‘We know where you live’: Phone scammers threatened me in my house

We know everything about you. We know where you live.

It sounds like a threat straight out of a Hollywood thriller. Only I wasn’t at the cinema, I was in my kitchen on a Saturday night and this wasn’t idle harassment. A cocky young man with an East London accent had just called my mobile and indeed read out my address.

My heart was beating. The threat felt as immediate as if he had just personally broken through my front door.

Trying to control my breathing so it wouldn’t give me away, I asked what he wanted. “Fifty sovs (pounds) and we’ll leave you alone.”

Now I’m in my fifties, live in London and protect myself quite successfully. I have only been the victim of a crime once, 35 years ago, when my pocket was picked in Rome. I suspected that ’50 sovs’ would not be the end of his demands.

Sarah Cottwood received repeated calls from a scammer who told her ‘we know where you live’ and that she ‘didn’t need to know’ who they were

How on earth did I end up here, threatened by a thief? It started with a pair of earrings from the Danish brand Anni Lu, which is offered by Liberty and Selfridges.

I wanted to treat myself and these were perfect. They were only £39, but out of habit I googled them to see if I could find them cheaper. My search revealed a website where they cost (and still are) 223 Danish Krone, or £25.60. If I had researched the site, I would have found that the digital footprint is small.

Strangely enough, since it has nothing to do with Anni Lu, it only sells Anni Lu jewelry. It appears on no review websites and there are no social media mentions of this jewelry seller. There are no details on the site about who owns the company or where it is located.

If you Google the images from the associated pages: a woman in a flowery dress; a trio of teenagers – they appear to have been removed from a French clothing catalog called 3 Suisses and the Facebook page of fashion company Forever 21.

Later I found an old mention of the website on the Facebook page of a car workshop in Peru. But the domain was re-registered in 2022 in the Cocos Islands (spots in the Indian Ocean).

Its owner cannot be verified because their data is shielded by an online privacy service called whoisprotection.cc.

But I was not aware of all this. I was in a hurry when I met a friend at the cinema and I didn’t think about what I was doing. Even though I had never heard of this website, I started filling in my debit card details, which have (presumably) been resold.

Fraud is now the most common crime in England and Wales, accounting for more than 40 percent of crimes, and according to the National Crime Agency, four in five frauds are carried out over the internet.

A survey by the Global Anti-Scam Alliance found that around ten percent of British adults fell prey to scams in the year to September 2023.

In the first six months of last year alone, £580 million was lost to financial fraud, says UK Finance. One form of cyber fraud is formjacking, where hackers insert malicious code into a legitimate website to copy information provided by customers.

However, I don’t think this was formjacking because I never received the earrings and the transaction did not register in my bank account. One thing may have alerted me to the fact that I was being scammed: a strange looking pop-up payment window. I hesitated and mentally noted the URL: oats.allinpay.com.

OATS stands for Overseas Acquiring Treasure System. I was doing well. I discovered this three hours later when I got home. My mobile rang, a 0345 number. A polite man said he was calling from my bank to verify a transaction.

Hooray, I thought – HSBC checks my activity sporadically, and finally it happened when something was gnawing at me too. He asked a question about my account, the second half of which disappeared in a crackle. Even when I asked him to repeat it, my brain screamed at me, “He didn’t ask you any safety questions!” I hung up in a panic, blaming poor reception.

I launched the banking app on my mobile and discovered that £20 had been paid into an unknown Starling Bank account.

My phone rang again: a mobile number. I declined the call. Feeling sick, I looked for the “Manage Cards” section of the app and froze my debit card.

My phone rang repeatedly. I decided to take up the challenge and answered. It was the man whose call started this story. He asked if I was Sarah Cottwood. ‘Who is this?’ I said.

His response of “You don’t need to know that” made me hang up. After a flurry of calls I answered again and he rattled off my address and demanded £50. My answer? The first thing that came to my mind: ‘F*** off.’

When I told this to a police officer, he strangely advised against it. It will only antagonize a thief. And antagonize him, he did.

For the next 72 hours, my phone rang incessantly. I had it on silent and didn’t respond. Every time an unknown cell number appeared I blocked it, but they just found another phone to use.

I’m not easily intimidated, but I was nervous when I left the house, calling the so-called 101 (the police non-emergency number for reporting crimes). I wanted these cell numbers noted in case they showed up in other crime reports.

When I told them that the scammer said: ‘We know where you live’, the call handler made an appointment for a PC to visit me at home the next day. It was a reassuring answer (although the police failed to send me the crime number assigned to my case).

The officer said it was unlikely the caller would show up at my house because the people who commit “faceless” fraud aren’t the kind to engage in direct confrontation. He predicted that once they realized I had blocked their access to my money, they would give up and move on to their next victim. And they did.

After several rather confusing conversations with HSBC I was told that this is not considered theft as I had voluntarily given up my card details. Wanting to put the unfortunate episode behind me, I didn’t dispute this.

A spokesperson for HSBC UK said: ‘Scammers are cunning criminals who use a range of techniques to steal money from people without concern for their mental and financial wellbeing.

‘It’s good that your reader didn’t share any personal information (with the callers), which could have opened her up to scams in the future.

‘If people think they have fallen victim to fraud or scams, they should immediately call the number on the back of their bank card.’

I may have £20 less, but I’ve come off it slightly – and learned an important lesson.

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