Last updated at 10:19 PM on 24th September 2011
One day last week I was checking my voicemail. Among the usual trivialities were two messages I can only describe as bizarre. So fantastic, indeed, that I listened to them twice.
Both were from women; both were hysterical. Speaking in a voice like broken glass, the first woman claimed I had sold her a diamond-encrusted Tiffany necklace, which she had failed to receive.
‘Where is my Tiffany necklace?’ she cried. ‘You took £300 of my money and I haven’t got my necklace. How dare you do this to me!’
True beauty: Film star Anne Hathaway wearing genuine Tiffany jewels
The gist of the second message was the same. This woman also insisted she had bought Tiffany jewellery which, after three months, had not arrived. I assumed that by some long-odds coincidence both had dialled a wrong number. Either, that or my old friend Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, who is renowned for his female impersonations, was playing a trick.
Yet later that day one of the women rang again. Once started, there was no stopping her: ‘Where’s my £300? Where’s my Tiffany necklace? I saved up for months to buy it.’
The lady, a Mrs Holloway, threatened to
call the police. Patiently, I explained she must be mistaken: I was a
Mail on Sunday journalist with no Tiffany necklaces at my disposal. This
enraged her further.
‘I know who you are. I hope your editor fires you! Don’t pretend to be innocent. Your name and mobile number are on the website you own that took the money for my necklace.’
By this time my face must have resembled that of a large trout harpooned in midair.
I said I did not own a website. She
said I owned not one but three: one that sold Tiffany jewellery; a
second called Magento, selling furniture, shoes and electronics; and a
holding company with the address Amoois.com.
Mrs Holloway then sent me an email that stated that the £300 for a Tiffany necklace had indeed been received by Amoois.
I protested, hopelessly, that considering the renowned laziness of journalists, I would be unable to run three companies.
‘Then Google Amoois.com.’ she said. And I did.
Fool’s gold: The fake Tiffany website
It seemed I was quite a Renaissance Woman. ‘Petronella Wyatt’ was named as the owner, Registrant Contact, Administrative Contact and Technical Contact. I also possessed two other ‘domains’, Magento.com and tiffany-jewellery-store.com, the site that claimed to sell Tiffany jewellery.
Beside my name was my home address. Beneath my address was my mobile number. Buyers were told to contact me if they ‘had any concerns about transactions’.
Now it was my turn to become hysterical. Someone had stolen my identity and used it for a scam – and Mrs Holloway found herself having to calm me down.
She began to cry in sympathy. ‘I believe you. I really do,’ she exclaimed. ‘But at least your money hasn’t been stolen. It was my dream to own something made by Tiffany. Now, I never will.’
She suggested I call my lawyer.
I searched the Amoois site for any clues as to who had stolen my identity. Of all the names in all the world, why mine?
Eventually I found, typed in small print, a ‘customer help number’. The country code was for China. I dialled and a man answered, saying: ‘Speak no English. Ring later.’
When I did so, the number had been disconnected.
Crime victim: The con artists used Petronella Wyatt’s name to front their website
The Home Office has recently set up a site called www.identitytheft.org.uk. It warns you criminals can obtain your personal details by going through your dustbins or by making contact pretending to be a legitimate organisation, such as a bank.
Finding out your email address is simple. Mine, for example, is at the bottom of my Mail on Sunday column as well as on Facebook. I am at a loss to explain, though, how fraudsters apparently based in China had obtained my mobile number.
I decided to investigate the ‘Tiffany’ website. It looked remarkably bona fide. Against a background of the famous eggshell blue were pictures of models wearing rings and bracelets. The array of jewellery was astonishing. There were Tiffany’s iconic ‘bean’ pendants, charm bracelets with Tiffany Co engraved on the clasp, Tiffany earring and necklace sets and Tiffany rings identical to those I have seen on wealthy women at London soirees.
All were beautifully presented in blue Tiffany boxes tied with white ribbon.
It was puzzling why there were so many spelling mistakes – ‘authetic’, ‘leeding’ – but it was the prices that aroused the strongest suspicion. Sterling silver bracelets with ‘Tiffany’ charms were just £42. Silver and platinum ‘Paloma Picasso’ necklaces began at £43 rising to £300. A diamond ring was only £74! I felt tempted to buy one myself.
I telephoned the Tiffany office in London. A weary spokesman, Fred Goetzen, told me that the real website for Tiffany Co was at www.tiffany.co.uk. The very cheapest diamond ring on the official site is rather more than £200.
Fake Tiffany websites pop up all the time, said Mr Goetzen.
‘We report them, but it is hard to do anything as they are mostly in China,’ he complained. ‘You get one closed down and then it reopens under another email address.
‘We have a whole department in New York that does nothing but deal with fake sites. It’s terribly frustrating and upsetting for innocent people.’
I went to ‘my’ other site, Magento and found red stilettos on sale for £89 that would apparently ‘leave him at a loss for words’. They certainly left me at a loss for words: they were the ugliest shoes I had ever seen. I was also selling red suede sofas for £500, red chairs for £100 and red beds for £1,000. Magento was connected to Amoois.com by a link.
I asked my solicitors for advice. They said I could try to have my name and details removed from Amoois.com, but the initial fee would be £5,000. The final bill might be £20,000.
When I asked why, they said the complexities of the internet make it almost impossible to find the culprit. Even if located, criminals operating out of China would be hard to bring to justice in Britain.
According to the Home Office’s National Fraud Authority (NFA), identity fraud costs Britain more than £2.8billion a year and affects more than 1.78million people. Victims are often targeted via dating websites, with criminals posing as ‘ideal matches’ in order to obtain personal details.
I have never joined an online dating agency, but I have used my mobile number when giving my contact details on websites selling books and DVDs.
More to the point, perhaps, my computer has been hacked into twice in the past three months. On both occasions, the hacking was so severe that technicians suggested I cancel my debit and credit cards.
I telephoned Lewis Nedas and Co, a firm of solicitors that specialises in internet fraud. I was only mildly cheered when Jeffrey Lewis, one of the partners, said: ‘My feeling is they knew who you were and thought your name would give their products credibility.’
I laughed what Edwardian novelists used to call a hollow laugh.
To prevent another such crime I was advised to buy a shredder and delete all my personal emails. I should block all ‘pop-ups’ (those annoying adverts that open up their own window on the internet), as these could infiltrate my computer.
I was advised to take precautions by investing in the best anti-fraud software. And I should also change my mobile number.
The NFA says: ‘Fraudsters are often part of serious criminal gangs, who use the money to fund human trafficking and terrorism.’ Good God!
In a state of near panic, I telephoned the police. They listened patiently to my tale and promised to call me back with a crime reference number.
In the afternoon, a man did telephone. Not with a crime reference number: he wasn’t a policeman.
He wanted to know what had happened to the Tiffany diamond ring he had bought for his fiancee.
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