The majority are frauds using the names of HMRC, PPI and online loans, though it has been seen as a payment method in romance and investment cases too.
Typically, a victim is contacted by telephone, threatened with legal action over an outstanding, non-existent debt and persuaded to purchase vouchers from a local store. The voucher numbers are provided to the fraudster over the phone as a means of payment.
Data from Action Fraud shows that nationally £6.5 million has been lost to this type of fraud during the three years to March 2018, with a significant proportion of the victims being over the age of 60.
An 80-year-old man in Sussex received a call on his mobile on Friday (August 17) from a man allegedly calling from HMRC telling him that there was an arrest warrant out for him due to unpaid taxes.
He explained that a way to make the arrest go away was to go pay them some money and then passed the phone to another man who told him to stay on the line and not let anyone know that he was on the phone to them.
The victim was asked to go to local stores and buy 10 £25 Apple Gift cards from one and £750 worth of Google Play gift cards from the other one. He went back home and passed the gift card codes over the phone for the suspect to use, thus losing £1,000.
During the conversation with the suspect the victim also inadvertently said that he had access to funds and was asked to attend a local bank to transfer £3,980 into an account. If this should fail then Western Union transfer could be done instead. Fortunately the bank realised that this was a fraud. They called police and prevented him from transferring the money.
PC Bernadette Lawrie, Sussex Police’s Financial Abuse Safeguarding Officer, said: “We have recorded 47 attempts of this type in Sussex so far this year – 24 of them have been unsuccessful thanks to a combination of awareness by people who answered the calls, and intervention from vigilant bank and shop staff.
“Gift cards, including App Store and iTunes gift cards can only be used to purchase goods and services from the retailer named on the card. Never provide the numbers on the back of iTunes Gift Cards to someone you don’t know.
“Most of these frauds use iTunes but we had a recent example of a slightly different method using Amazon vouchers.
“Earlier in August, a 78-year-old widow was contacted on Facebook Messenger by someone who seemed to be a good friend she has known for over 30 years. He told her that he had successfully received a grant from ‘Federal Government Social’ and saw her name on the list of people eligible for the grant.
“He then encouraged her to talk to a woman on Facebook Messenger who confirmed that she was due a grant of $150,000 which she would get delivered to her door in cash via UPS upon them receiving £1,550 in Amazon vouchers.
“She went to a nearby store and asked for the voucher. The staff there questioned her purchase and dissuaded her from buying the vouchers. On returning home and talking to the woman online again she was convinced that she would receive the grant and should go back and get the vouchers. She returned to the store and this time successfully bought the vouchers, sending all the receipts and voucher codes to the woman.
“When speaking to her friend by phone later that day he told her that his Facebook had been hacked, it was not him talking to her and that she had been defrauded!
“No genuine organisation will ask you to pay taxes, bills or fees using iTunes Gift Cards, or any other type of voucher. If you’re contacted by anyone that asks you to do this, you’re very likely the target of a scam.
“Always question unsolicited requests for your personal or financial information in case it’s a scam. Even if someone knows your basic details, such as your name and address, it doesn’t mean they are genuine.
“Genuine banks or other trusted organisations won’t pressure you to make a financial transaction on the spot. If something feels wrong then it’s usually right to question it.
“If you or someone you know is vulnerable and receives a call of this nature, please report it to the police by calling 101 or online, quoting Operation Signature.”
You can find more advice about how to spot and then prevent this type of fraud on the Sussex Police website and the Action Fraud website.