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Trading Standards: it’s time to bin the scam mail


Lou Baxter is manager of the National Trading Standards Scams Team, and she’s here to talk about postal scams. Has your letterbox been filled with scam mail? Lou wants to make sure you don’t suffer in silence.

Fighting scams and trying to help the people that are affected by scams has kind of become a personal battle of mine. I feel extremely passionately about the issue and want to get it to the top of as many people’s agendas as possible.

Historically, professionals were not aware of the scale of the scams problem. The Office of Fair Trading carried out a study in 2006 which detailed the estimated detriment at £3.5bn and at the National Scams Team we think it’s a much bigger problem, closer to £10bn.

We are currently working with national partners to identify the ‘silent victims’ of scams. Once we identify somebody as a potential victim we are passing this information to the local trading standards to get them to help and support that person. We currently have 116 local authorities signed up and we have measured £4.1m as the loss to 1,265 confirmed victims. This is a huge amount of money and works out to be more than £3,000 per person.

Prize draw scam mail

We recently came across an individual who was a victim of postal and telephone scams. He had posted back his phone number on one of the many prize draws, which got into the hands of the criminals operating scam companies. The victim was recently widowed and when the trading standards went to visit him the phone rang about 10 times in the course of one visit. When the officer answered the phone, the scammer hung up.

When the trading standards started to support him, they estimated he had lost around £150,000 to scams. They managed to prevent him from sending his details on anymore postal scams and estimate they saved him around £40,000. This is the sort of case that illustrates how we can help people, and we need to get to those who need our help the most.

As you’re probably aware, there are thousands of different types of scams, and it can get confusing and difficult to know how best to protect yourself and your friends and relatives.

This problem is massively under-reported. Many people feel shame or embarrassment at being caught out. We don’t want you to suffer in silence. We want you to help us encourage your neighbours, relatives and friends to report scams or attempted scams.

Get on the scam wagon and help us highlight this problem! How can we raise the profile of postal scams? And have you been affected by one?

Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from Lou Baxter, National Trading Standards Scams Team manager. All opinions expressed are Lou’s own, not necessarily those of Which?.


There is a lot of emphasis on the internet and in the media about scams that are categorised as e-crime but very little about postal scams, yet they appear to be an enormous problem and appeal more to vulnerable and elderly people who might not be at risk from on-line fraudsters. It would be useful to have some examples of the sort of postal scams that have been identified and how they operate. Is the long-standing [under various guises] prize draw scam the most prolific? To read that somebody has been scammed out of £150,000 [and saved from losing another £40,000] would be incredible if it didn’t come from a reliable source, but is this the general scale of the scams or is that case an extremely exceptional one? More info please.

My parents had a letter about a relative who had died in a hiking accident. It may well have worked if they’d hadn’t sent the same letter ( but with different surnames) to a neighbour the same day. The chances of 2 unrelated people both having relatives die in hiking accidents on the same day, what are the chances …..

Actually it wouldn’t have worked, I’ve trained my parents too well. (fingers crossed)

I tried to report it to trading standards but they didn’t even want the code printed as part of the smartstamp.

So I have to question how into catching the culprits Trading standards are.

A couple of months ago I got a correctly personnaly addressed letter through the post, from someone in China, about a smallish fortune left by a relative with the same surname, somewhere in China, which would disappear if I did not collaborate with the correspondent and help them access the money. The letter had been part of a batch posted in the UK – no postmark??

I doubt I’d have fallen for it anyway, but the name and scenario did not fit any relative known to me – the one rellie known in the past to have been in China had a completely different name and died back in the UK.

However I thought it my civic duty to report it as I could see that they could hit the jackpot with others, I phoned the non-emergency police – they were not only not at all interested – but started treating me as if I might be a vulnerable person needing reassurance that I was not in any danger from personal visits by the scammers. I gave up. But would be glad to know if there is anyone to whom I can pass this kind of thing on, in the interests of preventing others being caught out.

I know the feeling about reporting these things. I went through the same thing.

The Royal Fail have a webpage on what to do with scam mail they deliver and include an address to forward the post to ( with covering letter). I’ll post that link in a reply to this one, as they tend to get held up in the ether somewhere.

As soon as the letters drop through the door I stick on a printed label which states in capital letters UNREQUESTED MAIL RETURN TO THE SENDER’ and put them back in the post. Sometimes I open them up and using their return envelope put a FREE gift from another company and return it to them. You wouldn’t belive the number of companies who have had a free pen for signing up to a Funeral plan!! or a set of food vouchers and £50 worth of wine.

My elderly parents are ‘hooked’ on the Star Shopping scam. They are in their late 80s – and one suffers from dementia. Spending has shot up recently to some £1,000 a month and they have gone into overdraft to fund the chance to ‘win’. Despite all our efforts including showing them the Think Jessica site + a visit from a Trading Standards Officer – they continue to feed the scam, in the expectation and hope that they are just about to win…
My siblings and I are really lost on what to realistically do – apart from exercising Power of Attorney, which would create a lasting and major schism with our parents.
Any advice?

Sorry to hear your story, but it does seem the authorities really aren’t working as hard as they could.

If your parents are paying out money, then surely the bank knows where its going, and therefore the authorities should too. How hard is it really ?

Can’t you explain what’s going on to the bank and get them to block these payments? Your parents can then carry on doing what they doing, writing cheques if that’s what they’re doing , without actually parting from their money? And hopefully never finding out what you’ve done.

Good luck

I’ve just google’d “star shopping scam” and found an article on the guardian website dated 2006.

One paragraph starts

“Complaints started to come into The Office of Fair Trading, which, in 2004,”

That was 10 years ago!! Are Trading Standards fit for purpose? Maybe Trading Standards could explain why it’s taking so long, as a lay person that seems far to long.

And please don’t use the excuse our powers aren’t strong enough. If I was running trading standards and thought our powers aren’t strong enough, then enough people would have been so fed up of me we’d have had our powers improved years ago.

Thanks – Agree with you on authorities – I tried to speak to the Bank – and they would not talk to me due to security/confidentiality (I also wanted to ensure my Parents did not extend their overdraft – or even take out further loans)

Thanks Louise
I even spoke to their Lawyer and explained the situation..
Rather chillingly he said; “There is no law to prevent a bad bargain” (or something like that)
He also said I would need to get a Doctor to review my Parent’s dementia if we are to proceed to PofA.
Given that both our Parents have poor health / hearts – this is a very risky strategy…

Re Trading Standards – they visited my Parents and clearly told them its a scam.

The issue is that Star Shopping and related scammers target the old and mentally impaired.
My father said; “I’ll give it 6 more months” – despite everything he had seen and heard
It is very difficult to shift their position without drastic action

Police or Social care are new options
Thanks for the feedback

I’m not having a go at you Louise I promise.

You said,”however the main barrier we have is the locality of these companies (mainly abroad) and the difficulties in taking action against foreign companies”

So what are the Post Office doing (assuming they’re the ones handling the mail) These scoundrels must be sending in large numbers of similar looking mail. They have systems to sort by Post Code ( I won’t go into how bad that is, with post from a different address being delivered again and again). But can’t they do something with that system to spot these mailshots ?

You also said ” In 2008 we got some new legislation called the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations” well I think that law is a steaming pile of male cow droppings. As even large UK supermarkets are still not abiding by it 100% of the time.

“We are currently working up how we can disrupt them and try to raise awareness of the size of this problem ” I’ve tried emailing BBC watchdog, Sky news etc to cover things like the Microsoft phone scam, but a lone voice does carry any weight. Maybe you could get Which to do an email campaign to email these news outlets I’m sure they’d be enough people to sign up and watch some system fire off the appropriate email to whoever. Sheer weight of numbers might persuade these companies to provide some coverage.

Agree with you William on role of Post Office.
BBC One Show did a piece on a company related to Star Shopping (Binatonic ??) a few weeks ago.
It was tepid !
Reporter turned up at Paris office with camera crew and tried to do a little investigative Journalism. He was told “I’m new, don’t know anything” by a woman. The BBC said they had to blank her face for legal reasons…

They then left and returned with a cake with the message written on it; “Don’t rip off our Citizens” or something like that. And bravely left it on the doorstep outside !!!
Incredibly weak TV !!!

So YES to more TV – but please given the £billions involved (and going abroad) I’m perplexed as to the lack of real and tangible action.

Ah, old laws used for the betterment of scammers than protection of the innocent 🙁

Ok then if they can’t intercept it do they flag up to Trading Standards who are getting the post and where its coming from ?

OK So I’ve seen a Press Release. And I’m sorry to say that I’m completely underwhelmed by it. Although not surprised 🙁

Things like “Under the initiative, Trading Standards will determine whether a mailing is fraudulent and alert Royal Mail, before writing to the identified company requesting they stop posting the items” Oh that’s going to have these villains quaking in their boots, NOT.

“Officers from Trading Standards are holding dedicated training sessions at delivery offices across the UK to improve awareness of scam mail among postmen and women. This will help postmen and women identify what they suspect could be fraudulent mailings so that these mailings can be investigated by Trading Standards” Will these be the same postman and woman who can’t even stop delivering me un-addressed junk mail when I’ve signed up to the Royal Mail opt out service? Why isn’t the automatic sorting equipment being modified to spot scam mail? Where a smart stamp has been used to send scam mail surely this sorting equipment should be able to capture any further letters from the same “batch”.

The press release mentions emailing a scam mail address at royal mail but fails to list what information should be included.

Is the postal address listed so I can simply re-post the scam mail having written the new address on it ?

Thanks for the reply, any chance you could respond to my first comment, about only writing to them requesting them to stop.

Seems a rather weak response to a very big problem.

And if that’s because Trading Standards powers are limited, what’s being done to improve you on those powers.

No worries and thank you for responding. And possibly more importantly good luck.

Odd timing this, but my parents had a letter in the post about a dead relative in China 🙁 Oddly enough a neighbour 2 days down also has a dead relative in China with the same Christian name and even more oddly the lady over the road has a dead relative in China. I don’t know how may others down their street had the “same” letter.

All 3 letters used smart stamps. I assume you print those yourself. But someone must have paid for it presumably over the internet using a debit or credit card.

Other than that I’m unable to say but I shall be visiting my parents in just under 2 weeks so can pick up the letters then.

Which bits of the smart stamp do you need, the code above the QR code e.g 72AC 582U or a photo of the QR code or the whole thing.

The example code I quoted was from scam mail posted around 20th October 2012 (thats the date in the letter) the smart stamp has a post by 21.11.12 on it.

And do you know whether the Royal Mail systems will throw out fake smart stamps ? Cos I have no idea whether its a genuine smart stamp or not. Seems strange that scammers would actually pay unless using stolen cards of course.

Paula says:
24 October 2014

I know mum who is 82 and ill of health is responding to these scam mails, she is sending cash to may areas of the world to win cars, TVs and big money and will not listen to anyone when they try to tell her they are scams and most probably criminal gangs taking advantage of her. This is badly affecting my relationship with her as she sees me as sabotaging her chance at winning big, what can I do?

Simon Ford says:
12 November 2014

Has anyone else, like me, been caught napping by the Amazon Prime price hike?

I signed up for Prime in 2012 when it was a promotional offer. The second year’s subscription cost £49 although, I confess, I didn’t notice the payment go through.

I use Amazon infrequently for small purchases. This year I’ve placed thirteen orders for things like books and light bulbs.

In return, Amazon send me dozens of emails, but the only ones I’m interested in are those about stuff I’m buying, so the annual subscription clause passed me by.

This week I saw £79 had been charged to my credit card by a company in Luxembourg. First off, I reported it to the card company as fraud – and only afterwards followed up with Amazon. You’ve guessed it: it was my Amazon Prime renewal and the subscription had gone up by £30.

Amazon told me this gave me the benefit of next day delivery and video streaming. They’d emailed me (one of the long-deleted backlog of emails) to tell me this. I’m sure they had, but it wasn’t exactly flagged up in big, red letters.

To give them their due, Amazon removed Prime from my account immediately and gave me a full refund.

For me, the cost of Prime cost outweighed the benefit of next day delivery on a handful of purchases. If I’d known about the video service I might have used it, but Netflix still works out cheaper.

So my advice is, check your statements and see if you’ve been caught out too. After all, thirty quid is thirty quid.

Some of the 5 star product reviews at Amazon for Black Friday sales are actually written by Amazon staff pretending to be customers. They do it to entice people to buy them.

I’d like to know if this is something Trading Standards allows.

sy says:
30 May 2015

Hello, do you still work for Trading Standards in their scams team?

Where can I email you about something?