We got conned a couple of weeks ago – as, according to Action Fraud, were 504,489 other people during the past 13 months. That’s right. Nearly half a million people in the UK have had money stolen from them in little over a year by gangs of fraudsters – to the tune of £1.26 billion pounds. The figures are staggering.
For us this wasn’t the first time we’ve been victims, though, hopefully, it will be the last. What surprised, apart from our own naivete, was how simple the con was. It involved timing, a two man team, parking machine tampering, and a degree of convincing acting. It also involved good luck for the conmen, and bad luck for us.
What happened was that my wife, Plum, and I went for a drive to Fulham Palace, which is less than two miles from where we live in West London. She was driving. I didn’t have my debit cards on me, so, when we arrived at a leafy road by some tennis courts, Plum phoned the number on the lamp-post so that she could pay the parking for our car.
For some reason she got a recorded message from RingGo telling her that her account had been suspended. This was a surprise since she didn’t know that she had an account with RingGo. But, just then, coincidentally, a man in chinos and a white shirt, appeared at the driver’s door.
Were we having difficulty parking, he asked, as though that was a common complaint around there? If so, we should use the parking machine further along the road.
I assumed he was probably a friendly local resident. Plum imagined he might be a parking machine engineer who worked for the council. So when he offered to show her where the machine was, she happily accompanied him, while I sat in the car and watched some children playing tennis.
When Plum reached the machine she put her debit card into the slot and keyed in her PIN number to pay for one hour’s parking. Promptly the machine swallowed her card. At which point the helpful stranger made a phone call to, she assumed, his colleagues who ran the parking in the area, and then handed his phone to Plum.
The ‘colleague’ then suggested that Plum stand by her car for about twenty minutes and someone would come to retrieve her card.
She then returned to me and told me what had happened. I was suspicious, even more so, as the ‘helpful’ man was now nowhere to be seen.
Quickly we drove home and logged into Plum’s bank account. £250 had been taken from it fifteen minutes earlier at an ATM outside a branch of Tesco in London’s Fulham Road. A further £77.40 had also just been spent on groceries inside the shop.
We immediately informed the bank, RingGo, Hammersmith and Fulham, who are the local authority in charge of parking machines, and the police. What we couldn’t understand was how the scam had worked. But, with the help of the police, we’ve now begun to put it together. It seems we fell for a version of fraud that is now known in the con trade as the ‘Lebanese loop’.
For the crooks operating the Lebanese loop, the location of the sting is important, and these guys chose well. Selecting a nice, leafy, residential area, they probably inserted an invisible strip of plastic or maybe videotape into the slot of a parking machine.
The next stage began when one member of the team waited and watched for victims to come along – what conmen call the ‘mark’.
In retrospect, we can see that we must have looked like the perfect mark – two elderly, unsuspecting people out for a quiet stroll around the Bishop’s Palace Gardens. We couldn’t have been more obvious if we’d had a bullseye painted on our backs.
The main conman must have seen us arrive and park our car. All he had to do was to casually stroll past us, notice our moment’s dilemma over parking, and offer help. It never occurred to either of us to ask for any kind of identification. You don’t, do you, when someone is doing you a favour?
So, Plum walked about fifty yards with the conman to the parking machine and put her debit card into the doctored slot. Did the conman see the PIN number that she put in? She wasn’t aware of him watching at the time, but she now thinks he must have done. Then she waited in vain for the card to be returned.
Instead the Lebanese loop clung on to the card inside the machine. All the conman had to do now was to get Plum to turn away from the parking machine long enough for him to withdraw the Lebanese loop (with her debit card attached) from the machine and make himself scarce. His accomplice’s suggestion that Plum wait by her car saw to that.
Within a few minutes the friendly engineer/neighbour was at Tesco, a mile away, helping himself to a total of £327-40 of Plum’s money via her debit card and her PIN number. The whole scam had probably taken no more than twenty minutes.
Even Covid seems to have been on the side of the conmen. The Metropolitan Police have investigated the crime and viewed the CCTV coverage both inside and outside Tesco.
The man who used Plum’s debit card was, we’ve been told, just like the guy she trusted, wearing chinos and a white shirt. But, as, by the time he withdrew the money, he was also wearing a big blue mask and had a hat pulled down over his eyes, ‘any identifiable facial features were hidden’, the police said. The case is now closed.
‘It happens all the time,’ the investigating police officer told me. ‘It even happened to my wife.’
He was very helpful, but he added that there was nothing further that the police could do other than keep the incident on file. And as Plum’s bank told her ‘it’s happening time and again’.
It’s a plague. According to UK Finance, stolen debit and credit cards were used in 2020 to rob £78.9 million from people like you and me – Action Fraud adding that the lockdown has shown an increase of 28% in fraud offences.
Plum and I feel like fools for being so easily taken in. But, in truth, almost anyone at any age can be caught out by an accomplished conman. The world in which we live is built on trust. The vast majority of us would never dream of stealing anything; we don’t know anyone who would. Do you?
Now and again, as in this case, we will sometimes find that our trust has been abused, that we’ve been robbed. But that’s rare. It’s happened to me only two or three times in my entire life. The honesty of those around us is presumed. It’s part of what holds society together.
As it turned out, Plum’s bank quickly reimbursed all the money that was stolen, so she’s no worse off. But, of course, everyone who has an account with her bank will unknowingly have helped re-pay her; and everyone else who’s been robbed, too – Payment Services Directive saying that 98% of all card thefts are refunded by banks.
Such losses to banks are factored in when interest rates and charges are set, meaning that it’s hardly a victimless crime, as it often is regarded. We all pay in the end.
So, how can we protect ourselves from fraudsters in the future? Most obviously we must never let anyone else see us put our PIN number into a parking machine or an ATM. And if a parking machine swallows a card that is a sure sign that someone has tampered with it. Should that happen we must immediately phone our bank and cancel the card.
It’s behind us now, and Plum and I have learned a lesson – although in my case an ironic one. You see, I once spent a whole year devising ingenious cons and writing scripts for an ITV series called Perfect Scoundrels, which starred Peter Bowles and Bryan Murray as a couple of conmen.
At least my fictional villains didn’t use the Lebanese loop against a couple of pensioners who were simply out for a drive to see the gardens at a bishop’s palace.
(This is a longer version of the article that appeared in the Daily Mail)