A rise in the cost of living has prompted warnings over scams after an increase in blackmail and fraud across west Wales.
Police, business owners and members of the public are on high alert as criminals employ new and creative scams to exploit vulnerable victims.
In the Dyfed-Powys Police force area, there were nearly 4,000 incidents of fraud or computer misuse, including hacking, referred to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau last year (ending September), according to data released by the Office for National Statistics.
This is down 23 per cent on the previous year but this was true for all English and Welsh forces due to the rise of online crime over the pandemic.
But Home Office figures show there was a rise in recorded blackmail offences the region in the year to March – up from 136 in 2020-21 to 225 the year after.
Although the figures do not break down the type of blackmail carried out, the National Crime Agency views ‘sextortion’, or webcam blackmail – where victims are tricked into performing sexual acts on video – as a growing threat.
In North Wales Police area there were 3,335 incidents of fraud last year (ending September), down 18 per cent on the year before.
Data shows North Wales Police also saw a record 223 blackmail offences in the year to March – up from 159 in 2020-21.
The force has issued several alerts in January about Facebook Marketplace and PayPal scammers.
In Aberystwyth, the owner of Get Connected mobile phone shop, Karl Pollard, wanted to draw attention to the rising number of incidences of a gift card scam he heard about on YouTube.
He advocates for all businesses to provide training to identify fraudulent behaviour or the signs of scams when they present themselves.
“The first thing is our responsibility to the community,” he said.
“I am very aware of vulnerable people because my wife is disabled and I’ve got other disabled relatives. My in-laws are obviously elderly and so was my mother until quite recently.
“I’m very aware that, especially in Aberystwyth, we’ve got a lot of pensioners and we’ve got a lot of international students.
“I had one student in here with her boyfriend and she was very confused and her English wasn’t brilliant and those sorts of people are perfect for scammers.
“I watch a lot about scammers because I believe being forewarned is forearmed.”
He went on to describe the gift card scam which he has already witnessed on one occasion at Get Connected – even though he’s been working there barely a fortnight.
He added: “The way the gift card scam works is – and I’ve experienced two of these myself – you get a phone call or message claiming to be from HMRC, for instance, but other people say they’ve had them from the DVLA and other government bodies.
“They then say ‘you owe X amount of money’, usually in the £200 to £500 territory. From there they say you need to pay it.
“And when someone is frightened, they prey on that.
“They put a lot of pressure on the person and hype the value up and send them to get a Google Play gift card or an Apple Pay gift card and tell them to scratch it off and come back to us.
“As a worldly, wise and technology-aware man, I know a legitimate government body wouldn’t ask you to pay for something via gift card.
“The person would then proceed to send the scammers the code. There’s an online marketplace where you can then swap gift cards for cryptocurrency.
“But if you’re not local to the area or country, some people might get intimidated by that.
“A lot of our pensioners might not have their family members around to help them – so they might fall for it.
“This scam is really only starting to gain traction in the UK now as it’s mainly been in the US.
“We get a million other scams but this is one that I think is really malicious and tends to target vulnerable people particularly.”
We get a million scams but this one is really malicious and tends to target vulnerable people particularly.
Karl Pollard, of the Get Connected shop in Aberystwyth, on the increasingly more common gift card scam
Mr Pollard – who is considering starting his own YouTube channel warning people about fraud - described a ‘desperate’ man coming into the store to purchase a £250 gift card. He informed him about the scam and dissuaded him.
He said it is bound to be getting worse due to the cost-of-living crisis – as people are more vulnerable than ever and new and more effective scams are developed.
“That’s why we need to make sure everyone is aware of it,” he said.
“Obviously, people get ‘Nigerian prince’ emails and 411 scams and all that kind of stuff.
“But this is a new level of low that we need to address.”
Mr Pollard also referred to catfish accounts that extort people after they’ve built online relationships with them.
The Revenge Porn Helpline, which supports those who have suffered intimate image abuse, said ‘sextortion’ was their most reported issue in 2021.
Zara Ward, a senior practitioner at the service, said: “In many of our cases we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg and so many of these instances go unreported because the scammers have a huge impact on their victims, and it can lead to a lot of victims remaining silent.”
She said the pandemic drove much of people’s daily communication online, including relationships, and a lot of scams now begin on dating apps or social media.
Since the turn of the new year, North Wales Police has received 21 reports of victims selling items online and not receiving payment, totalling a loss of over £10,600.
Police say criminals are using a number of methods and are targeting those selling high value items such as mobile phones, tablets and laptops.
The number of incidents of fraud or computer misuse in the Dyfed-Powys Police region.
A North Wales Police spokesperson said: “Do you use Facebook Marketplace to sell unwanted items?
“If so, please be aware of a fake banking app scam that is reported to have been used on people selling items through social media locally.
“The fake app is used to make it appear as though money has been transferred – when in fact, it hasn’t.
“It is reported when a meeting takes place to hand over the item being sold, the victim puts their bank details into the fake app on the scammer’s phone.
“The app then produces a screen, which makes it appear the money has been successfully transferred.
“The scammer then pretends to call their bank, claiming it can take up to two hours for the funds to show in the victim’s bank.
“We are issuing the following advice to ensure others don’t fall victim to the scam.”
The rise in blackmail offences recorded by Dyfed-Powys Police in the year ending last September.
The advice includes checking the buyer’s review history and always using the site’s recommended payment site. If using cash, police say consider doing this at a bank for added protection and avoid direct bank transfers where possible.
Police have also urged anyone selling items online to ensure that payment is made in full prior to parting with any goods.
If using PayPal, check the payment has been made using the app and do not agree to use the Friends and Family option as there is no protection offered with this service.
Separate figures show that of the 20,360 blackmail investigations closed nationwide in 2021-22, just one per cent resulted in a charge or summons, and 59 per cent with no suspect identified.
Of these, 191 were concluded in North Wales, with 55 per cent resulting in no suspect being identified, 40 per cent abandoned due to evidential difficulties and none with a charge or summons.
In the Dyfed-Powys force area, 212 were concluded, with 67 per cent resulting in no suspect being identified, 28 per cent abandoned due to evidential difficulties and less than 1 per cent with a charge or summons.
The increase in blackmail offences recorded by North Wales Police in the year up to last September.
In a press release from September, DC Gareth Jordan from Dyfed-Powys Police’s Economic Crime Team described yet another popular scam.
He said: “We have seen a spike in reports saying they have received phone calls from people pretending to be police officers and telling them that their credit card has been cloned. We’ve had 11 such calls in the past two days and they appear to be targeting the Ceredigion area.
“So far no-one has reported any losses but we may only be hearing from those that recognise this is a scam.
“Often the realisation of these crimes may come weeks later – when the criminal has been successful.”
DC Jordan said the caller tells the potential victim they are from Paddington Green Police Station Specialist Fraud Team.
If they are calling a landline, they tell the recipient to dial 999 to confirm it is the police, but the line is kept open by the caller.
The aim is to get the victim to either part with their credit card details, or to get them to withdraw money and have it picked up by courier.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We are supporting police by funding crime prevention measures, including equipping police with better technology to help catch more criminals. We are working with partners to increase the number of cases being charged and prosecuted.”
The Cambrian News contacted Dyfed-Powys Police who did not address the answers to our specific questions by the time we went to press.
But authorities are quite clear that residents should always be wary about scams – particularly at the moment.