Boiler room fraudsters are using new tactics to persuade investors to pay tens of thousands of pounds for non-existent shares.
The City of London police and the Financial Services Authority are warning investors to be on their guard.
The low interest rate environment has made Middle England savers the perfect targets for the scams, known as “boiler room” fraud.
“Middle-aged, middle England is the prime target,” said Det Supt Bob Wishart of City of London police. “This group of people is vulnerable at the moment because interest rates are so low and investors are being attracted by the high yield they are being offered.
“These firms use really high-class mass-marketing techniques – this type of fraud is a great threat.”
The police warning comes as several Telegraph readers have come forward to Jessica Gorst-Williams, Your Money‘s consumer champion, asking for her help and concerned that they have fallen victim to a boiler room scam.
DH, a Telegraph reader lost £400,000 to such a scam. He was conned by a company that appeared to be genuine – it had an FSA authorisation number and an HSBC bank account, albeit offshore. He has little hope of recovering a penny..
Jonathan Phelan, the head of unauthorised business at the FSA, told the Telegraph that “cloning” was the latest tactic used by boiler room scammers. He said he had come across 80 cloning cases in the past year.
Traditionally, boiler rooms would use a company name that was similar to a well-known high street brand. Only last month the FSA published an alert warning people not to be tricked by a company going by the name of Skipton Asset Management and purporting to be linked to Skipton Building Society. In reality it has no links with the building society and is not authorised by the regulator.
Mr Phelan said: “Don’t accept the caller’s word for it. Check our register, but then call the company back on its switchboard number. You have to do a little bit of homework to be sure.”
For the first time the FSA is seeing boiler rooms asking victims to transfer money to British-based bank accounts. In the past, bogus companies asked investors to transfer money overseas.
However, because of raised publicity about boiler rooms, many potential victims have got wise to this tactic and have refused to send money overseas, fearing they are being conned.
To try to counter this, the fraudsters have set up British bank accounts in the hope that they will stand a greater chance of getting their hands on savers’ cash.
Mr Phelan said: “Boiler rooms have always used offshore bank accounts but never UK ones – until this year, that is. We have unearthed 10 such scams since this January. However, although they might use UK bank accounts, the operation is still likely to be based overseas, often in Spain. Once the bank account reaches a certain balance, say £100,000, it is cleared out and the money moved overseas.”
Mr Phelan added that the regulator was working with an overseas authority on getting their hands on a master list that contains the names of tens of thousands of would-be targets – such lists are termed “sucker lists” by boiler rooms.
Different boiler rooms are known to trade lists, which are compiled from publicly available shareholder registers, for thousands of pounds. In previous cases, as many as 150 boiler rooms have been discovered to be using a single list.
Over the past year the FSA has written to about 95,000 people warning them that they are on boiler room master lists.
Research suggests that boiler rooms target older people (50pc of investors today are aged over 65) with previous experience of investments or owning shares. The average amount of money lost is £20,000, but the biggest individual loss to date recorded by the police is £1.2m.
Supt Wishart said: “The con men target people who have built up a nest egg, who may have taken early retirement or may have retired already. It’s not just those over 50 – I remember one young victim who invested a redundancy pay-off into a scam.”
He said the tactics used by the fraudsters followed a pattern and that there were telltale signs of a scam. If, for example, the investment sounded too good to be true then it probably was. And be on your guard if you are asked for money up front to pay unexpected fees (such as taxes or charges) before your “profits” can be released.
People should also think twice if they are asked to provide their bank account or credit card details and if they are asked to keep details of the investment secret.
Supt Wishart added that any company, no matter in which country it was based, had to be registered with the FSA to offer shares for sale to people living in Britain.
He warned that it was not just shares that con men were trying to sell to unsuspecting victims. The latest wheeze is “land banking”, where fraudsters try to entice people to buy plots of agricultural land which will be sold for a bumper profit once developers get their hands on it. However, there’s a catch: the plots come without planning permission or any guarantee that planning consent is likely, which it isn’t.
The leader of a gang of fraudsters who used the lure of the Olympic Games to con pensioners into handing over their life savings has been jailed for seven years.
Mr Phelan urged consumers who are concerned that a cold call could be from a boiler room to be “rude and hang up”.
“They are very clever,” he said. “The people they target are very trusting and have held shares before. They are not greedy at all. If you met victims you would have a great deal of sympathy.”