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Another online scam

June 2011

Beware: there is a fairly new form of internet con-trick around; several Oldie readers have already been fooled.

At best, it persuades you to pay for a service that you could have for nothing; at worst, you just lose your money.

It works like this.  Someone sets up a realistic website describing, for example, registering for the Telephone Preference Service (TPS) to prevent unwanted sales calls, or ordering the EHIC card that gives us access to European NHS equivalents; both services are free.

The web address is convincing, the site looks right; it was at the top of the list when you Googled it; no reason to be suspicious so far.

You follow the instructions and are not too surprised when you are asked for a modest fee (perhaps £25 or so).  You pay it and, if you are lucky, you are sent to the genuine site to receive the authentic free service.

You have just been charged to find your way to the correct website.  It’s underhand, but probably legal, depending on what they told you; at least you ended up where you wanted to be.

However, there is a more sinister version.  When you register with what you think is the right site (it isn’t) they announce that your registration is “processing” or similar.  Then you receive a phone call; they tell you that your registration is almost complete, and all that is left is to pay the fee.  They will often say that that they want to take the payment over the phone for “security” reasons.

They will be very plausible, and as they know everything you have put on the website, they can sound extremely convincing.

If you do pay, there is a very slight chance that they will register you with the right site, but a much greater chance that they won’t, and will simply steal your money.

But here’s the really devious bit: it’s only £25; you won’t spot the swindle for days or weeks, and by then the website will have vanished, your card company isn’t interested and you will probably decide that life’s too short to get worked up about it and put the whole thing down to experience.

That’s what the crooks are relying upon, of course.  They may have received thousands of £20 payments, and many a mickle makes a muckle.

Don’t panic.  Whilst it is easy to be taken in once you are part of the swindle, it is also easy to avoid becoming involved in the first place.  Here are Webster’s two golden rules for stacking the odds mightily in your favour.

First, make sure you really are at the correct website.  If you know the website address, write it in the address bar at the top of the page; if you don’t know it, click on a link in a website you really can trust.

For example, if what you are looking for is any sort of government related site, like the EHIC or TPS ones, start at, the excellent government information service for England and Wales; it is a really top-notch source of clearly written, useful material; a model of its kind, actually.

Click on the links they provide; you will end up in the right place, and avoid all this fraud nonsense.

Second, and most important, NEVER give your card details to anyone who has telephoned you under any circumstances, and I really mean ANY circumstances.  The telephone is the least secure way of using your card (much less safe than a secure website or in person) and you should ONLY do it to those traders you really trust, and then ONLY if you have called them on their normal telephone number, and are sure it really is them.

Think about it – if someone you have never met telephoned you and asked for money you would refuse, without hesitation.  But because of the magical (and illusory) respectability that a fake website provides, you may abandon your normal common sense.  Please don’t.

Like all successful confidence tricksters, they manage to blur the distinction between reality and fiction; they leave sufficient truth lurking around to fool you.  However, if you keep a firm enough grip on reality, you’ll keep a firm enough grip on your money as well, I promise.