UK

Phone scam victim: ‘My fears my savings went to Syria’

Phone

Eight men have been sentenced over a £1m telephone scam that targeted pensioners across England. One victim told the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme of her fears that some of the money might have been used to fund people travelling to Syria to join so-called Islamic State (IS).

"I had a ring at the doorbell one afternoon and it was a policeman, and I thought, 'Why has a policeman come to see me?' And he told me that I'd been scammed. That was a complete body blow. I felt stupid, sick, I couldn't believe I'd been taken in," says Elizabeth Curtis, 73.

She was just one of the gang's 140 victims. She lost £130,000 of her savings.

The scam was always the same. Miss Curtis, like the other victims, was called by a man posing as a police officer investigating "fraud" at her banks.

He told her to phone 999 - but what she didn't realise was that the fraudster stayed on the line after she had hung up, so when she thought she was reporting crime, she was in fact speaking to the criminals.

They instructed her to go to her banks and move thousands of pounds of her savings. Over several days she made eight transactions of between £20,000 and £12,500.

'Very upsetting'

Miss Curtis, who lives in Cornwall, says she was only asked once by a bank cashier who the money was for and why. She said, as instructed by the scammers, it was for her nephew who was having money problems.

Image caption Miss Curtis does not want her face shown

"I came out of the banks actually relieved that they hadn't asked me a lot of questions. I didn't want to have to lie. They made me believe it was the bank staff defrauding me," she says.

Some of Miss Curtis's money went into the accounts of men believed to have travelled to Syria. One of the account holders' names recently featured on an IS membership list.

Miss Curtis does not know how her money was used but she lives with the fear that it may have funded fighting in Syria or Iraq.

"It's very upsetting. The terrorists coming back to Britain or Europe, blowing people up, that sort of thing, killing people, is awful," she says.

"When I first learned I was scammed I thought, 'Can I live with myself for having lost so much money?' And the thought of suicide did pass through my mind. But then I realised it wasn't the answer. I still feel traumatised, I've lost all faith in my own judgement, I find it hard to trust people again."

'Despicable and callous'

The Old Bailey heard the gang had called more than 3,700 phone numbers as they trawled for victims, focusing on the places where people retire - counties such as Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. The victims were in their 70s, 80s and 90s.

Miss Curtis does not think the banks have been very sympathetic - the scam had been going on since 2011 but "very little seemed to have been done to stop it".

Telecommunications regulator Ofcom has worked with the police and the telecoms industry to help stamp out this scam, and a number of phone providers have made changes to ensure phone lines can now remain open for a only couple of seconds once someone has hung up.

Miss Curtis appealed to the banks and then the financial ombudsmen for her money to be returned, without success.

They say they are not responsible as Miss Curtis willingly moved the money.

Two of the banks have returned certain amounts as goodwill gestures - she says she got back just over a third - £47,500.

Miss Curtis transferred money from accounts held with Santander and NatWest to the scammers' accounts, held at Lloyds and Barclays.

Her brother, Richard, says the four banks "did not meet the Money Laundering Regulations issued by HMRC".

"If they had done, the scam would have been very quickly detected," he says.

"Yet the banks, supported by the Financial Ombudsman, claim that they did nothing wrong. They accuse Elizabeth of being 'grossly negligent' because she authorised her transactions herself."

Santander said it was "sympathetic" to Miss Curtis but said it had acted "appropriately", adding that the Financial Ombudsman Service had reviewed the case and agreed with that view. NatWest said it took security "extremely seriously".

Lloyds said the "right procedures and regulations" were followed when processing two payments from Miss Curtis, while Barclays said any suggestion it had not met its regulatory obligations was "without foundation".

Commander Dean Haydon, head of the Metropolitan Police's counter-terrorism command, says a number of elderly people lost amounts similar to that lost by Miss Curtis.

He says many of the 140 victims police know about feel embarrassed and guilty to have fallen for the scam, and he is "confident" there are more victims who have not come forward.

He says police cannot confirm whether any of the money has been used to fund IS, but that some has been used to "facilitate travel" for people who have gone to Syria.

The "vast majority" of victims have had no compensation, Commander Haydon says.

"The police are working with the banking industry and in fact there's a number of meetings coming up in the next few weeks where we are working towards trying to seek compensation for those victims," he says.

Miss Curtis wants people to be more aware of scams as "many innocent, vulnerable, elderly people have unwittingly become victims of what is a very sophisticated crime".

"They [the gang] are despicable, callous people who care nothing for their victims," she says.

Watch the Victoria Derbyshire programme on weekdays between 09:00 and 11:00 on BBC Two and the BBC News Channel.

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