukip. But the Tories are playing identity politics in Scotland and Wales too. 

Recent polls have challenged some widely shared assumptions about the direction of UK elections. For some time each part of the UK has seemed to be evolving quite distinctly. Different political cultures in each nation were contested by different political parties and with different parties emerging victorious in each.

This view is now being challenged. Early general election surveys that show the Tories leading in Wales and taking up to a third of the vote in Scotland. At first sight, this looks a lot more like 1997 (though less enjoyable for Labour): an increasingly hegemonic mainland party only challenged sporadically and in certain places.

Is this, then, a return to "politics as normal"? Perhaps the Tories are becoming, once again, the Conservative and Unionist Party. Maybe identity politics is getting back into its box post Brexit, the decline of Ukip, and weak support for a second independence referendum. We won’t really know until the election is over. However, I doubt that we’ve seen the back of identity politics. It may actually bite more sharply than ever before.

Although there’s talk about "identity politics" as a new phenomenon, most votes have always been cast on a sense of "who do I identify with?" or "who will stand up for someone like us?" Many voters take little notice of the ideology and policy beloved of activists, often voting against their "objective interests" to support a party they trust. The new "identity politics" simply reflects the breakdown of long-established political identities, which were in turn based on social class and collective experiences. In their place, come new identities based around people, nations and place. Brexit was never really about the technocratic calculation of profit and loss, but about what sort of country we are becoming, and what we want to be. 

Most social democratic parties in Europe are struggling with this change. Labour is no different. At the start of the general election, it faces a perfect storm of changing identities. Its relationship with working-class voters continues to decline. This is not because the working class has disappeared, but because old industries, with their large workplaces, shared communities and strong unions are no longer there to generate a labour identity. 

Labour is badly adrift in England. The English electorate has become increasingly assertive (and increasingly English). The Brexit vote was most strongly endorsed by the voters who felt most intensely English. In the previous year’s general election, it was fear of Scottish National Party influence on a Labour minority government that almost certainly gave the Tories the English seats needed for an overall majority. In that same election, Labour’s support amongst "English only" voters was half its support amongst "British only" voters. The more "English" the voters, the more likely they were to vote Ukip or Conservative. It shouldn’t be a surprise if Ukip voters now go Tory. Those who think that Ukip somehow groomed Labour voters to become Tories are missing the crucial role that identity may be playing.

So strong are these issues that, until recently, it looked as though the next election - whenever it was called - would be an English election - fought almost entirely in English battlegrounds, on English issues, and by a Tory party that was, increasingly, an English National Conservative Party in all but name. Two powerful identity issues are confounding that assumption.

Brexit has brought a distinctly British issue into play. It is enabling the Tories to consolidate support as the Brexit party in England, and at the same time reach many Leave voters in Wales, and maybe Scotland too. This serendipitous consequence of David Cameron’s referendum doesn’t mean the Tories are yet fully transformed. The Conservative Party in England is indeed increasingly focused on England. Its members believe devolution has harmed England and are remarkably sanguine about a break up of the union. But the new ability to appeal to Leave voters outside England is a further problem for Labour. The Brexit issue also cuts both ways. Without a clear appeal cutting through to Leave and Remain voters, Labour will be under pressure from both sides.

North of the border, the Tories seemed to have found - by accident or design - the way to articulate a familial relationship between the party in Scotland and the party in England. Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson appears to combine conservatism, unionism and distance from English politics more successfully than Scottish Labour, which must ride the two horses of "near home rule" and committed unionism. Scottish Labour has a perfectly good call for a reformed union, but it is undermined by the failure of Labour in England to mobilise enough popular support to make the prospect credible.

Identity politics is not, of course, the be all and end all of politics. Plenty of voters do cast their ballots on the traditional tests of leadership, economic competence, and policy. Labour’s campaign will have to make big inroads here too. But, paradoxically, Labour’s best chance of a strong result lies in taking identity politics head on, and not trying to shift the conversation onto bread and butter policy, as the leaked "talking points" seem to suggest. Plenty of voters will worry what Theresa May would do with the untrammelled power she seeks. Challenging her right or ability to speak for the nation, as Keir Starmer has done, is Labour’s best bet.

 

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University

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