Dynamic-duo Trading Standards officers warn Oxfordshire scammers… ‘watch your back!’
Scammers in Oxfordshire are being tracked by Trading Standards experts, including Shelley Edwards and Maryam Hussain (pictured above) – and it is all being done in a safe way to protect against the spread of COVID-19 (#Stopthespread).
‘Watch your back!’ That’s Shelley and Maryam’s message. They are two of Oxfordshire County Council’s community engagement officers.
They have a no-nonsense approach towards anyone attempting to scam local residents. But, in the current pandemic, they are also very careful to wear face masks, use hand sanitiser, and to social distance inside each property they visit.
Shelley, 55, from Wantage, is on a mission. To warn every household about ever more elaborate scams – many with a COVID-19 theme – designed to persuade people to unwittingly hand-over their money.
The fraudsters take many guises, from ‘Helga’, the 21-year-old Russian beauty who befriended a lonely pensioner, to ‘banks’ and ‘police’ menacingly demanding personal information through door-knocking and cold calls; Shelley and Maryam have seen all the tricks.
Vicious and malicious
“It’s vicious and malicious,” says Shelley.
“These scammers are criminals, robbing people of their lifesavings, if they can get away with it. They don’t care about the destroyed dreams and ruined lives. They’re simply motivated by greed.”
Shelley and colleague Maryam are employed by the County Council to educate residents, making them aware of scams; a preventative strategy.
They also visit the most vulnerable, fitting call blockers; removing criminal access to home computers and arranging agency support from partners like Age UK.
It is challenging to stay one step ahead of criminals at the best of times, but with COVID-19, the task is even more difficult.
Shelley explains: “During lockdown, we couldn’t visit most of the residents who we knew had been exploited.
“We had ‘think outside the box’, arranging a letter campaign with tips and advice, including door stickers stating: ‘We won’t deal with unwanted traders. It is a criminal offence if you persist.’
As COVID-19 restrictions eased, Shelley (pictured above) and Maryam were quickly back on the road, once again visiting residents, but now wearing face masks, using hand sanitiser, and careful to social distance inside each property.
“We’re passionate about the #Stopthespread campaign,” says Shelley. “COVID-19 safety comes first; we’ll never visit a property before first carrying out appropriate controls and ensuring we’re equipped with PPE, such as face masks.
“We’re also sharing important Health Protection Board advice that people should only use official NHS COVID-19 testing, booking online or calling 119; not purchase home kits or pay for private tests.”
Since lockdown eased, Shelley and Maryam have had some major successes in recovering money and protecting residents.
Shelley explains: “We were invited to present scam awareness advice to a local Rotary club, using computer screens to communicate remotely. That’s where we heard about ‘Helga’, the Russian beauty!
“Her 85-year-old boyfriend, who I met through the Zoom event, was so excited by his ‘catch’ and, at her request, was planning to pay her flight to the UK for a romantic visit.
“We were sorry to break the news; and his heart, that Helga probably wasn’t who she seemed, although her guise was very convincing: befriending him on a dating website, photo of herself; even of her passport.
“The love-struck gentleman emailed a few weeks later, thanking us for our advice. He might have lost the woman of his dreams, but he still had a full wallet, ready to spend on his next date. Hopefully genuine next time!”
Maryam Hussain, 25, is a resident of East Oxford. After graduating from Birkbeck College (University of London) with a BSc (Honours) in Criminology and Criminal Justice, she wanted a career helping and supporting victims of crime.
A recent shocking case of deception against a vulnerable Oxfordshire resident highlights the challenge she faces:
The pensioner in question took two convincing calls from his ‘bank’ and ‘police’, or so he thought. In reality it was an elaborate scam, resulting in him giving control of his computer to criminals, who then loaded bank transfer software; extracting money from his online account.
Maryam explains: “He was devastated when he realised what had happened. Who wouldn’t be?
“My role was to reassure; working with a colleague who successfully negotiated with the bank to refund the stolen money. The bank transfer software was also removed; and we installed a telephone call blocker so these scammers couldn’t reach him again.
“He told me he felt he’d got his life back.
“I’d entered his property safety, making sure I carefully social distanced whilst I worked. Thanks to my visit, a vulnerable resident now has an extra level of security, and enhanced awareness, to protect against any future con.”
Maryam continues her passion to help and empower others outside of work, volunteering with a number of community groups and religious projects.
Recently she co-organised an online global music event to celebrate Eid; the festival of ‘breaking the fast’ that marks the end of Ramadan.
“It was fantastic,” she enthuses. “Working with a diverse range of stars from around the world, publicising on social media, and keeping my fingers crossed the Zoom link brought everyone together on the big day.”
Back to her day job, Maryam works closely with Shelley, who acted as her mentor when she joined Trading Standards.
“We’re a dynamic-duo,” says Shelley. “With the rest of Oxfordshire Trading Standards, we won’t tolerate the exploitation of our most vulnerable residents. Scammers – watch your backs!”
In her spare time, Shelley volunteers at Wantage youth swimming club. She also supports mental health charities, recently completing a press-ups fundraising challenge whilst wearing an elephant mask!
“There’s no disguise needed in my day job, but I thought it would be fun to hide inside a costume for the fundraiser. It’s a face mask with a difference; probably not to NHS standards, but great for the charity’s publicity photos. And for the record, I was also social distancing!”
COVID-19 … stay safe
Ansaf Azhar, Director of Public Health for Oxfordshire County Council, said: “Shelley and Maryam are taking great care to abide by national guidelines that are keeping us as safe as possible. I urge everyone in Oxfordshire to continue to follow their example. Don’t relax and give COVID-19 the advantage. Together we can stop the spread.”
Here are some of the scams Oxfordshire Trading Standards is aware of, but please note that criminals come in all shapes and sizes and can contact you at the door, by phone, post or online:
- Be aware of people offering miracle cures or vaccines for coronavirus – there is currently no specific treatment for coronavirus (COVID-19).
- People impersonating healthcare workers, claiming to be offering ‘home-testing’ for coronavirus – this is a scam and these kits are not currently available to buy.
- Emails offering a refund on council tax, utility bills, or similar are usually bogus and they are just after personal and bank details.
- There are lots of fake products available to buy online that say they can protect against or cure coronavirus. These will not help and are designed to take your money.
- There are new mobile phone applications that claim to give updates on the virus, but instead they lock your phone and demand a ransom.
- People offering to do shopping or collect medication, asking for money upfront and then disappearing.
- People offering home cleaning services.
- Remember: Banks or the police will never ask for account details over the phone.
Tips to avoid being scammed:
- Be cautious and listen to your instincts. Do not be afraid to hang up, bin it, delete it, or shut the door.
- Take your time; do not be rushed into making a decision that you will probably regret.
- If someone claims to represent a charity, ask them for ID. Be suspicious of requests for money up front. If someone is trying to tempt you into accepting a service, they are unlikely to be genuine.
- Check with family and friends before accepting offers of help if unsure.
- If online, be aware of fake news and use trusted sources such as .gov.uk or NHS.uk websites. Type-out email addresses. Don’t click on links in emails.
- Only purchase goods from legitimate retailers and take a moment to think before parting with money or personal information.
- Protect your financial information, especially from people you do not know. Never give your bank card or PIN to a stranger.
- Know who you are dealing with. If you need help, talk to someone you know or use the contact numbers provided below.
If you think you have been scammed, report it to Action Fraud:
0300 123 2040.
If you need advice, call Citizens Advice Consumer Helpline:
0808 223 1133.
If you are in immediate danger, contact the police on 999.
Contact your bank if you think you have been financially scammed.
Age UK runs a telephone support service (for older people and carers):
To learn more about different types of scams and how to protect yourself and others, visit www.FriendsAgainstScams.org.uk and complete the free online training.