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Celebrity Bitcoin scam: my experience

Bitcoin investment scams using fake celebrity endorsements continue to be rife. Johanna Butt, 83, of Oxfordshire has bravely shared her story with us.

This is a guest post by Johanna Butt. All views expressed are Johanna’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

It was purely out of curiosity that I contacted Bitcoin Loophole. I saw an ad on Facebook which featured a picture of Deborah Meaden and said the company had been successfully featured on the programme Dragon’s Den.

Which? News: Renewed warnings about Bitcoin scams

So I called them last August and the man I spoke to was extremely plausible. Over the course of two hours he explained to me how it all worked, how they made me money and what was in it for them.

He didn’t pressure me into investing but made it sound all so sensible – he even asked how I’d spend the money I’d make. I told him I’d like to go on a nice holiday.

The minimum amount to invest was £300 and, even though I didn’t know what a Bitcoin was, I thought ‘what’s the harm?’ It would have been a serious annoyance to lose £300, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. I gave him my debit card details.

‘I started to feel uneasy’

It was about 9.30pm when I finally hung up but quickly started to feel uneasy about what I’d done. At 7am the next morning, I checked my bank account online. All my money was there but I still wanted to tell my bank, NatWest, to stop the payment. I called them at 9.30am but was only able to get through to them at midday.

By then there were pending payments for £300 and four other payments for an additional £8500. There wasn’t even that much in my current account, but years earlier I’d connected it to my savings, so they’d gone into that too.

I was horrified. But I was told because the payments were pending, there was nothing NatWest could do to stop them.

I was put through to the fraud department and Action Fraud – but no one was able to stop these scammers draining my savings. I was so upset. It was absolutely horrendous.

Seven months of hell

I asked myself how NatWest allow this to happen? I’ve been a customer with them for decades and at no point have I ever taken out more than £500 at a time? And at the very least not to a company warned about by the FCA?

The next day, I went back down to the bank branch and told them I wasn’t leaving until I saw the manager. We spoke for two hours and he told me that because I’d apparently opened a trading account, there was nothing they could do even though I’d never authorised that. All I thought I was doing was investing £300.

The whole experience was terrible. I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating, I was stressed out of my mind. I started getting the worst heart palpitations which eventually put me in the hospital. It was horrific.

It was seven months of hell. I had to pick up odd jobs just to survive – they took all my money. I couldn’t stop crying for months and I absolutely never cry.

On top of struggling to survive, Bitcoin Loophole wouldn’t stop calling. They called at 7am, at 11pm, they were relentless and I had to stop even answering my own phone. It wasn’t until I gave them my daughter’s number who gave them an absolute ear-full that they finally stopped calling.

Which? Money Helpline intervenes

At the end of my tether, I called the Which? Money Helpline who intervened. They told NatWest that I’d only authorised the original £300, not the rest.

Then one morning in late February, as I was eating my breakfast I went to pay a bill online. There was magically £8,500 sitting in my account paid from the original debit card I gave to Bitcoin Loophole back in August but quickly cancelled. It was so bizarre. But there it was, my money reimbursed and an extra £300 compensation for what I went through.

It was without a doubt the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. I’d do anything to stop these people and warn others.

Johanna’s heartbreaking story is another reason why we’re renewing our warnings about the dangers of these social media Bitcoin scams, which claimed more than £15 million last year.

I’d strongly recommend that anyone unfamiliar with cryptocurrency scams reads our guide, which explains what they are and how you can avoid them.

Michael Tomlinson, the Which? Money Helpline advisor who dealt with Johanna’s case says:

We hear many reports of cases where celebrities’ names have been falsely used to endorse some dodgy investment. Stay clear of these online ads because alarming sums of money are being lost to them. It’s wise to always check that an investment company is on the FCA’s register, so that you know it is genuine.

In Johanna’s case, she authorised a payment of £300, but she did not authorise the remaining £8,500. Unless Natwest could prove you’d been grossly negligent, it must reimburse the unauthorised transactions made from your account.

We helped her raise a formal complaint to Natwest. She’d also complained to the Financial Ombudsman, which was about to review the complaint when Natwest changed its mind. It has now fully reimbursed her for all of the money she lost and paid her £300 as compensation.

Have you ever seen a Bitcoin ad on Facebook? Was the celebrity ‘endorsement’ enough to tempt you? Let us know.

Comments

This seems to boil down to a very simple story. You authorised the merchant (Bitcoin Loophole) to charge your card with £300. The merchant subsequently charged your card with further unauthorised transactions. When you reported the unauthorised transactions to your card issuer (NatWest), it failed to handle the dispute correctly. The onus was on the merchant and your card issuer to prove that the transactions were authorised, not on you to prove that they were not authorised.

The card issuer should have immediately refunded the unauthorised transactions to you according to Regulation 76 of the Payment Services Regulations 2017, which derives from very useful European Union legislation, Directive (EU) 2015/2366 (commonly known as the Payment Services Directive 2).

I would have complained to the Financial Ombudsman Service about the card issuer rather than wasting time speaking to the disingenuous merchant.

I think we have to make allowances for people’s state of distress and inexperience, NFH. Not everyone has your superior knowledge of the complexities of the financial mechanisms. I think Johanna did very well to cope with what happened and with telling her story. In my view she is above criticism and I just hope that when I reach her age I will be able to address such new and abominable situations with the same composure. Having lived through different and safer times the older generation has a much more trusting attitude towards approaches from strangers than we might have and does not have the natural defences that we have acquired through experience and our knowledge of consumer affairs.

John, sorry if comments came across as criticising Johanna. I was criticising NatWest. My third paragraph was only to explain what I would have done, and what I hope readers will do if they experience anything similar.

The lure of financial returns beyond the norm causes normally rational people to make bad decisions. In the cold light of day, if you don’t understand what you are doing (as here) then don’t do it, or seek professional advice.

How many of us actually follow this advice without fail?

The question is, to my mind, to ascertain who was negligent. I’d suggest that £300 was Johanna’s sole responsibility in responding to an advert and making her decision to “make money”. I’d like to then know why the bank was considered liable for the £8500, a transaction in which they appear to have simply transferred money based on information given in a telephone call. Should the bank have known the recipient was a fraudster? Where was their negligence? Was it because the bank should have simply stopped the payment that was “pending” when the concern was reported? Could Which? explain this.

Giving debit card authorisation over the phone leaves no record, and seems to be open to abuse when you have no knowledge of the recipient. Have I missed some safeguards that exist?

I sympathise with Johanna’s experience but it does seem to illustrate one of the problems of compensation. It can compensate for irresponsible behaviour, the knowledge in some people’s eyes that you can take a risk but then be protected against the consequences.

It also suggests that there should be restrictions placed by banks on the way accounts might be operated, at the customer’s choice or, in the case of vulnerable customers, imposed. For example, a limit on the amount that could be paid out to a payee in a day without seeking a special arrangement. As Johanna says she never took out more than £500 at a time, so that could have been her chosen limit.

Hi Malcolm,

Mrs Butt only authorised a £300 payment but the scammers, unbeknownst to her, opened a trading account and made a further four transactions totaling £8,500. She actually didn’t have that money in her current account, but because it had been connected to her savings account decades ago, they dipped into that and drained it too. As Michael Tomlinson says, she only authorised £300.

You’re right about restrictions being put on accounts – this would go a long way to stop scammers. This is one of the things covered by the new volunteer banking code which you can read more about here:

https://www.which.co.uk/news/2019/02/bank-transfer-scam-victims-to-get-refunds-from-may-2019/

I have to say that I’d have thought once Mrs Butt contacted the bank to stop the process that that then became the bank’s responsibility. The bank’s response to Mrs Butt’s pleas in saying because she’d apparently opened a trading account, there was nothing they could do even though she’d never authorised that, begs several questions:

1. Could the bank prove it was Mrs Butt who’d opened the trading account?
2. How easy is it to open a trading account when you’re not the account holder?
3. The bank stated nothing could be done when Mrs Butt attempted to cancel the payments, even though the money had not – at that stage – been taken. So what the bank was saying in effect was ‘If you choose to bank with us, bear in mind you will lose control over how we transfer your money.’ Why is an account holder unable to stop a transfer?

For me, and I suspect others, this epitomises the dismissive arrogance towards small account holders that seems to characterise the bank’s attitudes and dealings.

Those who, inexplicably to me, anyway, seek to apologise for the banks and continue to wonder whether they should bear any fiscal responsibility for malfeasance or incompetence should remember that Natwest and its curiously odd parent company – RBS – have a track record of squandering cash when it suits.

In 1997 it was fined £420,000 because of its accounting – or lack of it – in which the bonus culture at the bank was fingered. In 2000, they had to pay a further £750,000 for “a series of compliance failings”, and shortly afterwards were fined a further £500,000 for similar failings.

RBS behaved similarly poorly after the 2008 crisis, apparently imposing absurd limits on borrowing for small businesses and instituting obscenely large unauthorised overdraft charges on those least able to pay.

In 2012 both RBS and Natwest customers were left without the ability to withdraw money because of a massive software failure, an event some commentators at least partly attributed to the wholesale slashing of IT positions in the UK and their replacement by outsourcing work to India.

The questions should not be ‘Why were the poor banks having to pay compensation?’ but rather what will it take to make the banks start to behave as financial institutions should in a civilised society?

@awade, Amelia – Mrs Butt may not have realised in her long phone conversation that she was opening a trading account but it appears that is what she (inadvertently) authorised. No one else seems to have been involved in that “arrangement”, and certainly not her bank it would seem. So was the bank’s failure simply not to act on Mrs Butt’s request to stop payment that she had mistakenly instigated?

Online banking and transactions do require a degree of knowledge and precaution to carry them out safely. Mrs Butt realised that after the event. I wonder how you prevent people from making poor decisions in the face of convincing fraudsters? I’m not sure how practical that is other than restricting the kind of transactions they can make. In the same way we have https websites, supposedly secure, perhaps we could have a similar tag attached to known and above-board secure online traders and restrict some people’s transactions to them, without some separate authorisation.

jayden WALKER says:
28 March 2019

what kind of is that

Malcolm, it’s not a question of “who was negligent“, but who is responsible for remedying an unauthorised transaction. The onus is on the card issuer, a bank in this case, not on the customer. The card issuer does not bear the loss, but in turn charges the transaction back to the errant merchant. Although the card issuer has to do all the admin, it does not usually bear the loss except where a merchant goes out of business in the meantime.

Thanks NFH. I thought debit card reimbursement was discretionary? In the case of this possibly fraudulent arrangement that Mrs Butt got into, will the money be recoverable I wonder.

I am simply questioning how much responsibility individuals should take for their actions, what measures can be put in place to prevent them becoming involved in transactions they are not equipped to handle. If the card provider cannot recover the money from the errant merchant, and if they were not to know the merchant would be errant, then it is our money that is being used to provide compensation. I would not like to see that happen when it is not justified. It just increases costs to all of us.

Malcolm, no, it’s not discretionary. Unless the merchant or card issuer can prove that the transaction was authorised, then the card issuer must refund it according to Regulation 76 of the Payment Services Regulations 2017.

If the card issuer cannot recover it, because the card issuer took too long to take action and the merchant has since gone out of business, then that’s the card issuer’s problem. They need to act fast, and certainly much faster than in the case above.

The discretionary matters that you are thinking of is when a transaction was authorised but the goods or services were not subsequently supplied. That’s entirely different from transactions being unauthorised.

Natwest, it seems, may be even more culpable than it seems. Johanna tells us I was told because the payments were pending, there was nothing NatWest could do to stop them.

That’s untrue. A bank can, at the request of the account holder, stop a direct debit or pending payment up to 1530 on the day of payment.

This afternoon I rang my bank and asked how easy it was to set up a trading account. I was told it can’t be done over the ‘phone, and a visit to a branch would be necessary. I then asked whether anyone other than the account holder could set one up and was told there was no way that could be done.

To me, anyway, it makes it extremely clear that Johanna was a victim of a well organised crime. Combined with the inaccuracy of Natwest’s statement to her and the track record of the bank in paying bonuses to staff for identifying struggling businesses, denying them credit and then buying up the assets at rock bottom pricing before selling them at a profit (information from the BBC) it would seem inadvisable for anyone to use the RBS and its associated banks, such as Natwest.

Ian, you seem to be referring to bank transactions, e.g. direct debits. This is not about bank transactions but about card transactions. Card transactions are governed by card schemes (Visa and MasterCard), and apply both to credit cards and to debit cards. The 15:30 cut-off time to which you refer has nothing to do with card transactions.

Sorry, NFH; I didn’t make it clear that I’d also talked to the bank about debit card transactions which they confirmed could also be stopped by the authorised account holder. On that they gave no time limit.

Thank you so much for sharing your story.

I really think if everyone talks about how they have been scammed it will have a huge impact on fighting scams.

Thank you to Johanna for bravely sharing this story with us. Whatever your views, let’s remember how painful, distressing and upsetting this was for her as we discuss it.

I agree; Johanna deserves plaudits for going public with this and it’s only because of the honesty and courage of people like Johanna that we will, I hope, be able eventually to bring the banks into some sort of line.

I am glad for Joanna that she was fully reimbursed of her money but am rather puzzled as to why she agreed to hand over her debit card details on the ‘phone to a complete stranger. Would the outcome have been different if she had used her credit card instead?

Her case was yet another example of ‘If it looks too good to be true it probably is’ Anyone who has the odd £300 to give away in the faint hope of maximising on an unrealistic quick lucrative return when they don’t fully understand the risks involved is acting rather naively, bearing in mind that she made first contact with Bitcoin Loophole Had she donated that amount to a charity who, with the knowledge and expertise to invest it more wisely could have resulted in a more positive conclusion and feedback for her inasmuchas she had helped those less fortunate than herself.

Banks need to constantly emphasise and remind their customers the importance of using credit cards for any online or ‘phone transactions unless dealing with a well known and reputable company.

With regard to your final paragraph, I can’t see banks, who are debit card issuers, persuading their customers to instead use credit cards, which are typically issued by other card issuers. All card issuers receive revenue on every transaction, and they’re not going to give that up or persuade their customers to use their competitors’ cards.

I agree NFH. All credit card issuers need to advise their customers of the risks of using debit cards with online and ‘phone transactions. Are you able to answer the question in the first paragraph of my 28/03/19 comment?

“Would the outcome have been different if she had
used her credit card instead?”

Did the scammer tell Joanne they only accept debit cards, in which case alarm bells should have started ringing?

The following is an example of some of the tactics used by scammers. youtube.com – Robert Cialdini – The Power of Persuasion.

Beryl, financial services providers generally accept only debit cards. If they also accept credit cards, then they are obliged to indicate to the card issuer that the transaction is a money purchase transaction (sometimes known as a “cash-like” transaction), which many credit card issuers charge as a cash advance with consequent fees and interest that make it uneconomical to use a credit card. There are ways around this, for example Curve, which is a debit card linked to an underlying credit card, but using Curve breaks the creditor-debtor-supplier relationship under Section 75.

For typical purchases of goods and services, you are right to suggest that consumers should use credit cards in order to enjoy protection under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974.

Alex says:
3 April 2019

I’ve bin fraud 3 yrs ago by transferring 3k to an account which was a car I was buying but didn’t receive the car
. It was advertise on gum tree then contacted the sellers via email then scammer communicate with me through email n once called me to give me account number to transfer the money to that account. He sent me eBay invoice but it was fake and I couldn’t figure out despite I offer him to go thorough eBay to purchase it but the men was foreign n didn’t listen me n changed subject then hang up n sent me advertise look like eBay sending me but it was fake …so I transferred money then 22 hours later the scammer cut the connection no answer email nor phone calls meant to delivery car in 24 hrs sed but didn’t happen.. went bank complain n refer me to fraud action . Reported but nothing happend and bank even sed that that scammer account is closed plus 5 more transaction happend to that account mean 5pplwere scammed but Lloyds didn’t stop that despite seeing suspicion activities money going in then closing account plus no given info about acc holder to the fraud action dunno why? So are they any chance me to reimburse my lost? That impact my whole life even though I took that money day be4 as a loan from same bank Lloyd my bank .. now still paying that debts I’m overdraft every month even full time working pls help me guys anything can i do ?

What happened to you was theft, Alex, and the Police ought to have been investigating. One thing you said about Lloyds seeing ‘suspicious activity’ chimes with what others have said about Lloyds in particular, but I don’t know if you’d have any hope of getting anything back unless you could prove incompetence on their part. Which? Legal (subscription) might be able to help in this.

Charles Black says:
4 April 2019

This only goes to show how irresponsible – and unresponsive – banks are.
It is great that Which Money managed to get Joanna’s savings back.
If the bank had stopped the payment when asked – all the hardship and misery suffered by Joanna could have been avoided. £300 compensation doesn’t even start to compensate Joanna for what she went through.

Thank you for sharing your story Johanna. I am glad you were reimbursed, but puzzled at the same time.

How could a trading account be set up in your name, why pending payments could not be stopped and how money could be taken from ‘linked’ accounts.

My husband and I both bank with the same bank and have set up a separate joint account with no overdraft facility at our bank for one-off payments. The account has a permanent zero balance and we only transfer money into it when we have a payment to make.

Is it normal for banks to tap into other accounts if the account given for payment does not have sufficient funds to cover that payment? I will ask my bank the next time I phone them as the joint account is supposed to be our safety net.

alfa, it is not always popular to try to inquire too deeply into a sorry story, nor appear critical of the way someone who has suffered a financial loss might have behaved. Ian has found this in the ” Using cash got me out of more than £50k of debt” where what seemed a sensible comment was deemed insensitive (my words) and temporarily removed.

However some of us like to try to get at all the facts and this often requires more information than is given in the introduction. If the aim of a Convo is to make progress in finding ways of dealing with problems like scams then the full story behind someone’s problem is necessary.

So I questioned at the outset just how Johanna not only authorised a £300 payment, but then in her conversation went on to, inadvertently, set up a trading account and allow further payments to be taken that she did not intend. However, there have been no answers to this, as far as I can see. So the question is left hanging; did Mrs Butt, by not understanding what she was doing, allow this to happen or did she do nothing amiss and it is purely down to a failure of her bank?

I presume this comment may be removed 🙂 . Make no mistake, I have sympathy with Mrs Butt’s plight but we have to consider how we prevent such problems, not just express sympathy. I’ve suggested limiting (voluntarily) the type of transaction and value that can be performed on an account if someone does not fully understand the system. Maybe a limit on how much money can be moved online, a delay when separate authorisation is required, a list of authorised payees perhaps as examples..

Daniel Kelly says:
4 April 2019

Everyone seems to be blaming the banks. What about Facebook, who make money from hosting the ads?

Google pulled bitcoin ads a very long time ago but Facebook were continuing to push them. I always reported the ads as scams and I’m sure others must have reported them. They seem to have stopped now.

It was obvious that they were scams as the links led to spoofed BBC, CNN and other financial news pages. The URLs were clearly not of those organisations.

Facebook are amoral. Martin Lewis of Moneysaving Expert had to sue them to get spoofed ads showing his face taken down.

I also blame the regulatory authorities and the police who are just seem to lag years behind the fraudsters and also the courts who give out risible sentences.

Molly Nicholson says:
4 April 2019

I found the bit coin ad very tempting. It seemed so quick and simple, and foolproof. Luckily, my husband is very savvy about these things, so I didn’t bother! And I don’t remember any celebrity involvement. Just the sheer persuasiveness.

Don Sykes says:
1 June 2019

Only very recently I had the same advertisement suddenly appear on my computer screen, Dragons Den members recommending a Bitcoin trading system. I replied to it but fortunately quickly became suspicious because of the wording in the advert and later the aggressive attitude of the salesman, “called” `John Costa. He and another salesman continued to call back for two days until I in no uncertain words told them to stop. This is just to warn people that they are continuing to try to take whatever they can get. Be Careful.