Life

I Lost £3,000 to an HMRC Scam – And It Could Happen to You

You think that scamming is something that never happens to you – until it does.
January 27, 2021, 9:15am
HMRC scam debt
Illustration: Kim Cowie
A collection of stories about getting into – and out of – debt.

When you think about scams, you usually think of them as something that happens to someone else. You skim the warnings from the bank, ignore sketchy emails and texts, and refuse to answer calls from unknown numbers. You think that scamming is something that happens to a stranger, never to you. This is exactly how I felt – until I was scammed in summer 2020.

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Six months ago, I received a phone call from someone who claimed to be from HMRC and told me I had a fine to pay of £995. I explained, confused, that I couldn’t have any taxes to pay; I was a full-time, unemployed EU student and I had just returned to England. The person on the line said the fee was for an immigration tax I’d forgotten to pay upon my return. 

As soon as they called, the panic settled in. Parliament hadn’t reached a Brexit deal, so I wondered if I’d forgotten something. I must have missed an announcement or an email. The files the scammers sent me had my full name on them, signed and sealed; and the number calling was the one listed on the HMRC website. 

I cried. Between sobs, I explained that I was confused and worried about being fined. They said: “It’s okay. You just pay the fine now, and we’ll reimburse you. This is to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” 

The amount in the file rounded up to £3,000. This included the initial fine, and the fine for not paying. They said if I didn’t pay, they would send the police, strip me of my passport, and deport me. In retrospective, it sounds like a lame attempt to rob someone, but all I could focus on was the threat they’d made to my life in England. All the things that allowed me to live here, to study here, to search for mental health treatment here — gone. Terrified at that prospect, I knew I had to protect myself at all costs. 

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I made three separate payments: one from my main bank account, and two from my second account in a different bank. I thought it was over then, but the person demanded more, and sent a second file that matched the numbers in my bank account. Pretty quickly, things stopped adding up. I doubted HMRC communicated with its customers through WhatsApp, which is how the scammers sent over their files – but it was too late. I’d already sent over the money.

I told them the scammers that I didn’t want to pay anymore and that I would explain the confusion to the police if, as the scammers had threatened, they arrived to try and deport me. I said I’d tell the police I didn’t know anything about an immigration tax and try to reach an agreement with them. The scammers hung up a minute later. Immediately, I noticed they had deleted the messages on WhatsApp. I checked my bank account to find a way to reverse the payments, but they’d all gone through. £3,000 – almost half of a private loan I took out with my dad to afford rent – had vanished. 

My first thought was that this had to be a sick joke. After months of pills and psychiatrists and hospitals, the universe couldn’t be paying me this way. The rage bubbled up inside me, and I needed to take it out on something, so I chose myself.

When the police arrived half an hour later, they found me in my destroyed bedroom, with a battered and bruised body. I cried, trying to make them see that we needed to do something to fix the situation I’d ended up in. I was bleeding from wounds I’d inflicted on myself, but all I could think about was the money I’d lost.

They deemed me unsafe to be alone, so I sat in the police car with my phone charger, a jacket, and a blood-stained stuffed elephant. I’m not sure at what point of the evening I gathered myself, but by night’s end, I’d contacted my banks, requested an ID appointment with my embassy, and blocked my card.

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Both banks refused to pay me back, so I opened cases with the Financial Ombudsman. Knowing it would take time, I ran the numbers. A private loan company had given me and my dad £7,000. Of this, £6,300 was meant to go towards rent, and the other £700 towards groceries and emergencies. After the scam hit, I had £4,000 left. This meant I needed to make £2,300 over the next six months if I wanted to keep a roof over my head, and more if I wanted to eat.

I opened a Depop and started selling my things. I couldn’t find a job, so I opened crowdfunders where friends donated. I asked my university for financial help – they said they couldn’t give this to me because I was an EU student but told me they’d investigate emergency housing and come back to me. I didn’t hear from them again. 

When September came around, I barely made my first rent installment with the money I’d made from a crowdfunder and a couple of sales. In time, the crowdfunded money dried up, and my Depop had one sale a fortnight. I was broke. I had to borrow money from my best friend to get by.

I want to say I handled the aftermath like a boss, that I went to the first café I saw and demanded a position, but for the sake of full disclosure… I froze. I hid the event from my parents, ashamed that this had happened to me. I thought I didn’t deserve to bathe, rest or even eat. I couldn’t answer the phone or send money without paranoia creeping in. I was stuck in my grief, unable to move on.

Weeks passed, and with the help of a good therapist and friends, I began working towards restoring my life, or at least, a new version of it. My boyfriend helped cushion my worst thoughts, my friends covered takeout, and I got more clothes to sell. As the dust settled, I realised I’d done everything I could, and that it wasn’t up to me anymore. I’d say that was the hardest part of it all: giving time to something that could, potentially, not work out in my favour. 

After six months, bank number two reimbursed me. I paid back my friend and I told my parents the truth. Weirdly, of the two banks involved, it wasn’t under the Authorised Push Payment Scam Code – a scheme created by banks to protect people who do voluntary transfers when getting scammed, so, honestly, I don’t know why they paid me back. Maybe the Financial Ombudsman got to them, or maybe they grew a conscience. Either way, I didn’t question it. 

So how do you avoid getting scammed? I’d tell you not to answer unknown numbers’ calls, not to open links that ask for money, to read the warnings instead of skimming them — but you know all that. Instead, I’ll say this: if you ever find yourself in my shoes, not all is lost yet. There are many resources out there: payment schemes, companies, support lines. Hell, take it to court if you want. You’re a victim, and you deserve to be compensated for what you lost. 

If you’ve been scammed, contact your banks immediately. Find out if they’re under the APP Scam Code, and if not, take your complaint further with the Financial Ombudsman. Contact your local support victim helpline or Think Jessica if the event has emotionally disturbed you. 

Looking back, I can’t talk about the event without shaking, and I flinch when I stare at the scars on my body from that day. I hated asking my best friend for money and the feeling of helplessness. I disliked myself, and while I thought economic independence would erase that, I was wrong. But I’m giving myself time to heal, knowing I’ll be okay with everything – eventually. You won’t catch me saying “it was for the better” anytime soon, though.