Five million UK adults have fallen victim to a series of moneymaking frauds, such as premium-rate prize scams, work-from-home schemes and Nigerian 419 email scams, according to research published by consumer watchdog Which?.
A further 23 million people have been targeted by the scams.
Britain's most widespread scam, according to the new research, is the automated phone call that invites people to claim a prize. One-third of adults have received one of these calls and two million have responded, usually by calling a premium-rate number.
The scam has been so successful that the premium-rate regulator, ICSTIS, has changed its Code of Practice to stop phone networks making payments to their premium-rate service providers until at least 30 calendar days after calls have been made.
The rule change, which came into effect in September, gives ICSTIS time to identify breaches of its code and, where appropriate, to order phone networks to withhold all payments pending the outcome of investigations. It can levy significant fines for breaches.
But premium-rate scams are by no means the only successful fraud targeting British citizens. The survey of 1,050 adults found that almost eight million people in Britain have seen or received material promoting international lotteries. People are often too eager to believe an official-looking letter announcing they've had a big win, even if they haven't entered.
Con artists often cash in by charging a "contingency" fee, as in the case of a Which? reader who was asked to pay £75,000 to "release" her winnings. The scamsters may also fraudulently use the bank account details they collect from "winners" who try to claim prizes.
Adverts claiming you can "make thousands without leaving the house" are also prevalent: more than 25 per cent of adults have seen them. Although not all these ads are scams, Which? reports that job details can be hard to find and money is almost always requested up-front for a joining pack.
One work-from-home scheme was nothing more than a suggestion that recipients copy the pack, place a newspaper advert, and send the same pack to people willing to pay the up-front fee – so no end product, just a succession of people scamming money from each other.
The so-called "Nigerian 419" email scam, named after the relevant part of the Nigerian penal code, has been seen by eight per cent of people. Scenarios differ, but there is always a large sum of money waiting to be paid out which, in order to be claimed, requires absolute secrecy, a foreign bank account number and an "advance fee". The victims, of course, never receive any money.
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