Research published by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) just before Christmas revealed that UK consumers are being conned to the tune of £3.5 billion every single year. The detailed analysis suggests that nearly half of the adult population of the UK has been targeted by a scam, and as many as one in fifteen, or 3.2 million people, fall victim to such fraud and lose an average of £850 each. Investment scams were most lucrative with an average pay-off of £5,660 per victim, followed by African 419 advance fee fraud on £5000, property investment scams at £4,240, holiday club schemes at £3,030 and foreign lottery scams at £1,900.

The total fraud can be broken down as £1.2 billion to bogus holiday clubs, £490 million in high risk investment fraud, £420 million pyramid style get-rich-quick schemes and £260 million for lottery scams. Frighteningly enough, the survey also revealed that a victim has a 30% chance of being scammed again within a year of the first sting, not least because there is evidence that their personal details are included on a ‘suckers list’ which gets sold between the scammer organizations.

Although anyone can fall victim to these things, the common belief that it is the elderly who are most at risk is exposed as a misconception as most victims were actually aged between 35 and 44. Women are most likely to fall for a ‘miracle health’ or ‘clairvoyant’ scam while men are mugs for ‘investment’ and ‘advance fee’ fraud. But the biggest shock has to be the fact that only 5% of those scammed actually reported the experience to the police, one can only assume because they felt so stupid at getting conned in the first place.

As unlikely as it may sounds, the European Union seems to think it can combat email based phishing scams with red tape. The ‘Consumer Protection Co-operation’ regulations due to come into force this month, are being touted as the answer to those ‘rogue traders’ that prey on consumers across European borders. Why should a set of EU regulations make any difference? Simply put, the regulations on their own might not but the cross border network of national enforcement bodies which is being established to accompany the CPC rules could well do. Although the precise details of these bodies will vary fro country to country within the EU, as far as the UK goes it will fall under the remit of the Office of Fair Trading.

This is, I think, a good thing on the whole even though I am usually far from enthusiastic about European Union led directives and initiatives as they tend to have more to do with political back-scratching than real world solutions. CPC regulations could well be the exception to that rule, because these email scammers rely on being able to hide behind borders across Europe in order to stay out of the reach of their victims. Typically, these will be the criminals operating fake lottery winner scams or holiday club and timeshare frauds. Bringing some joined up enforcement to bear Europe-wide has got to be the right way forward, energizing consumer confidence in the Internet once more and by so doing giving ecommerce a much needed boost as well.