We know everything about you. We know where you live.
It sounds like a threat straight out of a Hollywood thriller. Except I wasn’t at the movies, I was in my kitchen on a Saturday night and this wasn’t empty intimidation. A cocky young man with an East London accent had just called my mobile and actually read my address.
My heart was racing. The threat felt as immediate as if he had just walked through my front door in person.
Trying to control my breathing so it wouldn’t betray me, I asked him what he wanted. “Fifty sovs (pounds) and we’ll leave you alone.”
I am now 50 years old, live in London and protect myself quite successfully. I have only been a victim of crime once, 35 years ago, when my wallet was stolen in Rome. I assumed that ’50 sovs’ would not be the end of their demands.
Sarah Cottwood was repeatedly called by a scammer who told her “we know where you live” and that she didn’t “need to know” who they were.
How the hell did I find myself here, threatened by a thief? He started with a pair of earrings from a Danish brand called Anni Lu, marketed 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 unearthed a website where there was (and still is) 223 Danish crowns, or £25.60. If you had investigated the site, you would have discovered that it has a scant digital footprint.
Interestingly, since it has nothing to do with Anni Lu, it sells nothing but Anni Lu jewelry. It is not listed on review websites and there are no mentions on social media of this jewelry seller. There are no details on the site about who owns the company or where it is based.
If you search on Google for the images on its pages: a woman in a flower dress; a trio of teenagers: they appear to have been taken from a French clothing catalog called 3 Suisses and the Facebook page of the fashion brand Forever 21.
I later found an old mention of the website on the Facebook page of an auto shop in Peru. But the domain was re-registered in the Cocos Islands (specks in the Indian Ocean) in 2022.
Its owner is not verifiable, as its data is protected by an online privacy service called whoisprotection.cc.
But I was not aware of all this. I was in a hurry because I was meeting a friend at the movies and I didn’t stop to think about what I was doing. Despite never having heard of this website, I started filling in my debit card details, which were (presumably) sold.
Fraud is now the most common crime in England and Wales, accounting for more than 40 per cent of crimes, and four in five frauds are cyber, according to the National Crime Agency.
A survey by the Global Anti-Scam Alliance revealed that around ten per cent of UK adults were victims of a scam in the year to September 2023.
In the first six months of last year alone, £580 million was lost due to financial fraud, says UK Finance. One type of cyber fraud is form hijacking, in which hackers insert malicious code into a legitimate website to copy information provided by customers.
However, I do not believe this was kidnapping because I never received the earrings and the transaction did not post to my bank account. One thing could have alerted me to the fact that I was being scammed: a strange-looking payment pop-up. I hesitated and made a mental note of its URL: oats.allinpay.com.
OATS means Overseas Treasure Acquisition System. It had been really good. I discovered it three hours later, when I got home. My cell phone rang, a number 0345. A polite man said he was calling from my bank to verify a transaction.
Hooray, I thought: HSBC sporadically monitors my activity and it was finally happening when something was bothering me too. He launched into a question about my account, the second half of which disappeared in a rustle. Even when I asked him to repeat himself, my brain was screaming at me: ‘He didn’t ask you any security questions!’ Panicking, I hung up, blaming the poor reception.
I turned on my mobile banking app and discovered that £20 had been paid to an unknown Starling Bank account.
My phone rang again: a mobile number. I rejected the call. Feeling bad, I fumbled through the “manage cards” section of the app and froze my debit card.
My phone was ringing repeatedly. I decided to face the challenge and responded. He was the man whose call started this story. He asked me if I was Sarah Cottwood. ‘Who is she?’ I said.
His response of ‘You don’t need to know that’ made me hang up. After a series of calls I answered again and he recited my address and demanded £50. My answer? The first thing that came to my mind: ‘Fuck you.’
When I told this to a police officer, he advised me against it, oddly enough. It will only make a thief angry. And she made him angry.
For the next 72 hours, my phone rang incessantly. I had it on silent and didn’t respond. Every time an unknown mobile number appeared I would block it, but they would simply look for another phone to use.
I’m not easily intimidated, but I was nervous about leaving the house, so I called 101 (the police non-emergency number for reporting crimes). He wanted these cell phone numbers recorded, in case they appeared in other crime reports.
When I mentioned the scammer saying “We know where you live”, the call operator made an appointment for a PC to visit me at home the next day. It was a reassuring response (although the Met did not send me the offense number assigned to my case).
The officer said the caller was unlikely to show up at my house, since people who commit “faceless” fraud are not the type 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 the next victim. And they did it.
After several rather confusing conversations with HSBC, I was told that this is not considered theft because I volunteered my card details. Wanting to put the unfortunate episode behind me, I did not question this.
An HSBC UK spokesperson says: ‘Fraudsters are cunning criminals who use a variety of techniques to steal money from people without concern for their mental and financial well-being.
‘It’s a good thing your reader hasn’t shared personal details (with callers), which could have left her open to scams in the future.
“If anyone believes they have been a victim of fraud or a scam, they should immediately call the number on the back of their bank card.”
I may have had a £20 advance, but I came out on top and learned an important lesson.
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