Category Archives: Money

It won’t be you: Dr Benjamin Lawson’s lottery scam aims to fleece the unwary

There are some con artists who, it seems, never give up despite the repeated attentions of the media and, presumably, the authorities.

Take Dr Benjamin Lawson, whose doctorate I suspect to be as fake as the rest of his purported profile as ‘the Foreign Service manager of Zenith Financial Management’. This is a claim that may come as a surprise to a blameless company of independent financial advisers in Aberdeen.

Benjamin is in the habit of writing to people up and down the country to announce their good fortune in being awarded sizeable cash prizes ‘from the Postcode Lottery bid award International program’.

The letterhead boasts the logo of the People’s Postcode Lottery, which is real if a little less famous than the National Lottery, and in the example I’ve seen, an address at Zenith House, 429 Canada Square, London, E15 5FW. This does not exist. There is a Zenith House: a development of smart new apartments in Colindale, north London. And there’s a Canada Square in Canary Wharf, which is in E14.

The letter purporting to be from the People's Postcode Lottery

The letter purporting to be from the People’s Postcode Lottery

In the case of my mother-in-law, who lives in Carlisle, her share of a £45m pot amounted to £325,000. Tempting? Possibly. One snag, though. She has never knowingly purchased a ticket from the People’s Postcode Lottery. Benjamin has an answer to that.

‘Participants in this programme [at least now he’s corrected the spelling, but read on for more simple errors of English usage] were randomly selected by computer from database of the Electoral roll resident in the United Kingdom, winners in different categories emerged by computer random selection from pool of over 12 million names.’

My mother-in-law and the recipients of similar letters are invited to ring Benjamin to arrange ‘the processing and remittance of your money’. She decided not to take up the kind offer, but I couldn’t resist calling the number given in the letter for this self-proclaimed ‘Government-license Lottery Service Agency’. The letter says the company ‘has been marketing NationalLotteries to subscribers for over 23 years. Acting as agents on behalf of Lottery players around the world, ZFM makes it possible’. That must be when the ink or the imagination ran out. For the sentence ends in mid-stream of consciousness.

Somewhere in inner London, Benjamin answered the phone call to his number, 0207 060 5543. What usually happens next is that he invites you to send money to cover the processing costs of claiming your prize. Say £200. Pay up and, of course, nothing ever arrives. Benjamin pockets your money and moves on to his next phone number before you think to call the police or trading standards.

He told me he was with a ‘client’ who was making background noises that sounded uncannily like a small child, but would call back if I left my number. I declined, pointing out that he was known up and down the country to newspapers and trading standards officers for misrepresenting himself as an agent of the People’s Postcode Lottery and for attempting fraud. Curiously enough, he put the phone down when challenged about his scam.

So what do Cumbria trading standards say? Well, I reported the letter to the Citizens Advice helpline that now fields calls to this service. The call handler, Jon, seemed quite keen not to prejudge Benjamin’s blatant criminality. Must be the British sense of fair play. Case number noted, he suggested a call to Action Fraud, ‘the UK’s national fraud and cybercrime reporting centre’. Oh, another call centre. I lost patience after making two calls totalling about 10 mins. These were spent in a queue listening to the repeated message that Action Fraud can’t help to recover any money but trained agents will advise you on the next steps to take. Sounds more like Inaction Fraud.

From their quotes in previous news stories, the People’s Postcode Lottery are, rightly, heartily sick of having to explain that they have nothing to do with such letters.

And that’s where the matter rests. My mother-in-law’s too smart to be fooled, but others may be more vulnerable to this type of crime. There must be money in it, or the scams would not be worth the price of postage or paper. And because the sums stolen are individually small, there’s little chance of putting anyone behind bars.

There are variations on the theme. Sometimes the writer is one Baron Wheels, president, though of what isn’t clear. His agents include Anthony Stan or Martin Adams, on phone numbers with 0203 codes. So it’s like those famous letters from Nigeria, encouraging recipients to indulge in a little profitable money laundering. It’s too good to be true and you’ll lose money. And the criminals? They’ll be gone with the wind.

How I (just) beat the debit card skimmers

The skimming device retrieved from a NatWest Bank ATM in Grays Inn Road, London.

The skimming device retrieved from a NatWest Bank ATM in Grays Inn Road, London. Photograph: Paul Nettleton

This is the crude, but effective, device that was designed to part me from my debit card.

Too late to avoid a week of inconvenience while a new one is despatched by my bank, I only realised something was wrong when my card was not returned and my requested £60 failed to pop out of the machine.

It was late evening in Grays Inn Road, London, and I’d hopped off the bus to use the NatWest ATM before heading home on the tube from Chancery Lane.

The machine is not well lit, shaded from the street lighting by a tree and now a hole in the wall outside a branch of Pret a Manger where once there was a bank branch.

I’d made a cursory swipe across the card slot before I used the machine, as always, but not felt anything was wrong. So I keyed in my pin and cash request. The machine whirred and appeared to be trying to serve me, but nothing appeared. It dawned on me that all was not right.

 Fault message

The machine whirred again and then a fault message came up on the screen, advising users not to re-enter their pin numbers and to consult a smartphone app to find the nearest alternative.

Not much point with my card apparently swallowed. Better phone my bank, I decided. A quick search for the number and I rang the Co-operative Bank’s 24-hour card loss service.

The phone signal was poor but I managed to identify myself as the rightful customer and explain the problem. That the £60 had been deducted from my account increased my suspicion that there was more than a faulty ATM here.

So I felt around the fascia more carefully and realised I could get my nail under a grey piece of plastic beneath the card slot. I pulled and it came away, revealing that it had been attached with double-sided sticky tape. Embedded in the tape were a piece of card that looks, in daylight, as if it had been cut from a tube ticket and then a rectangle of sprung metal, The assembly had been painted metallic grey to match the ATM. A skimming device.

Now I was asking if I should call the police, but took the impression that they’d take little interest in this fraud and my £60.

 Cancelled card

I’d already cancelled my card and pin by this time, but could see the end of the card tantalisingly within reach. No point in retrieving it, was the advice, and I didn’t have a tool with which to prise it out. So I pushed it in further, determined that however useless the card now was the thieves would not have the satisfaction of getting their mitts on it.

I imagine the skimmers weren’t far away. Possibly it was even the youngish man who queued for a bit behind me, then left, then came back, then left again. But that’s my suspicious mind.

Now I have to wait for a new card, new pin and to see if the Link company will return the £60 I never received. I’ll report back when I hear if they try to claim I must have taken it.

I’m not sure the cash dispensing slot hadn’t been tampered with too, but nothing came off in my hands. And, despite having read about these crimes, I forgot to search for the tiny camera that might have been recording my fingers as they keyed in the pin.

 Modern life

I’ll be avoiding this ATM in future. On reflection, the surroundings are just too dark for customers to see if it’s ok to use. But more generally, had I not been able to search for my bank’s contact details on my phone browser, I’d have quite likely left the scene – and given the skimmers access to my card and my account.

Surely ATMs should display at the very least contact information and instructions to follow if you suspect a crime, and perhaps even a button to press (clearly marked “Panic”) to speak to a control centre.

I take some comfort that my phone wasn’t expensive enough to attract the attention of any lurking muggers. But that’s another risk of modern life.