As the tax deadline looms, FLIC EVERETT shares a cautionary tale

My son saved me from a £5,000 phone fraud: As the tax deadline looms, FLIC EVERETT shares a cautionary tale

  • HMRC recently reported that fake tax emails and calls increased by 74 per cent 
  • Flic Everett received a suspicious phone call from a central Manchester number 
  • Recalls how son Tom, 28, was able to stop her from being scammed £4,993.75

As I was hurrying through Manchester late last year, on my way to meet my son Tom for lunch in that all-too-brief period between lockdowns, my mobile phone rang in my pocket.

A voice said: ‘Is that Felicity Everett? This is Robert Walker from the HMRC Collections office, and we need to speak to you urgently. We’ve been trying to contact you for several weeks.’

My heart sped up. I have been financially stupid in the past and ended up with a large tax bill I couldn’t pay one year. I’m self-employed as a writer, with a fluctuating income, but I am now always careful to pay bills on time.

Because the voice sounded so authoritative, I immediately assumed I was in the wrong. It was a central Manchester number — the tax office I’d always dealt with was in Manchester — so I assumed the call represented a forgotten hangover from a long-ago bill. It never occurred to me that it could be a scam.

Flic Everett received a suspicious phone call from someone claiming to be Robert Walker from the HMRC Collections office. Pictured: Flic with son Tom

In the past, scammers would generally phone vulnerable older people, urging them to part with credit card details. Now, fraudsters are much more sophisticated — and in this week of the January 31 tax deadline, you can expect them to ramp up their activities yet further.

The pandemic has provided these cruel fraudsters with particularly rich pickings. Over the first lockdown, HMRC reported that fake tax emails and calls had risen by 74 per cent since the start of last year. And bank fraud shot up by 66 per cent as scammers sought to take advantage of the disruption and the new technology many were using at home.

The ‘unpaid tax bill’ phone scam — to which I was falling prey that day — is increasingly common.

‘What’s it about?’ I asked my caller, rather than, as I should have, hanging up and calling the genuine HMRC number to check (you can look up HMRC call centre phone numbers on gov.uk or by using the number on a trusted piece of correspondence, such as your last tax code letter).

‘Your outstanding debt has been passed to our offices for collection and the payment deadline is today,’ said the man on the phone coldly. ‘If we don’t receive funds by 2pm, this will go to court and I have no further power to stop that happening.’

I felt sick with fright. It simply didn’t occur to me that this call might not be legitimate.

Losing my good credit rating with a court order against me was a horrifying thought. ‘How much do I owe?’ I asked, leaning against a wall, legs shaking.

‘£4,993.75,’ he answered.

‘What for?’ I shrieked.

So the caller put me through to another ‘tax collections officer’, ‘John Samuels’, who went into a long, believable explanation about interest on my unpaid bills adding up over the years, itemising each one.

Flic (pictured) explained to her son Tom, 28, that she had to pay £4,993.75 by 2pm to avoid going to court 

As luck — bad rather than good — would have it, I had exactly £5,000 in my savings account, put aside for this year’s tax bill. This sudden demand would wipe it out. I agreed to call back and, as I ended the call, trembling, my son Tom, now 28, arrived.

Explaining what had just happened, I told him I’d have to cancel the restaurant I’d booked for us. Tom, who is both clever and sceptical, looked suspicious. ‘It sounds dodgy,’ he said. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes!’ I insisted. ‘They had all my details, they knew my address, it was definitely real.’

‘Look, call your accountant,’ said Tom. ‘Just to check.’

My parents live in Manchester. We raced back to their house and I ran upstairs to call my accountancy firm, but I was put through to a recorded message: ‘We are on a training day today and the office is closed.’

I only had 20 minutes left before the deadline I’d been set. ‘Robert’ called back again to talk me through payment.

‘Because it has gone as far as Collections, you’ll need to pay via a special section of the HMRC website,’ he said.

He asked me to log on to HMRC’s site, supply my details and password, then guided me through to a payment page. He told me: ‘I’m going to give you the bank details to input as you’ll be paying directly to Collections — put those in first, then your card number.’

Tom used the government page that allows taxpayers to check the legitimacy of a phone call or email to reveal the scammer (file image)

I was half-way through typing them in when Tom burst into my room, out of breath from galloping up three flights of stairs. ‘Stop!’ he bellowed. ‘It’s a scam! Don’t pay!’

In retrospect, it’s terrifying how willing I was to believe some random stranger on the phone over my own son. ‘It’s fine!’ I snapped. ‘Look, it’s the right website. I have to pay now.’

‘Let me talk to him,’ said Tom. I handed over the phone. ‘So you’re from HMRC?’ Tom said. ‘Where’s your office? Can you direct me to the webpage where I can see your job details?’

Unlike me, he knew that there is a government page that allows taxpayers to check the legitimacy of a phone call or email purporting to be from HMRC (gov.uk/guidance/check-a-list-of-

genuine-hmrc-contacts).

‘Tom!’ I hissed. ‘Don’t be so disrespectful!’

He ignored me. ‘Oh, is that right? And your name’s Robert, is it? I see, yes, and you’re full of ****,’ said Tom, and hung up.

Embarrassingly, I still refused to believe it was a scam. However, Tom explained that he had suddenly remembered getting a similar text a few weeks earlier, which, sensibly, he’d ignored, and rushed to stop me paying.

HMRC has responded to more than 846,000 referrals of suspicious HMRC contact from the public, and reported more than 15,500 malicious web pages to service providers (file image)

I looked up the genuine number of my local tax office online, and finally rang HMRC to check the situation.

‘No, you have no bills outstanding,’ said the kindly man on the phone. ‘We would never do this. We give you time to pay. Ignore any calls that say otherwise. There are a lot of scams.’

In the past 12 months alone, in fact, HMRC has responded to more than 846,000 referrals of suspicious HMRC contact from the public, and reported more than 15,500 malicious web pages to service providers.

I have never felt so foolish. I was a cynical 49-year-old journalist and, yet, all it took was a deep, commanding voice and a few good guesses to dismantle all my safeguards.

‘You’ll never be asked to make a financial transaction on the basis of an email from a legitimate organisation. You will always be sent a link to the real website,’ says Russell Winnard, director of finance advice charity Young Money.

‘With calls, ring them back on the main customer number. Ask to be put through. Be wary and never take a request for money at face value.’

If only one person is as easily fooled as I was, that could be a life ruined. I was lucky I was with my son that day. If I ever get a call like that again, I won’t hesitate to cut them off — and take my son for that very well-deserved lunch.

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