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February 21 started out as a normal Monday in Hampshire for pensioners Anne and Mick Farrow.
But by the end of the day they had lost almost every penny they had to fraudsters, having been duped by the latest scam taking advantage of people’s fears around the pandemic.
What began with a text message purporting to be from the NHS turned into hours of phone calls with a criminal, at the end of which both their bank accounts were completely drained.
‘When we came off the phone, I said to my husband “I feel sick”. We both burst out crying. It’s the thought that all your money has suddenly gone’, says Anne.
‘You wonder how you are going to live? How are you going to be able to buy food in order to survive?
Mick, 73, and Anne Farrow, 68, were targeted by fraudsters pretending to be from their bank.
‘We are pensioners. We had been planning things we were going to do. We were looking forward to day trips and little holidays.
‘And then suddenly, we were like, we can’t do that now. We thought our life would completely change.’
Anne, 68, and her husband Mick, 73, have told This is Money how they had their lives turned upside down by the vicious and carefully orchestrated impersonation scam, in the hope that they can help others avoid falling for it.
It began with Anne receiving a text message just before 3:30pm, warning her that she had been in close proximity to someone who had tested positive for Covid and prompting her to order a test.
‘I had a hospital appointment booked for the following Monday,’ explains Anne.
‘Because of that, I thought I should take the test because I can’t go to hospital if I’ve been in contact with someone.
‘I pressed on the link and it went to what looked like the NHS website. I filled out a form and it asked for £1 for delivery.
‘I thought that was a bit cheap of them asking for a £1 delivery fee, but didn’t think too much of it.’
The text message that Anne initially received, which she believed came from the NHS
Anne paid the delivery fee and a message flashed up saying the test would be with her in two days.
At 7:15pm Anne received a phone call from someone called Andy claiming to be from her bank, Santander.
‘Andy’ said he was calling because the bank had noticed strange movements on her account and Anne immediately believed she had been scammed via the text message.
Andy then connected the call with his colleague, supposedly called Thomas, who said he was part of Santander’s fraud team.
‘Thomas’ then advised Anne to transfer money into a safe account to ensure the alleged ‘Covid scammers’ could not empty her account. Thomas convinced her that this was standard Santander protocol.
‘Thomas explained that what they’re doing is moving people into a safe account with a branch manager,’ says Anne.
‘He said, if we give you the branch manager’s name, and his bank sort code and bank account number, you need to move the money into there.
‘And then once it’s safe, we will close your account down. After that’s all sorted, we will re-open your account and transfer the money back to you.’
In total, Anne and Mick spoke to the scammer for four hours between 7:30pm to 11:30pm
At this point, Anne’s husband, Mick, who had been listening in on the call, queried whether Thomas was indeed who he claimed to be and asked him to prove it.
Thomas suggested they visit Santander’s website to check the number was a genuine one.
Anne and Mick were not to know that the scammers had successfully mimicked a real number from Santander’s website by an increasingly common practice called ‘number spoofing’.
Smartphones allow you to see the caller ID when someone contacts you, however, fraudsters are now deliberately changing the telephone number or name that shows to the recipient.
‘We looked on Santander’s website where Thomas told us to check and we could see it was the same number as what was showing on my phone,’ says Anne, ‘so we thought we were genuinely on the phone to a Santander staff member.’
How the Covid test scam works
1) Fraudster sends an SMS stating that the recipient has been in close proximity to someone who has tested positive for Covid. It includes a link to a fake NHS website to order a PCR test
2) The victim visits the website and enters their personal details
3) To cover postage for the PCR test, a nominal payment amount is requested, meaning card details are also harvested by the fraudster
4) Using the information shared on the fake website, the fraudster contacts the victim pretending to be from their bank. They convince them they are being scammed and they need to move money to a safe account
5) The name on the safe account will not be the victim’s, but the fraudster will provide a fake reason for this and tell them to send the money
6) Once the money is sent, the fraudster cuts off all contact. Sometimes their details are then sold on to other fraudsters
The scammers now moved in for the kill and asked Anne to begin transferring money from her account to the ‘safe’ account.
‘I began transferring money out of my current account,’ says Anne, ‘a message came through from Santander to verify the payment.
‘Thomas interrupted before I had the chance to read it, saying I should just press yes. That let my money go through. I then did this a second time.’
According to Santander, Anne logged in to mobile banking and opted to pay the new payee £5,580 and then £4,420.
She chose ‘paying family’ as the payment reason and Santander say she was presented with relevant scam warnings before confirming the payment.
Having made the payment, a fraud prevention SMS was then sent to Anne and the payment was held.
She confirmed the payment as legitimate and the payment was subsequently released.
Having entirely emptied Anne’s account the fraudster, was merciless in their pursuit of further gains, even asking if she had any other accounts with the bank.
Anne admitted to having a joint account with her husband, which Thomas persuaded her could also be under threat from the same alleged fraudster.
Anne then passed the phone to her husband, Mick.
‘I then followed suit,’ says Mick. ‘My wife’s accounts had been emptied and I emptied mine as they directed. Looking back on it, we shouldn’t have fallen for it.’
In total Anne and Mick spoke to Thomas for about four hours from 7:30pm to 11:30pm.
‘We were genuinely impressed with his professionalism,’ says Mick. ‘He dropped into the conversation that Santander had been getting a lot of these scams.
‘He seemed to know so much about the mechanics of online banking and Santander that I was convinced he was an employee.’
Thomas even said the bank was were worried about its own staff members scamming customers.
So when Mick’s first payment was blocked and he was forced to verify his payment by calling a genuine Santander number, Thomas managed to convince him that the Santander team on the other end were not to be trusted, and told him to have a story ready to dupe them.
‘Thomas primed me with what to say. Every single question the chap at Santander asked Thomas had already predicted they would ask me,’ says Mick.
‘By this time, I had every confidence in Thomas. So then I did a second transaction which totally emptied my account. I once again had to speak to Santander and convinced them to allow the transaction.’
Fake: These screenshots show the lookalike NHS website that victims are directed to
According to Santander, Mick logged in to mobile banking and made two payments, amounting to £9,970 in total.
The payment was detected, and Mick called Santander’s fraud team in order to release the payment.
On Thomas’ instructions, he lied and said that the payment was going to go to his cousin in order to pay for a car.
The customer service representative questioned the payment and talked about impersonation scams and whether he was told to lie to the bank. However, Mick continued to make the payment.
Eventually the scammer’s unrelenting greed and wickedness went too far and Mick became suspicious.
‘Thomas then wanted to exhaust all that was left in my overdraft,’ explains Mick.
‘By now, doubt was starting to creep in that we had mistaken who the genuine Santander chaps and who the fraudsters were.
‘The penny finally dropped. It should have dropped an awful lot sooner than it did. They had taken us for fools, and I think we were. But they were very good at it.’
Tricked: The couple were persuaded to empty several accounts by the scammers, who pretended to be calling from their bank
Mick refused to follow Thomas’ instructions any further and he ended the call. Sadly, by now the damage was done.
Unaware there was a 24-hour helpline on the back of their bank cards, Mick and Anne thought they would have to wait until 8:30am the next day to report the scam to Santander.
Unsurprisingly it resulted in a night they would rather forget.
‘We couldn’t sleep out of worry,’ says Anne. ‘We got up at 5am and just waited until 8.30am. We had no idea we could have just called the bank that night.’
Fortunately for Mick and Anne, Santander reimbursed them in full for their losses following a four-day investigation.
But whilst the money was salvaged, they are still feeling the emotional effects of what happened.
‘We just haven’t been able to focus since that day,’ explains Anne. ‘We’ve been doing stupid things. I feel my mind is all over the place.
‘I can’t bring myself to trust anyone. Every time there is a text on my phone I don’t want to look at it.
‘I had a text from the hospital about my appointment the other day, and I’m too scared to open the link even though I can see it is from our hospital.
‘When the phone rings, I’m there listening to my husband in case it’s the scammers ringing us again.’
Mick says that although the scam was a horrendous ordeal, it made them realise how lucky they were to have each other.
‘We both felt depressed for a number of days after the incident,’ he says, ‘but at least we have got each other.
‘If either of us were on our own it would just have been terrible.’
What to do if you think you’re on the phone to a fraudster
Hang up: Customers are advised to end the call if the person on the other end asks them to transfer money
Santander says it has experienced a surge in impersonation scams originating from fake NHS Covid text messages.
The bank has seen £880,000 worth of these scams reported since the start of the year.
Chris Ainsley, head of fraud control at Santander UK said: ‘With changes to Covid testing and self-isolation requirements coming into force, fraudsters are exploiting the accompanying uncertainty as the “new normal” beds in.
‘Be on high alert if an SMS or email includes a link to a website, however genuine the website may look, and never feel pressured to move your money.
‘No bank or legitimate organisation will ask you to transfer your money to a safe account – ever.’
If you are contacted by your bank, the police or any organisation and asked to move your money, stop, end the call and call your bank using the number on the back of your card or 159.
If you think you’ve already been the victim of this type of scam, report it to your bank straight away.