Online fraud now seems a worthwhile reason for paranoia

by Colin Campbell

OUR “Black Friday” house move, which I referred to recently, went smoothly enough in the end. Now we have the usual period of adjustment to make. Several of those who viewed our former home in Kenneth Street expressed concern about the traffic noise in that car-jammed thoroughfare. I told them, truthfully, that you very soon got used to it. Now we wait to adapt again. Having left behind the relative clamour of Kenneth Street, we’re still trying to get in tune with the deafening silence of Scorguie. However, there’s a darker tale to tell – and it most definitely deserves to be told.

 As a result of my brief involvement in the property market I acquired knowledge of an Inverness couple – not linked to my dealings – who at the time had suffered one of the most devastating blows imaginable.

 Also involved in a housing transaction, they had been the victims of online fraud in excess of £200,000. That’s right – more than two hundred thousand pounds.

This is commonly referred to as “a scam” – which to me now sounds like a wholly inadequate, almost frivolous word to apply in such circumstances.

 On a Sunday afternoon I went to see them. Now we know that health trumps everything else and “money is only money”. But when a shock of that dimension strikes, the two become interlinked. The husband was somehow holding it together but his wife was confined to bed, ill.

 Living through a nightmare, he appeared relatively composed. Either that, or he was speaking through a veil, numb with shock.

 I’ve spoken to many people in difficult circumstances during a long journalistic career but that particular, quite harrowing, conversation will live with me for a very long time.

 I won’t go into detail because I don’t have a lot of detail but, albeit superficially, what happened could be summed up as:

 “Regarding that money I transferred to you…”

 “Sorry, what money?”

 The police and a bank fraud team were all over it. But this provided scant reassurance. He hadn’t been able to go into the small print of fallback cover or recovery guarantees. All he knew was that a vast amount of hard-earned money had disappeared as a result of computer fraud and that potentially he faced weeks if not months of dreadful uncertainty.

 I learned two days later that, after five days of absolute hell, they received the news that the money had been recovered. I felt a wash of relief for this ordinary couple. How they felt I cannot imagine. And their property transaction was able to go ahead.

Where had that money gone? Who had taken it? How had it been recovered? I’ll never know and probably the couple involved never will either. But out there in cyberspace we can only assume that a cyber-war is raging between fiendishly sophisticated criminals and those working to thwart them.

 A few weeks earlier I read a newspaper article by a professor of criminology, no less, who had been “scammed” online out of £18,000. He couldn’t believe it could have happened to him either. In his case, essentially the fraudsters had created an online problem and then solved it, and then created it again and then solved it again, until the point was reached where they had won over his trust. And then they struck.

 During my own transaction, two police officers came to the door asking for details of a man who had never lived there. I shrugged, and they said they maybe they’d got the wrong address. I thought no more about it, until a few hours later, when it occurred to me this had never happened before. Odd – but I didn’t pursue it.

 The cumulative effect of all this was to induce in me a state of near-paranoia – or at a minimum the most extreme levels of caution – when being involved in the exchange of very large amounts of money, far, far more than I’m used to dealing with.

 Nothing online other than the very basics in property exchanges with a solicitor. When it came to the transfer of money from bank to solicitor I took hard copy paper details directly from the agent to the bank. When a bank employee tapped in and printed off a copy of the amount and more pertinently where it was going I took five damn minutes scrutinising the details. “Sorry, I’ll need to get this verified by a manager,” she said. “Don’t apologise,” I said, “take as long as you like.” She said the money should be in the solicitor’s account in two hours. I’d already asked for a phone call of confirmation as soon as it arrived.

 Paranoia breeds paranoia and last Friday, after receiving “deal’s been done, time to receive the keys” word from my solicitor I called the person I bought the place from, who I happen to know, to tell him it was all settled. “Great,” he said. “I’ll see you with the keys later.”

 But when he arrived he was unsettled. He’d received no word from his Glasgow-based solicitor and attempts at making contact had had to be left on voicemail. I’d already told him about that massive, horrendous fraud, and he was getting vaguely worried. It was a slightly uncomfortable feeling all round until he received a verifiable call on the sofa – late but timely – to say the money had been received and would be in his account on Monday. His solicitor had been tied up with other matters.

 He audibly breathed a huge sigh of relief.

 Online fraud, which up to now I’ve given virtually no thought to, makes perfect sense from a criminal perspective. Why rob banks when you can be sitting safely at a computer hundreds or thousands of miles away – maybe in China or Russia – monitoring property transactions in Inverness and elsewhere, looking for that one chink in bank security armour or any online slip-up by an individual which could in a keystroke divert tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds exactly where you want it to go.

 Although not a victim, I’ll never view online fraud in the same “it’ll never happen to me” way I did a month ago. And if this article gives the reader, particularly anyone involved in a housing transaction, some food for thought, then it’s been well worth writing and well worth reading.

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