Scammers use a range of techniques, including charm and persuasion. With increasing layers of security and fraud warnings in online banking, a fraudster could convince you to lie to your bank. But can you ever get your money back?
Banks have added fraud warnings to their online banking platforms, asking things like “are you comfortable to make this payment?” or “have you been contacted by someone and asked to make this payment?” These are prompts to encourage you to think twice, to make sure that you are certain that the payment you are about to make is genuine. But what if the person asking you to make a payment is putting pressure on you to act quickly? What if they encourage you to lie about the reason you’re transferring the money, saying that it will help the payment go through more quickly? Can you ever try to get your money back in those circumstances?
A recent decision from the Financial Ombudsman Service, the Government backed body that investigates complaints between financial institutions and their customers, has highlighted several red flags that people should look out for in relation to APP fraud, particularly when buying investments online. The case also highlights what banks should be doing to protect their customers.
Social media advertising
There are a lot of investment-related adverts on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Many are genuine, but many aren’t – they have been set up by scammers to encourage you to click on a link, fill in an enquiry form and share your contact details. The door is now open for them to get in touch, posing as a legitimate broker or financial adviser. It is recommended that you carry out your own research into these companies. Are they registered with the City watchdog, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA)? Do they have a website and are they listed with Companies House? Do all the contact details match up?
Many people see cryptocurrency as a ‘get rich quick’ opportunity, without understanding the risks and volatility of such investments. Scammers may pose as ‘investment brokers’, helping you open a legitimate crypto exchange account (wallet). Once they gain your trust, however, they may persuade you to transfer increasingly larger or more frequent sums to the account. They may ask you to download software onto your computer that allows them to have remote access or may ask for your login details. Money can be moved to a fake trading account – where it appears to have been invested and going up in value, but this is actually just a simulator, and the money remains in possession of the fraudster, never having been invested in the first place. In other cases, the scammer may move your money to another account to which you have no access.
There has been an increase in social media adverts featuring celebrity endorsement. In these scams, a well-known TV presenter or actor talks about how easy it is to make money by investing in, say, Bitcoin, but the advert has been set up by a clever fraudster, the endorsement is not genuine and the investment they are talking about is not legitimate.
High-pressure sales tactics
A common theme of many online scams is high-pressure sales tactics. You may be offered a time-sensitive investment, encouraging you to act quickly, for fear of missing out. The scammer may promise high returns, at low or no risk. If you make one transfer, they may contact you again, repeatedly, to persuade you to transfer more and more money. And some even get you to lie to your bank, saying that you are paying a friend or family, or that no third party contacted you to make the payment so that the transaction is processed more quickly, without additional checks for unusual activity or fraud.
In this recent case, Miss Y lost over £90,000 to a cryptocurrency scam, after making a number of payments from her Lloyds bank account in March and April 2020. She had reacted to an online advert, with a celebrity endorsement, promoting an investment in Bitcoin. After being contacted by an investment broker, she opened a legitimate crypto exchange account, with his help. The broker gained remote access to her account and moved the money to another account he said she held with the broker’s company. The account was fake and she was unable to retrieve her money.
At the time the fraud took place, Miss Y stated she was physically and mentally unwell, she was an inexperienced investor and she was taken in by the investment broker, who was convincing and knowledgeable. It never occurred to her that she was being scammed, as the broker’s website looked professional and she had access to an online account with his company. Once she realised that she had been scammed, Miss Y contacted her bank to report a fraud claim.
The first payment Miss Y tried to make to the crypto account had been flagged up by Lloyds as potentially fraudulent, so they contacted her for more information. The investment broker had already told her to say certain things about what she was doing and, as a result, the crypto exchange account became a trusted beneficiary and no further checks were carried out on other payments.
After investigating her complaint, Lloyds Bank refused to reimburse all the money Miss Y lost, saying that she had lied to them about setting up the crypto exchange account, and about no third party being involved. She also told them she was the only one with access to the account, which was untrue. The bank also said Miss Y didn’t take sufficient steps to ensure she was dealing with a genuine investment broker or firm.
Because Miss Y wasn’t satisfied with the bank’s response, she took her case to the Financial Ombudsman Service. They aim to consider what is ‘fair and reasonable’, taking into account relevant law and regulations, and also what is considered good industry practice at the time. While they agreed that the payments Miss Y made were ‘authorised’ and she would be presumed liable for her losses, they said that Lloyds should have been monitoring accounts and payments in relation to fraud and scams. In turn, the Ombudsman felt the bank should have had systems in place to look for unusual transactions (particularly given that sophisticated scams were prevalent at the time), and should have taken additional steps to delay or decline payments in order to protect customers from financial harm.
FOS said that Lloyds should have questioned Miss Y further on what the payments were for and how she found the broker. Had they known she was investing in cryptocurrency, they could have given her more information, including the common tactic of contacting victims after they’ve reacted to a celebrity-endorsed advert on social media. The bank would have known about how cryptocurrency scams work, with money being transferred initially into a customer’s own account, before being moved to the fraudster’s, so should have seen this as a possibility for Miss Y’s money. All of this should have happened before allowing any payments to be processed.
The Ombudsman said:
“I acknowledge that Miss Y was coached by the broker, and the answers she gave to the bank’s questions weren’t true. But it’s not unusual for fraudsters to coach their victims and I think the bank would’ve been aware of this – so I consider that it should’ve been on the lookout for ‘red flags’ in the answers she gave, and it should have asked probing questions to get into the details of the payment rather than taking Miss Y’s answers at face value.”
One such red flag was that Miss Y volunteered the information that she had opened the exchange account without any help and that no one had access to her phone or PC. The Ombudsman said that was strange information for a customer to give freely if they had not been coached.
After considering all the information, from both Miss Y and the bank, the Ombudsman concluded that Lloyds didn’t do enough to protect Miss Y from financial harm and decided that the bank should reimburse her in full, with interest at 8%.
Commenting on the decision, Sarah Spruce, Head of the APP Fraud team at TLW Solicitors, said:
“We’ve had enquiries from people who have lost money in an online scam, but they don’t think they will be able to get their money back because they authorised payments from their own bank accounts. We’ve still taken on their cases, as being persuaded to give false information about the purpose of a bank transfer is all part of these sophisticated frauds. The Financial Ombudsman Service will look at a case as a whole, taking into account how experienced an investor the person was, what tactics were used to get them to hand over their money, and what the bank did to try and protect their customer. All may not be lost, so it is definitely worth getting to touch to see if we can help.”
With access to the right information, or the benefit of hindsight, people can spot the signs of a cryptocurrency scam. But if you, a friend, family member or colleague have lost money as a result of crypto APP fraud, please get in touch to see if we can help.
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