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Perspective: Beware - if it seems 'too good to be true' - it probably is.

Byline: David Wilson

Well done to John Revill and The Birmingham Post for being the only paper to cover the most important story to emerge this week about crime. The trial and sentence of Shaun Smith, Craig Bradley and Ralph Blore at Stafford Crown Court - where they received sentences of five years and two years respectively, seems to have escaped the notice of almost everyone, including The Guardian, The Times and The Independent, although without doubt their offending touched more people than any other crime being described this week - and in particular the poor, the housebound, the elderly and the unemployed. Their crime? They conspired to defraud thousands of home workers out of more than a million pounds between 1994 and 1998, by having them make items which were almost impossible to assemble, but for which the home workers had to pay up to pounds 65 each to receive. The home workers then returned the assembled products only for them to be 'rejected' as unsuitable, thus allowing the likes of Smith, Bradley and Blore to pocket the proceeds.

And the tragedy of the under-reporting of this story is that there are thousands of similar schemes still being offered. Look in any corner-shop window, or indeed on some lampposts, and you will see adverts asking you: 'Want to work from home and earn pounds pounds pounds s? Then call this number.' This is the beginning of the scam - some of which follow the routine of the one described in Stafford, but others take a slightly different form.

The most common, for example, asks you to send a stamped, addressed envelope (SAE) to the address on the advert. The swindler replies, but before you can proceed you have to pay an administration or registration fee - anything from pounds 30 to pounds 70, which is of course a great deal of money if you are poor, unemployed or a single parent. As a result of sending your registration fee you become an 'agent' of the 'company', and are then asked to place similar adverts to the one that first caught your eye in local shops - or on lampposts - and people start to send you SAEs too, and when you have a certain number of these you then bundle them off to the 'company' in return for a fee, and so the cycle goes on but only with the person at the top - the swindler - becoming richer.

Soon the area in which you live gets swamped with people attempting to do the same thing, by which time adverts have started to appear in another town.

So how can you protect yourself from cons like this? Consider contacting your local trading standards office, which has a great deal of expertise in these matters, and you can also reach them on the web at Ask them if they know of the scheme and what advice they can give. However, there are certain bits of advice that I can also offer, based on some research I did when I exposed a couple of these swindles for The Crime Squad.

Ask yourself these questions: First and foremost does the advert have full company details or just a PO box number or a telephone number? If the answer is just a PO box number, then be careful.

Can you get hold of anyone at the 'company' to ask further questions? If you can't, or if the person you reach is reluctant to go into details about the work involved, be careful.

Do you need to pay a registration or an administration fee to find out what the work involves? If the answer is 'yes' then let your alarm bells start to ring. Is this fee refundable if you change your mind? If the answer is 'no' then think about all the other things that you need to buy or pay for with that pounds 30.

Is there a product involved, or is this just a form of advertising? If this is just a form of advertising, then think carefully about whether you would like other people to be caught up in this scheme too - for they are likely to be in a similar position to yourself. If there is a product, do you have to buy the kits or will they be supplied free of charge? If you have to pay for the kits - on top of a registration fee - with, of course, no guarantee that the finished 'product' will be regarded as acceptable, do you really think that this is the sensible thing to do with your money?

In fact the best advice that I can give is this: 'If it sounds too good to be true - then it probably is.'

Professor David Wilson is director of the Criminal Justice, Policy and Practice Department at the University of Central England
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Nov 3, 2001
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