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Having spent his career working in the corporate sector, Simon de Laat retired from his job as Managing Director of a food company in 2016 so that he could dedicate his time to volunteering for causes close to his heart. We spoke to him about his move over to the charity sector and how volunteering with Victim Support is allowing him to help his local community tackle fraud.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got into volunteering full time?

I spent my working life in the corporate world working in the food industry. I was lucky to work in a sector that interested me as food has always been a passion of mine. But a couple of years ago I made the decision to step down from the commercial world so I could focus more of my time on my volunteering.

As well as working as a Victim Support volunteer, I also have a voluntary role supporting the fundraising team at East Anglian Air Ambulance as well as working for Samaritans. They’re all very varied and different roles. At East Anglian Air Ambulance I do a lot of fundraising so I talk to local groups as well big companies and even at concerts and conferences such as the WI. I also work as a Director and Trustee for the Samaritans in West Suffolk which can involve anything from recruitment of volunteers through to working as a listening volunteer answering calls, texts and emails from those struggling to cope.  I find this particularly rewarding.

What does your role at Victim Support entail?

I’ve worked as a volunteer at Victim Support since the beginning of 2016 and while I have worked with victims of various crimes, my particular focus is on fraud. Once you start talking about money and computers many people’s eyes glaze over and they’re not that interested. But there are so many different scams happening of which people really need to be aware.

In what ways are victims of fraud affected?

People are often left feeling humiliated and blame themselves for ‘falling for’ these scams but I see a mix of people who have become victims to fraud. While a typical victim could be a single older person, I have worked with a range of people including someone who worked for a bank who was personally defrauded of a significant sum. If you catch people at an unguarded moment, it’s amazing what you can get them to do.

The thing with supporting victims of fraud and scams is that it can have quite a complex impact. Some fraud cases take place over quite a long period of time with the victim being groomed for money or information before the actual sting takes place.

Victims are often left feeling violated; people unknown to them have had access to their bank accounts, know all their personal information such as date of birth, address etc. This can also be an ongoing issue as once someone has access to this information they can continue to use it to defraud them in the future. There are Facebook pages and websites on the Dark Web where personal information is bought and sold. The most concerning thing is you can change your passwords but you can’t change your personal information.

These attacks often target vulnerable people, many of whom are not very ‘tech-savvy’. Once they’ve been through something like this it can make them very suspicious of technology which, in turn, may isolate them further.  They become unwilling to use the online platforms that we are all so reliant on today for completing many day-to-day tasks and communicating with people such as family and friends.

What different types of scams are out there that people should be aware of?

There are several different types of scams but there are a few that have stuck in my mind. There is a very sophisticated scam where emails and texts are sent out claiming to be from HMRC informing you that you are due a refund for a relatively modest sum of a few hundred pounds. When you click the link you are taken to an accurate clone of the HMRC website where it will ask you to enter your bank card details to claim the refund. From there they have access to your account and have been known to take large sums of money from people.

A devastating scam is what is often referred to as the ‘Friday Afternoon Scam’. This is when fraudsters intercept emails between house buyers and solicitors. They can search for unsecure emails to hack that contain certain key words such as ‘buy’ or ‘sell’ ‘house’ and clone the email address of the solicitor. They then email you themselves, changing the solicitor’s bank details, so you end up transferring your entire deposit, or even all the cost of the house, directly to the criminals. These situations can be life-changing for people as there is no one at fault or liable as you made the transfer yourself and, therefore, with no way of getting that money back. The solicitors aren’t at fault and it is nothing to do with the bank. The victim can lose everything!

How do you approach support?

In the first instance I would talk with someone over the phone explaining what has happened.  To begin with it is usually about helping them to understand how this has happened to them as people still might not be aware of the scam or how it works. The next step is to make sure they are no longer vulnerable to a follow-up attack. Changing passwords to secure ones and informing the bank and/or credit card companies is vital. If the attack has used Facebook information they should warn their friends that they could be the next victims as criminals will often use Facebook friends as their next target. Never ever put anything on social media saying you’ve been scammed! The best option is to take down all social media and start again.

Is there anything you can do to help people get their money back?

Getting money back from banks can be very difficult. They can only help you if they believe that you have handed over your details in good faith – because if you have handed over your details you can be held liable – and this is where those feelings of guilt and shame can be reinforced for the victim. The regulations are changing later this year so that banks are more likely to presume the victim acted in good faith and was not negligent in any way.

Also, if the scam can’t be proved to be operating from this country then the police here can’t do much about it – unless it’s a huge international network linked to something bigger; only then might it be worth them investigating. If it’s a scam from outside the UK the chance of getting your money back is zero.

What do I enjoy most about this role?

I’m usually the one doing the talking – both personally and professionally – so it’s great to take some time to really listen to people when they most need it and really hear what they’re saying. I also hope I can assist them in staying safe online in the future.

Do you have any advice to people to help keep themselves protected?

I think my main advice would be to be suspicious of everything. If you get a text or an email from someone you’re not expecting – don’t click the link. A text can do the same damage to your smartphone as clicking an email link on a computer. Never share bank details online – do this over the phone or in person and if you are transferring a large sum of money you should transfer £1 first and check it has arrived safely to ensure you have the right details before sending the full amount. Remember, no bank will ever ask you for your PIN or full password over the phone. If someone calls you and says they are from the police and they want you to do something, put the phone down and call from another phone – either 999 if you feel you’re in imminent danger or 101 and ask for the caller by name and collar number (the number unique to each police officer in your local force).