Trading standards officer Lucinda Molyneux with some counterfeit goods. Picture with Peter Boam.
WIGHT LIVING CHRISTMAS comes round once a year but scam artists are trying to con vulnerable people all year round.
Now, as the festive season approaches and families get together, trading standards officers on the IW are urging people to check on their vulnerable or elderly relatives to see if they are victims of cons which, in some cases, can deprive them of many thousands of pounds.
The figures make for sobering reading.
On the Island alone this year, trading standards officers believe around £400,000 has been fleeced from vulnerable victims by scammers.
Victims are often frail, elderly or just plain lonely, making them a perfect target for the con artists.
Some of the cons involve mail-drops saying the individual concerned has won a huge cash prize, others come via e-mails, which demand your bank details.
Most sinister of all are the scammers who pose as clairvoyants and who write letters claiming they have had a 'vision’ concerning the victim and bad things will happen to them or their family if they do not part with their cash.
Then, there are the telephone hustlers, who harass and badger people into buying goods they do not want, in most cases at vastly inflated prices.
And it is not just the letter and e-mail cons that officers are worried about this Christmas.
There are also the dangers posed by cash-strapped parents, battling with the effects of the economic downturn, buying cheap, ill-made toys for their youngsters, or buying toys that are not age appropriate for the child.
Susan Hughes is one of the IW Council’s team of trading standards enforcement officers. She revealed officers had investigated 390 cases so far this year.
Among the list is a colossal £62,000, which was scammed from an elderly woman over a three-year period by a 'clairvoyant’. The victim paid £400 a week to the scammer and never received the promised prizes.
Another victim paid £21,000 after receiving a fake phone call from his 'bank’. He was told there was a problem with the account and he needed to transfer the balance to a new one. He gave his account details and only found the money had gone when he went to withdraw some cash to go shopping.
Susan said concerned family members often contact trading standards officers if they were worried about vulnerable relatives.
She said: "Obviously, family members have tried to speak to mum or dad and often they will listen to us.
"However, it can be a neighbour referral, the police or the victim themselves who has been sending money and has expected to receive a prize."
She said scammers were always based abroad. Even if there is a UK address on the return envelope, it is just a sorting address and the scam is actually operated from overseas, making it difficult, if not impossible, for them to be tracked down.
Julie Woodhouse, the principal officer for trading standards, said: "From an enforcement point of view, these things are not local and we report them to Action Fraud, which is an arm of the government’s national fraud agency, which was set up to investigate this sort of thing.
Officers were eager to stress anyone can be the victim of a scam but the old and the lonely are particularly vulnerable.
Julie said: "They don’t just have one type of scam. They run several at the same time. They will bombard a community with various different scams that will play to anybody."
Julie said: "Clairvoyance is the evil side of scams. People really do believe if they don’t do what they are told to do, awful things will happen to them or their family."
"We visited a lady who actually had a photo of her 'clairvoyant’ on her mantelpiece. It gets to be like an addiction, almost as if these people are their friends. They even feel guilty they can’t send that person any more money. They will even send letters apologising about it."
Scammers even strike up a relationship with their victims over the telephone. In extreme cases, trading standards officers have to change the victim’s number so they can no longer be persecuted.
However, it is not all bad news. Officers recently recovered £500 for the victim of a persistent salesman who had managed to persuade her to buy health tablets.
Julie said it would have been quite obvious to the 'salesman’ who spoke to her that the woman was vulnerable.
With so much publicity surrounding scams, it is sometimes difficult for an outsider to comprehend how people can fall for them.
However, Julie said: "The victims have generally lived in this world for a long time and still have a trusting nature and are therefore so easy to take advantage of."
Avoid the pitfalls of Christmas
TRADING standards has issued advice to IW residents about Christmas shopping.
Although most will, by law shops do not have to give you a refund or exchange if you change your mind or a gift is unwanted.
Therefore, before buying, always check the seller’s returns policy. If you want to be able to return an unsuitable item, you can ask for confirmation in writing.
The law protects you if the gift you bought turns out to be faulty or not as described. These rights apply to the purchaser of the goods only, not the person who receives the present.
Before making a complaint, ensure you have proof of purchase. This can be a receipt or a credit or debit card slip or other document which shows where you bought the goods and how much you paid.
If you are decorating the tree or home and need to buy new lights, ensure they have the CE mark as this shows they conform to European legislation.
Toys are a big part of the family Christmas. Here are some handy tips to avoid possible problems.
• Avoid toys with small parts for young children. These can be inhaled, cause choking or be put into ears or noses. Beware of small parts that can become loose or bitten off.
• Filling in soft toys can choke young children. Check all seams are secure.
• Loose hair on toys, such as dolls, is a serious choking hazard to young children.
• Examine toys for sharp or rough edges, points or splinters.
• Be aware that toys that fold or have hinges may trap children’s fingers. Check that locking devices work properly.
• Do not buy cot or pram toys with long or loose strings. These can become entangled with a child’s body or cause strangulation.
For more advice contact trading standards on 01983 823370, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.iwight.com/tradingstandards