London 2012: Olympic Scams, Cons, Flim-Flams And Swindles - And How To Avoid Them
It will be "impossible" to tell how deep the level of fraud will go at this year's Olympics until the event takes place, an official has told The Huffington Post UK.
There are already 103 known email scams identified by the Olympic organisers, as well as fake lotteries and prize draws.
Fake merchandise has been seized by councils in London, Birmingham, Coventry and other cities, and almost 100 arrests have been made by Scotland Yard in a pre-emptive strike at organised crime networks gearing up for the Games.
So before you get ready to hop out of the door in your Team GB T-shirt - clutching your tickets to the judo semis and a four-night stay at travel tavern - how sure are you that any of those things are exactly what they seem?
"When you actually think about the amount of people that may come to this country, we're talking 200 plus nations, 17,000 athletes, 500,000 spectators a day. It's supposed to be giving a £2.1bn boost to the economy. I can't believe there won't be someone out there who won't want to make some money by scamming people," John Peerless, the lead officer for scams at the Trading Standards Institute (TSI) told The Huffington Post UK.
"A lot of times people aren't going to realise they've been scammed until the Olympics come along," he said. "Determining the scale of the problem is virtually impossible."
Anti-scam officials have cited a need for a more aggressive use of statistics and data to stop con artists in their tracks.
"We seem to be one step behind people," Peerless added later. "The organised network don't have organised processes and procedures to follow under Data Protection rules and things like that.
"They work on the basis of trust, and you scratch my back I'll scratch yours. The speed at which they become knowledgeable about potential frauds is frightening. I wouldn't want to applaud someone but sometimes they re extremely skilful in what they do."
That skill and speed of the con artist is what drives organisers of the games in their quest to ensure the London Olympics is - if not fraud free, then at least safer for consumers than previous games.
The organising committee, Locog, has had a recent awareness push, working with TSI, Citizens Advice and the UK ECC as well as the Metropolitan Police and other services around the country for years ahead of the Games to try and break organised crime networks.
For many consumers, however, the message about scams hasn't yet sunk in. An online survey run by TSI recently showed that around a third of all respondents would try to buy tickets to sold out events, even though 25% had previously been stung with online orders.
Of those who had experienced problems with ordering tickets online almost half said their items never arrived, just under a quarter said the tickets were fake and 17% said they never showed up at all.
At the last Olympics even the athletes themselves were hit. Famously Rebecca Adlington's parents thought they had passes for the swimming, only to learn they were fraudulent.
The official Olympics website already lists dozens of scam email attempts, fraud websites and other swindles, as well as providing a website checker, fraud information and customer advice.
Some of the scams listed on the website include:
- A 'BBC Olympic Prize' email, in which recipients are told they have won £18m, which had been sent to them for collection by the BBC Finance Dept. Recipients are asked to quote claim number 98654752, and provide full personal details. "This is a scam, do not provide the any personal details or send any money to the people who sent this email," said Locog.
- 'Weymouth and Portland 'Investment Proposal'. This email purports to be from 'Seb Coe'. It refers to the sailing facilities at Weymouth and Portland for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympics sailing events and claims that the contract for the facilities was to be awarded and executed under budget. It asks the recipient to present its business as the second foreign contractor to enable the transfer of the remaining (£14,500,000) into his or her account. This is a scam.
- 'Your Lloyds TSB account has won 2 Tickets for London Olympics 2012' This email purporting to be from Tickets@London2012.co.uk informs the recipient that their Lloyds TSB Bank account has won their lottery of a couple of tickets for London Olympics 2012 Opening Ceremony. This is a scam and personal details should not be provided.
Locog strongly encourages people to study the list and only trust official ticketing sources, including its own resale service, which is currently accepting submissions from those with tickets to sell, and is set to launch fully in April.
Fake hotel tickets and other kinds of fraudulent accommodation are another problem increasing in virulence as the Games move closer.
TSI says that "false bargains" are usually clues that accommodation is risky, and tells consumers to "watch out for bogus websites that have been set up by criminals to steal personal details or money from genuine sports fans and visitors".
VisitEngland’s director of business development Jeremy Brinkworth said in a previously released statement: "We urge visitors to book accommodation that has been star-rated by either VisitEngland or the AA. There are 30,000 star-rated accommodation businesses across the country and around 700 of these are in and around London.
"The recognised ratings act as a benchmark for quality and value for money which means visitors can book with the peace of mind that a four star hotel means a four star hotel."
And it's not just hotels. A recent investigation by the Independent newspaper highlighted the inherent risks of using short-term letting services instead of official hotels.
Among the schemes uncovered by the paper included scam artists posting listings for non-existent properties, copying and pasting listings from other companies and pocketing the proceeds and selling accommodation more than once - and only revealing the fraud when it's too late.
Fake merchandise is another problem which is likely to increase in scale the closer to the Games London comes.
Apart from predictable moans about prices, however, it hard to know why you'd to go through unofficial channels.
With the official ticket website opening in April disappointed sports fans have another good chance to see an event. Moreover, the official merchandise website is resplendent with official tat for the discerning Olympic fan.
Whether its an official glass mug (£6.00), an official neoprene iPad sleeve (£16.00) or the recently announced limited edition boxed poster commemoration set (£120), if it's Olympic merchandise you want then you should be golden.
Still, councils in Westminster, Coventry and Birmingham are among those who have already reported seizing fake Olympics-branded goods from retailers in the past twelve months.
While the numbers are currently relatively small - Westminster Trading Standards told The Huffington Post UK that in the last twelve months around 20 T-shirts, four lighters and two phone covers have been seized - they point to a larger organised criminal network involved in producing and selling illicit items that is poised to go into overdrive as the summer event approaches.
Trading Standards said that consumers have to apply common sense and stick to official channels to ensure they will not be conned.
"You've got to look for the official website and the official tour operators, because they're the ones who you know if something did go wrong you've got someone to go back to," said John Peerless.
"The fraudsters who set up these websites make mistakes - in typing, in spelling," he said. "They don't want to be identified so you don't see that information. These are things people can think about."
Recently it was announced that the Met has already been making arrests as part of Operation Podium, the official name for the anti-organised crime effort ahead of the Games.
Part of the Specialist Crime Directorate, the operation "has been formed based on previous experience of proactively investigating and dealing with a range of crime from money laundering and fraud to organised ticket crime, across a range of industries and major events", said Scotland Yard.
A total of 97 arrests have been made as part of the national Operation Podium, including alleged ticket touts, people setting up bogus websites, and those accused of selling bogus hotel rooms said Home Secretary Theresa May in a speech on 25 January.
A spokesperson for Scotland Yard told The Huffington Post UK that the arrests include offences not directly related to the Olympics but which were considered to represent a similar threat.
They include two arrests made against organised ticket touts at a Premiership football stadium.
Detective Superintendent Nick Downing who is leading the Metropolitan Police's anti-organised crime efforts before and during the Games, said in a statement released with the TSI survey in November:
"Next year there are going to be lots of people coming to London and the rest of the UK to watch the Olympic and Paralympic Games and be a part of the greatest sporting event in the world.
"Unfortunately this also presents opportunities to criminals who will try to sell fraudulent tickets, accommodation or hotel rooms that don't exist, and steal personal details from genuine sports fans and visitors."
TSI say that while it leaves cracking organised crime networks to the police, its work clearly indicates that the scams are more than the work of a few rogue traders.
"The organised criminal is set up to clean their money, they set up pseudo-legitimate businesses to launder their cash," scams official John Peerless said. "They do have extensive networks."
Later he added: "Throughout the games people will feel let down and it can actually have a detrimental impact on the country," he said. "We are a reasonably small nation. It is about Team GB."