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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 5 November 2008

[Frank Cook in the Chair]

Internet Fraud

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Steve McCabe.]

9.30 am

Dr. Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest) (Ind): It is a delight to see you in the Chair, Mr. Cook, and to see the Minister here, as well as a sprinkling of Members who survived the night and who managed to get up in time this morning. It is a huge privilege not only to have secured a debate on this subject but to have the very first debate after the earth-shattering events in America. I am pleased to be the first Member to congratulate Mr. Obama on dreaming the impossible dream and walking towards it.

I shall now bring us down to earth with a huge bump. What I shall discuss is terrible, but it is of crucial importance at this time of credit crunch, job losses and negative equity. The seeds have been sown for criminals to catch desperate, unwary people.

In the 1600s, the Duke of Buckingham stated:

Things have changed tremendously. Obviously, knaves are still the foes of truth, but it is no longer just fools as well. Every one of us can be caught by the incredible complexity and professionalism of scams that take place on the internet, by telephone and by letter.

I shall illustrate that with one disastrous, devastating case that has affected one of my constituents. I first heard about it when my constituent wrote to me in April. The first paragraphs of his letter state:

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): My hon. Friend is a wise, sincere and caring Member of Parliament, and he is right to bring this important matter to our attention. He will elucidate a specific case, but there is a general problem as well, and that is what I want to address. Not everything in Nigeria is working well, as we all know, but the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission is well focused. It is the best bet to tackle the source of the great proportion of internet crime, fraud and scams, which particularly target and hurt vulnerable British people. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government should target the source of fraud by giving even more support than they currently do to the EFCC?

Dr. Taylor: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I would rather leave it to the Minister to tell us what is being done and what can be done, but I take the point. Crucially, this is a cross-party matter, and I do not see a place anywhere for party point scoring.

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The person involved in the example that I am using to illustrate my case is a professional man. We cannot say that he is a fool. In retrospect, he was obviously unwise, but he is a professional man. He was told that he had won a huge sum of money on a foreign lottery but that it was held by Customs awaiting payment of duty. To my utter amazement, he paid £104,500—I do not know where he found it—as duty and then received a receipt, ostensibly on Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs paper. I have been told by HMRC that it is not a bad forgery. It stated:

The fraudsters then had the nerve to ask for more money:

That very convincing receipt was on what looked like official paper. Thank goodness the poor chap approached his lender for the £37,240—he thought that he would get half a million pounds, or something like that—and his lender smelled a rat. My constituent, still totally trusting, sent an apologising e-mail to the scammers and then got a most remarkable, defensive reply, which obviously let the cat out of the bag. The spelling and grammar were bad. It was from a firm called Asset Protection International, and included convincing information about the company, and photos and CVs of its directors, including their qualifications and family details.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): My hon. Friend is giving an example from his constituency, but I suspect that each and every one of us have received e-mails to tell us that we have won a prize in a Spanish lottery. In the midst of my delight at winning a Spanish lottery, the question I always ask myself is, did I buy a ticket? The answer is, no, I did not—therefore, how can I win a prize? Does my hon. Friend not think that there is an onus on people, when they receive such e-mails—he has said that his constituent is a professional man—to utilise at least an ounce of common sense and realise that one needs to buy a ticket to win a prize?

Dr. Taylor: Of course that is obvious in retrospect, but if a person is in desperate debt already and sees something that looks like salvation, will they remember that they did not buy a ticket? That is the whole problem. I shall come on to awareness, because the whole point of this debate is to raise awareness of the problem

Returning briefly to the example, I wrote to HMRC, which got further information from my constituent and is now working with the West Mercia police, the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the Association of Chief Police Officers, City of London police and the National Fraud Strategic Authority, but there is little hope of getting the chap’s money back.

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Since then, one of our local papers, The Kidderminster Chronicle, has issued warnings about false lottery winnings, huge legacies from long-lost relatives overseas and a soldier in Iraq who asked a lady to look after his money for him until he comes back. Other cases have been highlighted in the newspapers. The Sunday Mirror told of the terrible tragedy of an elderly lady who was £80,000 in debt. She could not afford heating and died of pneumonia. The Times wrote about elderly people in Westminster who were caught by a prize draw scam. Those are all examples of “phishing”, which aims to get money out of people or to obtain their identity details.

I have an extremely good assistant who weeds out my e-mails, but yesterday the spam filter—I nearly called it a scam filter—did not pick up something that came to my assistant, supposedly from Abbey National. It stated:

All someone has to do is just click on it. It is absolutely scandalous that our spam, or scam, filter even lets that through.

There is another aspect to this. I am grateful to the Federation of Small Businesses for letting me know that nearly 20 per cent. of small businesses feel that the risk of online fraud is a deterrent to their buying and selling online. Small businesses report that phishing e-mails are a continuing problem. Theft of internet domain names is also a huge issue, with fraudsters posing as legitimate businesses trying to draw customers away. Damage can be done to a business’s reputation.

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he share my concern that, in Wales, as a recent survey has revealed, only 35 per cent. of small businesses fully operate their financial procedures online? To emphasise the point that he has just made, more than 38 per cent. of them said that the threat of international fraud was a direct impediment to their developing their online services further.

Dr. Taylor: That is true. It is a huge deterrent to small businesses.

I thought that I had secured a debate free of medical interest and that I was going to break the mould, but I met the editor of the Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin recently who sent me a paper called “The counterfeiting superhighway”, by the European Alliance for Access to Safe Medicines, which mentions the huge numbers of online pharmacies that are putting at risk the people who use them. The foreword to that paper states:

The executive summary states:

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Some of the research published in the report is terrifying. In only 6.2 per cent. of online pharmacies is there a named, verifiable pharmacist; only 9.7 per cent. require a prescription for prescription-only medicines; 55 per cent. offer bulk discounts; and fewer than two in 10 physically exist, which means that they do not have a traceable bricks-and-mortar address.

The conclusion to the report states:

Here we have another example of ruthless criminals targeting the vulnerable.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): We all call the hon. Gentleman “My hon. Friend”, and rightly so. Does he agree that the one issue the Government need to tackle is the lack of hard, verifiable data about the scale of the scams, frauds and cybercrime that are taking place? Even when hon. Members try to extract information about numbers of arrests, prosecutions and convictions for such crimes, the answer routinely bounced back is that such information is not held centrally. We need to start doing that so we can treat this area with the importance that it deserves and allocate adequate resources to it.

Dr. Taylor: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. As I have said, I am leaving it to the Minister to give us the answers; but I have one or two suggestions for him, one of which is that we need a widely co-ordinated campaign of research to discover the depth of the problem and ways to produce awareness in the ordinary person. I hope that the Minister will help us in this way when he winds up. It is essential that we try to catch and punish the criminals, but doing so will be extremely difficult. Our job is to raise the awareness of the vulnerable so that they are less likely to be caught.

I have one suggestion, request or recommendation. However, first, I remind hon. Members of the marvellous little book, “Commons Knowledge”, written by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), which has 10 commandments for Back-Bench Members of Parliament, including,

and “seek the silent voices”. It is these people whom we are trying to protect: the older people living alone, suffering hardship because of inadequate pensions and because their savings have gone long ago. They are soft targets, and they are subject to scams by phone, by letter and, sometimes, by e-mail.

Mr. Evans: This is a timely debate. Since we are talking about raising awareness, does the hon. Gentleman agree that financial institutions have a duty to protect their customers? They are only too ready to send us letters and communications about all the services that they sell, yet they are not taking responsibility for informing customers about phishing attacks and how to better protect themselves. Is it not about time that the banks and financial institutions took some responsibility for protecting their own customers?

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Dr. Taylor: In an ideal world, yes. The huge problem is that I am beginning to distrust anything that comes from my bank by e-mail or mail. I am rather confused about the whole thing.

How do we get at ordinary people to warn them? Already, there have been lots of efforts at warning people on the internet and in the press, but a huge co-ordinated awareness campaign on TV, radio, press and internet is needed, so that few people can miss it and so that the elderly who do miss it can be warned by their relatives, friends, home helps or visiting nurses. I would hate to invent yet another special day, much as I would hate to invent another all-party group, but we could have a scam alert day—SAD—because it is sad that we need it. What day could we have that on? What is the saddest day of the year? It is the first Monday after the new year holiday. Monday is always sad, so scam alert day should be the first Monday in the new year.

When such a day is launched, a slogan is needed. In the 1700s, Lord Chesterfield had the slogan

We have the modern equivalent of that already—although I did not invent it. That slogan is, “If it’s too good to be true, it’s not true.” We must blazon that abroad.

I think, Mr. Cook, that you are nearly as ancient as I am, so you will remember various slogans from the war that will never be forgotten—for example, “Coughs and sneezes spread diseases” and “Careless talk costs lives”. Why do we remember them? Because they were associated with a brilliant cartoon. On scam alert day, we need a huge cartoon to be launched with the caption, “If it’s too good to be true, it’s not true.”

If hon. Members will allow me a moment of levity, I shall describe the cartoon I would draw—if I could draw. The cartoon would be of Pinocchio, who was caught by a terrible scam, promised all sorts of goodies and went to the land where they were turned into donkeys. However, he had a conscience—Jiminy Cricket—who was a beautifully dressed cricket with a big badge saying “conscience”. My cartoon would have a picture of Jiminy Cricket lecturing Pinocchio and saying, “If it’s too good to be true, it’s not true.”

I really think we could do something to tackle this problem. Like Barack Obama walking towards the impossible dream, if we could raise the awareness of these scams so that people no longer take them up, in the words of the South African author Bryce Courtenay, we could

9.52 am

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): It is a delight to see you so early in the morning, Mr. Cook, and to be under your tutelage. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) on raising the issue. Like him, I passionately use the internet and could not exist without it; we google for Britain daily. We learn a lot from the internet, but the downside of it is the scams that take place, some of which he has described. I shall discuss some of medical scams that take place and are a problem.

The first scam I shall talk about is the genetic health warning. I have had permission to do so from Professors
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Clarke and Frayling, who have not published the information yet—although it is in the process of being published. They are both at the Institute of Medical Genetics at Cardiff university and are very senior individuals. Professors Clarke and Frayling talk about a recent TV programme “The Killer in Me”, which showed four celebrities carrying out a battery of genetic tests.

The website of the company Genetic Health states:

The information produced by Professors Clarke and Frayling states:

They take issue with the programme because it is accessible on the internet. Their argument will come out and will I am sure be on TV again. Some of the seductive techniques used to do the tests are exemplified in their paper, which also takes issue with

The paper asks:

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