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
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How Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership election

The revolt against the leader transformed him from an incumbent back into an insurgent. 

On the evening of 12 July, after six hours of talks, Jeremy Corbyn emerged triumphantly from Labour’s headquarters. “I’m on the ballot paper!” he told supporters gathered outside. “We will be campaigning on all the things that matter.”

The contest that Corbyn’s opponents had sought desperately to avoid had begun. Neither a vote of no confidence by 81 per cent of Labour MPs, nor 65 frontbench resignations had persuaded him to stand down. Days of negotiations led by Tom Watson had failed (“For years I’ve been told that I’m a fixer. Well, I tried to fix this and I couldn’t,” Labour’s deputy leader sorrowfully told the parliamentary party). The rebels’ last hope was that the National Executive Committee would force Corbyn to reseek nominations. After being backed by just 40 colleagues in the confidence vote, both sides knew that the leader would struggle to achieve 51 signatures.

But by 18-14, the NEC ruled that Corbyn would be automatically on the ballot (“Watson, Watson, what’s the score?” chanted jubilant aides in the leader’s office). After withstanding a 16-day revolt, Corbyn appeared liberated by the prospect of a summer of campaigning. His confidence prefigured the outcome two months later.

Corbyn did not merely retain the leadership - he won by a greater margin than last time (with 61.8 per cent of the vote to last year's 59.5 per cent) and triumphed among all three sections: party members, affiliated supporters and registered supporters. The rebels had hoped to narrow his mandate and win among at least one group: they did neither. Far from being a curse for Corbyn, the contest proved to be a blessing. 

***

The day before the pivotal NEC meeting, Angela Eagle, who had been preparing to stand for months, launched her leadership bid. The former shadow business secretary was admired by MPs for her experience, tenacity, and economic acumen. Her trade union links and soft left background were further cited in favour of her candidacy.

But after an underwhelming launch, which clashed with Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal from the Conservative contest (leaving Eagle calling questions from absent journalists), MPs gravitated towards Owen Smith.

Like Eagle, Smith hailed from the party’s soft left and had initially served under Corbyn (two prerequisites in the rebels’ eyes). But unlike her, the former shadow and work pensions secretary did not vote for the Iraq war (having entered parliament in 2010) or the 2015 Syria intervention. “It looks like the war party,” a senior Corbynite said of Eagle’s campaign launch with Hilary Benn. Many Labour MPs feared the same. With the left-leaning Lisa Nandy having ruled herself out, only the ambitious Smith met the criteria.

“I’d been in hospital for two days with my brother, who was unwell, in south Wales,” he recalled when I interviewed him.  “I came out having literally been in A&E at Cardiff Heath hospital for 29 hours, looking after him, to have my phone light up with 30, 40, 50 colleagues, MPs and members, ringing up saying ‘there’s going to be a contest, Angela Eagle has thrown her hat into the ring, you should do likewise.’ And at that point, on the Wednesday night, I started ringing people to test opinion and found that there was a huge amount of support for me.”

On 19 July, after Smith won 90 MP/MEP nominations to Eagle’s 72, the latter withdrew in favour of the Welshman. A week after the Conservatives achieved their second female prime minister, Labour’s 116-year record of all-male leaders endured. Though Smith vowed that Eagle would be “at my right hand throughout this contest”, she went on to appear at just one campaign event.

Corbyn’s challenger was embraced by MPs as a “clean skin”, untainted by service during the New Labour years. But Smith’s non-parliamentary past was swiftly - and ruthlessly - exploited by his opponents. His time at the US drugs firm Pfizer was cited as evidence of his closeness to big business. Corbyn’s supporters also seized on interviews given by Smith as a by-election candidate in 2006.

The man pitching to the left was found to have defended Tony Blair (suggesting that they differed only over the Iraq war), supported private sector involvement in the NHS and praised city academies. “I'm not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances,” he told Wales Online. Such lines were rapidly disseminated by Corbyn supporters through social media.

“Getting out early and framing Owen was crucial,” a Corbyn source told me. A Smith aide echoed this assessment: “It helped secure their base, it took a load of people out of contention.”

Throughout the campaign, Smith would struggle to reconcile his past stances with his increasingly left-wing programme: opposing private provision in the NHS, returning academy schools to local authority control, banning zero-hours contracts and imposing a wealth tax of 1 per cent. “It was easy for us to go for the jugular over his background when he portrayed himself as a left candidate,” a Corbyn source said.

Smith insisted that the charge of opportunism was unmerited. “To be honest, my opponents have extrapolated rather a lot in an attempt to brand me as a ‘Blairite wolf in sheep’s clothing,’” he told me in August. “Well, I’m nothing of the sort, I’ve always been a democratic socialist and I always will be.” He added: “I’m someone who’s been surrounded by people who’ve been on the left of the Labour movement all their lives. It should come as no surprise that I’ve come out of that background and I’m pretty red. Because I am.”

But a former shadow cabinet colleague said that Smith did not stand out as “a radical” in meetings. “The only time that I remember him becoming really animated was over further tax-raising powers for Scotland and the implications for Wales.”

As well as Smith’s ambiguous past, Corbyn’s allies believe the breadth of his political coalition hindered him from the start. “He was trying to bring together Blairites, Brownites and every other -ite in between,” a campaign source said. “That was never going to hold, we knew that and from the moment there were splits it was easy to point out.”

Jon Trickett, the shadow business secretary and one of Corbyn’s early supporters, told me: “They tried to pretend that there was no distinction between them and Jeremy on policy grounds, they tried to narrow down the areas of difference to electability. But, frankly, it didn’t seem credible since some of the people behind it were absolutely ideologically opposed to Jeremy. Peter Mandelson and people like that.”

A frequently expressed charge was that Smith’s left-wing pledges would be overturned by Blairite figures if he won. John McGeechan, a 22-year-old postgraduate student who joined Labour after “self-indulgent, self-serving MPs initiated their corridor coup”, told me of Smith: “He’s just another mealy-mouthed careerist who says whatever he thinks is going to get him elected. I don’t believe at all that he means what he says about creating a radical socialist government given that he’s got the backing of Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair, people who’ve disagreed with Corbyn on pretty much all his socialist policies. I don’t believe that he’s going to stand up to these people.”

Whether believable or not, Smith’s programme showed how Corbyn had shifted Labour’s centre of gravity radically leftwards - his original aim in June 2015.

***

On the night Corbyn made the leadership ballot, the rebels still found cause for hope. Unlike in 2015, the NEC imposed a freeze date of six months on voting (excluding 130,000 new members) and increased the registered supporter fee from £3 to £25 (while reducing the sign-up period to two days). “It’s game on!” a senior figure told me. By narrowing the selectorate, Corbyn’s opponents hoped to achieve a path to victory. With fewer registered supporters (84 per cent of whom voted for Corbyn last year), they believed full party members and affiliated trade unionists could carry Smith over the line.

But when 183,000 paid £25 to vote, their expectations were confounded. Far from being “game on”, it looked to many rebels like game over. Once again, Corbyn’s opponents had underestimated the left’s recruiting capacity. Smith’s lack of name recognition and undistinctive pitch meant he could not compete.

Alongside the main contest were increasingly fractious legal battles over voting rights. On 28 July, the high court rejected Labour donor Michael Foster’s challenge to Corbyn’s automatic inclusion on the ballot. Then on 8 August, a judge ruled that the party had wrongly excluded new members from voting, only for the decision to be overturned on appeal.

In the view of Corbyn’s allies, such legal manevoures unwittingly aided him. “They turned Jeremy, who was an incumbent, back into an insurgent,” Trickett told me. “The proponents of the challenge made it seem like he was the underdog being attacked by the establishment.”

Smith, who repeatedly framed himself as the “unity candidate”, struggled to escape the shadow of the “corridor coup”. That many of his supporters had never accepted Corbyn’s leadership rendered him guilty by association.

“The coup had an enormous galvanising effect and an enormous politicising effect,” a Corbyn source told me. “For a great number of people who supported Jeremy last year, there was a feeling, ‘well, we’ve done the work, that’s happened, now over to him.’ What the coup meant for a lot of people was that this isn’t about Jeremy Corbyn, this is a people’s movement, which we all need to lead.” The Corbyn campaign signed up 40,000 volunteers and raised £300,000 in small donations from 19,000 people (with an average donation of £16). Against this activist army, their rivals’ fledgling effort stood no chance.

“At the launch rally, we had 12 simultaneous events going on round the country, livestreamed to each other,” a Corbyn source said. “We had a lot of communication with people who were big in the Sanders campaign. In the UK context, it’s trailblazing.”

On 12 August, after previously equivocating, Smith ruled out returning to the shadow cabinet under Corbyn. “I've lost confidence in you. I will serve Labour on the backbenches,” he declared at a hustings in Gateshead. In the view of Corbyn’s team, it was a fatal error. “He shot apart his whole unity message,” a source said.

Smith, who initially offered Corbyn the post of party president, was rarely booed more than when he lamented Labour’s divisions. As one of the 172 MPs who voted against the leader, he was regarded as part of the problem, rather than the solution. By the end, Smith was reduced to insisting “I wasn’t in favour of there being a challenge” - a statement that appeared absurd to most.

As well as his leftist credentials and unifying abilities, Smith’s other main boast was his competence and articulacy. “HIs USP was that he was this media-savvy guy,” a Corbyn source said. “As a result, he threw himself up for any and every media opportunity and made tons of gaffes. We just made sure people were aware of them.”

The most enduring gaffe came early in the campaign, on 27 July, when he spoke of wanting mto “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”. Though Smith initially defended his “robust rhetoric” (“you’ll be getting that from me”), by the afternoon his campaign had apologised. What was explained as a “rugby reference” dogged them for weeks. “It played into the hands of how Corbyn wanted to depict us,” a Smith source told me. “It was really hard to shake off.”

More unforced errors followed. Smith suggested getting Isis “round the table”, in anticipation, many believed, of Corbyn agreeing. But the Labour leader baulked at the proposal: “No, they are not going to be round the table”. Corbyn’s communications team, more organised and agile than in 2015, denounced Smith’s remarks as “hasty and ill-considered”. As with “smashed”, the Labour challenger had achieved rare cut-through - but for the wrong reasons.

Smith’s rhetorical looseness became a recurring problem. At a rally on 23 August, he appeared to refer to Corbyn as a “lunatic”. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, he said of meeting his wife: “1,200 boys, three girls and I pulled Liz. So I must have something going on. That must be leadership.”

Earlier in the campaign, Smith’s team denied that the candidate referred to the size of his penis when he quipped of his height: "5ft 6. 29 inches - inside leg!” The guffaws from his supporters suggested otherwise.

We used to have a gaffe counter,” a Corbyn source told me. “I think it got up to 30 by the end.”

Smith’s team, meanwhile, despaired at how the Labour leader’s own missteps failed to dent him. The discovery that Corbyn had in fact secured a seat on a Virgin train, contrary to initial impressions, did little lasting damage. “It’s priced in, the bar is much lower for him,” a Smith source complained.

Incorrect claims, such as Labour being level in the polls before the coup attempt and Corbyn giving 122 speeches during the EU referendum campaign, were believed by many of his supporters. “How do you rebut bullshit?” a Smith aide asked. “If you respond, it becomes a story.”

So frequently had Labour MPs condemned their leader that extraordinary charges were soon forgotten. On 22 August, shadow business minister Chi Onwurah wrote in the New Statesman that Corbyn’s treatment of her and Thangam Debbonaire could constitute “racial discrimination”.

If this had been any of my previous employers in the public and private sectors Jeremy might well have found himself before an industrial tribunal for constructive dismissal, probably with racial discrimination thrown in,” she argued. But within a day, the story had moved on.  

For Smith, fleeting momentum was achieved through significant endorsements. On 10 August, the GMB backed his campaign after becoming the only trade union to ballot its members. The following week, Labour’s most senior elected politician, Sadiq Khan, endorsed Smith. Unlike Andy Burnham, the London mayor believed he could not remain neutral during this profound schism. Smith was subsequently also backed by the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband trumpeted his cause. Yet such declarations counted for little. “It’s like the Remain campaign and the Archbishop of Canterbury,” one Smith ally told me, suggesting that Labour members, like Leave voters, ”weren’t listening” to such grandees.

But in the view of Corbyn’s team, the rebels profoundly “underestimated” their opponent. “He’s a nice guy but he also has an inner steel and won't flinch from a challenge. The Obi-Wan Kenobi comparison is very accurate when you work up close with him. He’s also extremely intelligent and has a great grasp and retention of detail. It showed in the debates.”

“I have to say, I felt pretty sorry for Owen at several points,” another Corbyn source reflected. “Whatever it was, his ambition or being pushed into it, it didn’t seem like it was the right time for him. He hadn’t worked out what he was about and why that fitted with the times.”

***

Those Labour MPs who long warned that an early challenge to Corbyn would prove futile have been vindicated. “Party members are always loyal to the incumbent,” a senior source astutely noted. In the case of Corbyn, a lifelong campaigner, who many contended was “never given a chance”, this traditional fealty was intensified.

“Most of the people backing and funding him didn’t think Owen was going to win,” a Corbyn source said. “Their aim was, one, to reduce Jeremy’s mandate and, secondly, to map the selectorate.”

Having won a second leadership contest - an unprecedented achievement for the Labour left - the leader’s supporters insist their ambitions do not end here. “We’ve got to think incredibly seriously about how we win a general election in a totally changed landscape,” a Corbyn source told me. “This campaign has been showing how to do it.” But a Smith aide warned that it was a “massive strategic error” to make electability, rather than principle, the defining test of Corbyn. The leader, he suggested, could withstand a general election defeat provided he simply affirmed his values.

Beyond regarding a split as worthless, Labour MPs are divided on how to proceed. Some want another leadership challenge as early as next year. Rather than seeking to narrow the selectorate, they speak of recruiting hundreds of thousands of new members to overpower the left. “There are lots of people out there who want a credible, electable, centre-left proposition and we have not given them enough of a reason to sign up,” a former shadow cabinet minister told me. “Who has an offer and the charisma to be able to bring in new people? That has to be the question the next time round.”

Others believe that backbenchers should follow Thumper’s law: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  A senior MP argued that MPs should “just shut up” and “let Jeremy crack on with it.” The imperative, he said, was to avoid MPs “taking the blame for us getting thumped in a snap election”. Some are prepared to move beyond neutrality to outright support by serving under Corbyn.

The Labour left and their most recalcitrant opponents both confront challenges of electability. The former must demonstrate a path to victory despite Corbyn’s subterranean poll ratings. The latter, who boast so often of their superior appeal, must face a remorseless truth. Until they are electable in the party, they will never be electable in the country.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.