6 Dec 2022

The Brilliant Marketing Skills of Online Criminals

Think your last marketing campaign was a success? It’s got nothing on online criminals’ success rate, explains the Head of the National Trading Standards Scams Team.

Louise Baxter-Scott, MBE, is talking about clairvoyance scams. “They can be particularly nasty” she says. The Head of the National Trading Standards Scams Team elaborates on how clairvoyance can play an effective role in parting people from their money.

“We’ve had examples where people receive a letter on the Monday saying you’ve won a prize and you must respond within seven days and pay a £45 admin fee to claim it.

Then on Tuesday you’ll be sent something from a ‘clairvoyant’ saying there’s money in your future – so you buy into it even more. Then from Wednesday you’ll receive phone calls saying you need to be quick, or your prize will go to someone else – so more and more pressure is put on the victim”.

You may read this and think “I’d never fall for that” – and that may be true. In fact, depending on your age and social status, you might never even be targeted by this type of a scam. And that’s because scammers are often brilliant marketeers – and are really good at what they do.

The business of crime

Crime is, of course, a business like any other. And scammers are able to set up successful companies simply because of the vast amount of information about all of us that proliferates the web.

While retailers are using your data to work out how likely you are to buy certain products, criminals are using it to work out what scams you might be most susceptible to. And, in the same way retailers might sell your information on to partners, criminals are also happy to sell their valuable lists of those who are most susceptible to other criminals.

Charmingly, they refer to this as the “suckers lists”; Baxter-Scott grimaces at the term.

“We don’t like to refer to them as that – but it’s a victim list that the organised crime groups will sell on to each other, ensuring you get repeatedly targeted by scams you are susceptible to”.

She adds that the detail of these lists is impressive.

“We’ve seen consumers have markers by their name saying ‘this one likes investment scams’, or ‘this one falls for lottery scams’ or ‘this one’s vulnerable to weight loss scams’. There’s a scam for everyone”.

Should you respond to a scam, you’ll immediately be elevated to online criminals’ VIP lists – meaning you’ll almost certainly be targeted by more. The cumulative impact of this can be devastating.

“We had one lady who, over the course of 20 years, lost £80,000 to scams but all in small amounts – so £25 here or £45 here. It’s clever because it means victims don’t realise how much they’ve actually spent”.

“There was one chap whose story was featured in the Daily Mail – his personal information was passed on about 200 times and ended up in the hands of criminals who were able to scam him out of £35,000. At one point he’d just ticked a box saying he was happy for his information to be shared – that’s all”.

And here’s the nub of the issue. Scamming is nothing new – but the fact that our data is now freely available all over the internet means big business for criminals.

Yes, you may not personally vulnerable – Baxter-Scott’s team generally focuses on the over-70s where the harm caused tends to be greatest – but we are all complying to a system that makes it easy to exploit people who are.

Data origins

So where does this data come from?

“We don’t always know where the criminals first get the data from”, explains Baxter-Scott, “but there’s definitely some illegal trafficking of data that came from legitimate sources. Sometimes you can provide your information to a legitimate company, but then if you tick the box saying you’re happy for this to be shared on, sometimes it can be sold on wrongly”.

Of course, this is the consequence of a long chain of data exchange. If you buy something from Company A, you might allow them to share your details with their partner, Company B. Company B can then sell this information on – and on and on it goes, often ending up in the hands of data brokers, until it makes its way into the hands of criminal company Z.

Once scammers have a list, they work hard to ensure it’s worth their while.

“First, they’ll do what we call a ‘hit and hope’ – they will take a list and send something out as wide as possible and see who responds. Then they’ll whittle down this list and sell it on” explains Baxter-Scott. And they do this incredibly effectively.

“If you think about normal company marketing – if you send out a generic piece of marketing, you’re not likely to get a massive response. But the lists we’ve seen criminals use can get a 60-80% response rate – which is huge. The lists have been honed and honed based on behaviour – it’s not lucrative to them otherwise”.

The supply chain of data is not only complicated – but often ignored by companies, at great reputational risk.

Criminals are also known to access telephone preference lists (people who opt in to be contacted by telephone) as well as other publicly available sources.

“We know criminals scan the obituaries particularly to target people with romance or inheritance scams. They will identify the recently bereaved because they are more likely to be vulnerable and lonely”, explains Baxter-Scott, sadly shaking her head.

Some of her stories of coercion techniques deployed are chilling.

“Sometimes scammers will make phone calls throughout the night to older people – which leads to them developing insomnia. This then causes increased anxiety and inhibits the ability to make effective decisions – so they can be pushed into doing things they wouldn’t normally do”.

Not all victims are equal

Despite all this, according to Baxter-Scott, scam victims are often not treated the same as other victims of crime.

“If I was mugged on the street and someone stole my purse I would be treated as a victim of a crime and probably visited by police officer. But if I gave away my purse from my living room while I’m on my computer I don’t get that same treatment – even though the impact on my well-being is potentially the same”

Firstly, this is because the crime is often not reported. People feel huge amount of shame when they fall for a scam – despite the crime impacting millions of people – and victims are often too embarrassed to report it.

With the older people the Trading Standards team works with, there are often people who either don’t understand they’ve been scammed – or have been told by scammers that anyone who visits them saying they are law enforcement is trying to steal their money.

“We also often see older people thinking if they’ve fallen for a scam, their financial autonomy will be taken away. [They think] that power of attorney will be exerted over them or they won’t be allowed to stay in their own homes – that someone will think they’re no longer capable of looking after themselves”.

Secondly, it can be complicated to report.

“There’s currently a very complicated reporting mechanism. There’s lots of places you can report it [– but there isn’t really a one-stop-shop yet. You could go to Action Fraud or the police, but there are other places you can report to as well. It’s confusing”.

It’s so complicated, in fact, that a legitimate industry is starting to grow to help people report scams – making more money out of victims.

“We’ve seen a lot of claims management companies shooting up to try and support victims – but this just means the victims will have to give away part of any refund they receive”.

Add into this limited police resources and an inconsistent application of processes across the banking industry, and it’s a murky picture.

What’s the solution to online scams?

While Baxter-Scott believes better and more inclusive services for reporting scams need to be developed, there is something even simpler that would make a huge difference; education.

“We need to educate the public that this stuff happens – I’m not even sure there’s a great awareness of it. One of the biggest ways we can disrupt fraudulent scams is by educating and building community resilience. So get peers within communities talking about it and checking up on each other. We train children in schools so they can tell their grandparents about it”.

We all need to be more aware. But what about a system where data was not so easily shared? [link to John Bruce article] Now there’s an idea…