"I was scammed out of my life savings": Why young fraud victims are on the rise

Natalie Gil
·14-min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

From Cosmopolitan

In many people’s minds, a stereotypical scam victim is trusting, gullible and most likely, elderly. But, in actual fact, millennials are the most likely age group to be caught up in scams involving handing money, according to figures from Lloyds Bank last year.

“People of any age can fall victim to scams and younger people can actually be more at risk,” Neena Bhati, head of campaigns at Which?, tells Cosmopolitan. This is because of their “confidence online and willingness to take part in certain activities, such as quizzes or shopping on social media sites, that are often hooks used by fraudsters.”

At the same time, research by Which? found that 73% of 18-34-year-old social media users said they were confident they could spot a scam. It’s clear, then, that many young people are more susceptible to scams than they think.

Alicia*, 21, from Liverpool, lost her life savings last year when she and her friend each bank transferred £2,500 for a flat to a man claiming to be a landlord. Believing he was legitimate, they also handed over personal information including passport details and their previous addresses. Here, Alicia shares her story.

“At the beginning of 2020, having just finished university in Liverpool, my friend Beth* and I decided we wanted to live in Manchester. I'd grown up in the city but hadn't really experienced it as an adult, while Beth had never lived there. We had both come into a bit of inheritance from deceased relatives so thought, what better way to spend it by starting up our new lives in Manchester? My dad passed away when I was nine, so when I turned 21 I got access to about £7,000 to set me up after uni. I used most of it to pay off university debt, and was left with about £3,000.

We started looking for flats but couldn’t find anything. Then, at the end of January, someone I followed on social media, a guy named Jack* who I'd matched with on Tinder the year before, was advertising flats on Snapchat with photographs, floor plans, and prices. Impressed at what I saw, and feeling comfortable enough to reach out considering we'd been chatting casually on and off for months, I asked if one of them was available to view. "Sure," he typed back quickly. "Come take a look."

"When Jack answered all our questions, we felt at ease that everything was legitimate. We could hardly believe our luck."

On the day of the viewing, we met Jack just around the corner of the building. He was dressed casually in shorts, which seemed unusual for a letting agent. But he was confident - carrying a file of documents about the property. He looked just like his online profile, and he had a Manchester accent like mine, which made me warm to him.

Looking around the flat for the first time, I could feel a buzz of excitement between Beth and I. The decor was chic and minimalist, it had two perfect-sized bedrooms, a balcony, and was in our ideal location. It was in a very secure building with a fob entrance, a gym, a cinema room and a concierge - all for £800 a month, which was within our price range. In short, it was perfect. When Jack self-assuredly answered all our questions, we felt at ease that everything was legitimate. We could hardly believe our luck.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

When we told him we’d fallen in love with the flat and that we wanted to secure it right away, Jack left the room to take a call. We nervously waited, but when he came back, his face fell flat. He explained that someone had put in a higher offer, but went on to say that because he knew me and could see how much we liked it, he'd take us as tenants if we put our deposit down immediately. "It would have to be done instantly," Jack warned, "or the property manager will put it back on the market."

A flash of doubt went through my mind as I contemplated whether we were rushing into it. But any suspicion disappeared just as quickly as it had arrived; it made sense that there would be others interested, I told myself. It was such a nice apartment. We’d seen the flat and he clearly had keys. Eager to avoid losing the opportunity, we hastily agreed.

Jack took photos of our passports and other information, including our last three addresses to do credit checks. It was all very thorough, and although we were told the property manager was called ‘Mark’, we never spoke to him, just received the occasional email about the agreement process.

The next day, we went to the bank and transferred £1,300 for the deposit - but a warning came back saying the details didn’t match the account. Worried, we asked a woman working at the bank for advice. She reassured us that it seemed legitimate because we had a tenancy agreement and various other paperwork; her estimation was that it was probably just a slight inconsistency in the name of the account and nothing to worry about. We agreed, and after ringing Jack - who had spoken to 'Mark' and confirmed it was just a glitch - sent the first lot of money.

Two weeks passed in a haze of browsing cute interiors online, but we were stopped in our tracks when Jack called to say Beth's credit score was too low for the property manager to be comfortable with. If we wanted the flat, we’d have to pay three months rent up front. Stressed was an understatement; it was a lot of money, but we knew we’d be missing out if we didn’t get the flat – so we paid up another £2,400 and received confirmation emails, receipts and signed tenancy agreements in exchange.

"Stressed was an understatement; it was a lot of money, but we’d be missing out if we didn’t get the flat – so we paid up."

Having got the paperwork out of the way, we were relieved. It was late April, and we were just eight weeks away from moving into the flat of our dreams, so we began buying buying bits to furnish and decorate it. Being in lockdown at the time, we bought everything online, and before we knew it had spent £1,000. It was probably excessive, but we wanted to make our new flat feel like a home.

Then, out of the blue, things took a turn. Curious to find out more about the parking situation at the flat, I called the building directly, only to discover they had no knowledge of anyone being due to move into our apartment. My stomach dropped, panic flooding in as I began to imagine it had all been a big sham. Within the next few breaths, however, the lady on the phone reassured me it could very well still be possible that the move was going ahead as planned; it was a large complex and some of the flats are privately owned, so it was sometimes tricky to keep track of what was being let, and to who. I got off the phone and called Jack immediately, only to be met by his now-familiar relaxed attitude. He had answers to everything, and reassured us it was all fine, which put Beth and I at ease.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

May rolled around, and just a month before the move Jack got in contact again to offer us 'COVID insurance' for £300 each. At first we were sceptical, but then he explained this would mean that if we failed to find jobs after the first three months, our rent would be covered by insurers. It sounded appealing. He sent across a screenshot of the government website, the familiar font depicting the insurance plan just as he'd described it, there in black and white. I hadn’t personally heard of COVID insurance before, but everything surrounding the pandemic was new; there were so many coronavirus initiatives and regulations being introduced that it was easy to believe it was just another one of those. Plus, as new graduates entering the job market for the first time, it sounded helpful, so we found the money and paid him without looking into it any further.

Before we knew it, it was June - and the day before we were due to move. As I scooped up the last of my belongings – having booked the removal van, packed our things into boxes and said goodbye to our friends – my phone rang. It was Jack, calling to say we couldn’t move in to the flat until we'd had COVID tests. Perturbed, Beth and I spoke to our families, who agreed this sounded dodgy. After a quick Google search brought up nothing about this apparent 'rule', we started doing some digging into our landlord.

"Not only had he taken our money, but now we had nowhere to live. I felt crushed and humiliated."

We discovered an old Facebook page of his, which had a mutual friend in common. I contacted her to ask what she knew of him, and she told me Jack was known to be a scam artist in the area and warned us to be careful. I could feel myself going cold as I scrolled through her messages, learning that Jack had scammed his best friend by taking out loans in his name, and that he'd even stolen thousands of pounds from his own grandma. The nugget of doubt that had been quietly festering inside over the past six months had been proven correct. Within a matter of moments, it had morphed from a tiny seed into an all-consuming sense of dread. We had been completely taken in by him.

Not only had he taken our money, but now we had nowhere to live. I felt crushed and humiliated. I tried to comfort Beth, but all I could think was, 'How could we have been so naïve?'

We decided not to confront Jack immediately, trying instead to work out what to do. As his deceitful messages continued to roll in - "See you tomorrow for moving day" - we grew increasingly furious. Some further digging revealed Jack wasn’t even in the country – he was in Ibiza on holiday, and hadn’t let on on social media. The next morning, on what should have been our moving day, I opened Snapchat to check whether he'd posted and realised he'd blocked me. Beth too. Every call was met by an automated voicemail, over and over again.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

We'd known since the day before that it was all a sham, but this made it feel more real. Having no way of contacting Jack - no way of being able to tell him how awful he was - made me feel completely powerless. I was so angry; angry at myself for trusting him, at our families for not warning us, and most of all at Jack because he'd stolen from us and then vanished like a ghost.

We cancelled the removal van and told our families what had happened.

Hopeful, we decided to show up at the flat anyway to speak to the real landlords and tell them what had happened. I wanted more than anything for them to be able to help. But they were unsympathetic and bluntly told us there was nothing they could do.

We asked if they could check who had been staying in the flat, as Jack must have lived there - or known who did - to be able to access the building. They said the only way to do that would be if the police requested CCTV, but added that the CCTV gets wiped anyway. We were at the point of despair; no-one wanted to help. It was time to accept the loss and move on.

The fact Beth and I had each other throughout the whole ordeal helped a lot. At first, there was clear tension and we argued constantly; I was the one who 'knew' Jack and I suggested we look at the flat originally. Beth never explicitly blamed me, but I felt guilty. We both lost the same amount of money.

"Now I find it difficult to trust that people are who they say they are."

More than anything, it has affected our future plans. We now owe a lot of money to family who helped us at the time, and I haven’t yet been able to earn back the money I lost. Last year's long lockdown meant everywhere was shut and we couldn’t get jobs. I only got a job in October after months of searching, so I was on Universal Credit until then, and Beth still hasn’t found a job over half a year later. Instead of moving to Manchester, we decided to stay in Liverpool until we get back on our feet. We’re currently living in a six-bed house share in one of the roughest parts of the city. We both find it difficult to trust that people are who they say they are.

It was our own fault for being so naïve, but it was the first time we’d moved without help from a student housing department and Jack made it all feel so straight forward. While we made lots of mistakes in hindsight, no-one is ever too smart to fall for a scam like this – fraudsters know what they’re doing and, as our experience showed, they can hide behind social media.

Like most graduates, I had high expectations for my life after university – I thought I’d be living in a boujie flat in the middle of Manchester by now, but I’ve since realised that it’s not as easy as that. Going forward, I’ll remind myself that if something seems too good to be true, then it probably is."

How to protect yourself from financial scams

Anyone making a money transfer should follow the advice of the Take Five to Stop Fraud campaign and stop and think before parting with money or information.

  • Stop – take a minute and think about parting with your money

  • Challenge – could it be fake? You can reject, refuse or ignore requests for money, only criminals would try to rush or panic you

  • Protect – if you think you’ve fallen for a scam, contact your bank immediately and report it to Action Fraud

“Often criminals will pose as genuine organisations such as banks, the police, government departments, retailers or utility companies, and it can be difficult to spot when requests for payments are genuine,” says Amber Burridge, head of fraud intelligence at Cifas, which works to reduce and prevent fraud and financial crime.

One way to check you’re sending money to the right person or organisation is to check that the name you’re sending the money to matches the name on the receiving account through the Confirmation of Payee scheme, Burridge adds. “Many banks now offer this scheme, which warns you if the names don’t match. If this happens, question the recipient and if you don’t feel comfortable, don’t make the payment.”

If you’ve lost money to a scam, it’s often possible to get your money back, although the process might be time consuming and inconvenient. If you paid using a credit or debit card your money should be covered by card protections. Ask your bank if you’re eligible to claim using chargeback or Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act. When you use PayPal, your money should be protected by its Buyer Protection policy and you can make a claim through your PayPal account. If you paid using a bank transfer, contact your bank as soon as possible and ask if it can help you.

And most of all, just think twice about what details you're handing over to who.

*Names have been changed

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