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5 Nov 2008 : Column 80WH—continued

Quite clearly, the professors’ point is that we have a professional organisation of genetic centres in the national health service through which thorough testing is carried out. People’s permission and consent to do so is obtained and they are advised and informed statistically and in other ways what the chances are that they have a genetic disease. No attempt is made to fool people in the way that this company is by saying, “You’re going to get dementia; you’d better do something about it.” We could guess what kind of advice the company gives people: a change of diet, stop drinking alcohol and start walking or running. People pay £100, £200 or £500 for that advice.

I shall refer to some of the other scams I have pulled off the internet. One is That website offers conventional tests and it has been said that it makes wildly exaggerated claims about cancer. The website states:

The website has a wonderful way of getting out of the problem if the tests do not work. It states:

whatever that means—

I have looked at the 17 papers on the substance malignin—they have suddenly dried up. The most recent publication gives a sensitivity of 59 per cent. and 62 per cent. as a test for breast cancer, compared with internet claims that false positives are 5 per cent. and false negatives 7 per cent, which are quite striking levels. The same information is listed in relation to prostate and bowel cancer tests. Again, the website gets out of it by saying that the tests are not 100 per cent. accurate, but that it is as good as it gets. There is no mention of going to see a GP or using the national health service to get an accurate follow-up or advice and counselling.

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The same problems exist in the field of allergy testing. I will not go into it in great detail, but food allergies can be detected in almost anybody. Again, get-out clauses exist, stating that there could be a false positive or false negative. The information is very misleading when taken in complete isolation. I am sure that many hon. Members have been asked to take a blood sample by doing a finger prick test. The finger is pricked with a lancet; the sample is put in a tube and sent off. It is difficult to do that; getting blood out of a finger—I was going to say stone—is not as easy as it sounds. All sorts of things can go wrong—for example, there could be an infection or dry skin could mean that the blood drops do not form properly.

Tests on two particular enzymes are also available to locate certain types of damage. Those enzymes are traditionally used in the national health service as well, but they are only good for identifying certain kinds of liver problems; they do not identify tumours and so on. Again, that means that someone is given a false reassurance that everything is fine with their liver and that they can go away happy, carry on drinking and do what they want and they will not get cancer.

The problems mean that these tests will not necessarily give someone an accurate diagnosis. So I ask hon. Members why people do not go to their GP, instead of sending a company a cheque for £100 to £500 for doing these tests. These scams go on all the time. Why are people conned into having these tests? They are worried, they think there is a problem, and so they see an advert or something on the internet and say, “I’ll have a look at this because it’s too long to wait for a GP to do it.”

David Taylor: These scams are perpetrated not just on bogus sites, but on highly reputable sites, such as eBay. That has 20 million items for sale and some 200,000 items will be added in the next hour and a half. Thousands of scams are linked to eBay and people are trying hard to combat that. Leicestershire is in fact the third worst area in terms of scams that have been detected. Does my hon. Friend believe that organisations such as eBay and the authorities should work together more intensively to promote the training of police officers to assist with the detection of awful incidents of this kind?

Dr. Gibson: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Of course, that is what has to happen; these scams have to be wiped out. At certain times in their life, people feel vulnerable. People look for the evidence in relation to scams and if it is scanty, false or not proven, it is criminal harm to perpetrate these frauds and lies that affect people’s lives. I am sure that many people whose health has been affected in this way keep quiet about it. The labs that do the work and the advertising on the internet are not accredited, and we all know that labs have to win accreditation certificates in the national health service. There must be proper processing, and the confidentiality of results must be assured. However, there is no way to be assured of the accuracy of the results that people receive from the organisations that we are discussing. They have an amazing turnaround time of 10 days. Hard-working NHS labs can do things in as little as 20 minutes if they are urgent or within 24 hours if they are routine.

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People do take responsibility for their lives. They think that they have to do that. They are continually being told, “You must take responsibility for your health” and “Don’t bother the GP,” so of course when they are having those problems, they turn to the internet. There are other types of testing that I can mention. There is dietary testing and food allergy testing. It is possible to have pregnancy tests done as well. All sorts of sampling can be done on the internet, and all those things are fully provided by the NHS and easily available.

Many aspects of the labs carrying out the testing need to be examined. A recent court case involved a Harley street doctor who was carrying out IVF—in vitro fertilisation. He was untouchable for some time by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. The authority took it upon itself to raid him and there was subsequently a court case. Plenty of that is going on.

For every aspect of people’s health, there is an internet site and a company operating in the way that we are discussing. Whether it is headaches, migraines, tiredness, fatigue, weight problems, eczema, psoriasis, asthma, catarrh, sinus congestion, digestive disorders, anxiety, ME or depression, people can have a test for it if they want.

With all this testing for allergies and so on, I am thinking of going into business myself. I have thought of the perfect website. On it, I shall offer a genetic test for gullibility. I shall ask people to spit in a bottle and send it off to me with a cheque for £500. Two weeks later, they will receive a letter telling them exactly how gullible they are.

10.2 am

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) on securing this timely debate. He spoke about having an internet scam or fraud awareness day once a year. I suspect that we should have them once a week, along with the gullibility test that the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) spoke about, because much as we think that people should use common sense—“If you haven’t bought a ticket, you haven’t won a prize”—many people out there are fairly desperate. The hon. Member for Wyre Forest gave a perfect answer to my intervention in that respect. Those people are looking for an answer, and an easy answer is to take a prize even though they did not enter the draw for it.

Both hon. Gentlemen spoke about health, and slimming is another issue. For people who want to carry on eating what they like and doing no exercise whatever, there will be someone who claims that they can sell them a slimming solution for $500. Clearly, there is a need for the gullibility test again.

Bob Spink: The hon. Gentleman is aware, though, of the way in which phishing works. If 1,000 e-mails are sent out claiming to be from Egg or HBOS, one or two of the recipients will have Egg or HBOS accounts—or have bought a Spanish lottery ticket—and those are the people who are caught. It is not just the gullible people whom we have to watch; it is everyone. I receive about three such e-mails a week. Thankfully, I have not yet had one claiming to be from my own bank.

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Mr. Evans: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is absolutely right. I am chairman of the all-party group on identity fraud and I know the issues only too well. We had ID fraud week a couple of weeks ago, which was about trying to raise awareness of such scams.

I loved the cartoon in this morning’s Metro. Barack Obama is standing in front of an American flag before thousands of adoring, cheering people, his arms out, and his first words on hearing that he has become President are, “What now?” That is perfect. What now? Well, the answer is that he has a lot of work on his hands. In the United States of America, phishing attacks cost $2.8 billion in 2006 alone, whereas in 2004 it was $137 million. That shows the rise in such attacks in a short time. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) is absolutely right; the attacks are aimed at hitting only one or two of the 1,000 people who are sent the e-mails. I am in receipt of loads of those e-mails, which are incredibly professional. When you open one, it looks as though it has come from HSBC.

Bob Spink: Are you saying you open them?

Mr. Evans: Well, one does not know when one receives those e-mails. When I open the initial e-mail and it is from HSBC telling me that unless I fill in certain details my online account will be closed, I am a bit worried because I do not have an account with HSBC and I think that it is awful that the people at HSBC are going to close that account that I do not have with them, so I do not respond. However, I have had such e-mails from other banks with which I do bank, and that is the problem. They are professional and they use the logos that the banks use. They even, because the people responsible have a lot of brass neck, tell the recipients what to do to protect themselves from internet fraud. They tell people measures that they should take to protect themselves, because they are out to rob people’s money and they want to do things as professionally as they can.

I cannot say to people in this case, “How gullible can you be?” The people responsible want bank details and passwords. The people who respond think that they are sending the information to the bank, but it is redirected to the scamsters in Nigeria or wherever they are operating from. Nigeria, for whatever reason, seems to be a growth area in this business. Those involved only need 1 per cent. of people to answer. They can rake in millions of dollars from that small percentage.

I am amazed that people still respond when they receive an e-mail from someone whom they do not know in Nigeria who says that their husband has died and they wish to give them 10 per cent. of $150 million if they will help them to move the money. Let us say that I receive such an e-mail. The idea is that I help the person to move their money from Nigeria into my bank account. Then I give them the money minus 10 per cent., which I am to keep. I do not know those people, but they are trusting me to do that operation. Again, a gullibility test is needed. How stupid can some people be that they respond to those e-mails? However, the fact is—the hon. Member for Wyre Forest was right on this—that there is a small group of people out there who are vulnerable, trusting and, in some cases, desperate. They need money.

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I have recently looked at boiler room fraud activity. I have seen letters from people who only wanted to get a bit of money to make their family secure, so they invested in worthless shares that were sold to them as a result of telephone calls from people whom they did not know.

David Taylor: The hon. Gentleman refers to Nigeria as the source of a good number of these crimes. Of course, there are other countries where they are also common. Does he agree that as a gesture of good faith, our Government ought to be working more actively internationally and that, in addition to signing the international treaty on the combating of cybercrime, which happened in 2001, it is high time that we ratified it and started to put more political clout behind that international campaign?

Mr. Evans: I am more than happy to be the conduit for that message to be passed on to the Minister, who I am sure, as he is writing his notes, will give a full and frank explanation as to when the treaty will be ratified. What has been said is absolutely right. We live in a global world. We see from the financial crisis that something that happened in one part of the world has affected everyone. The same applies to internet fraud. There are groups of people operating. For some reason, there is boiler room fraud in Spain. Groups of people there are trying to suck people’s money away using the telephone.

Part of the problem is that chip and PIN, which was introduced a few years ago, has been so successful at stopping people stealing credit cards and taking money in that way that the fraudsters have moved on to the internet and telephones. That fraud has gone up as fraud from stolen credit cards has gone down. There is still a problem with credit cards. Scams are still operating whereby people install software or a little camera and are able to work out people’s passwords. Yet people still use the same password for up to six cards. People are still afraid to put their hand over the chip and PIN keypad when entering their four digits, yet that is exactly what they should do. Even when at an ATM, they should put their free hand over the keypad in case there is a hidden camera above it. It is even possible that something has been installed inside the machine; everything may look all right but the purpose is to skim information off the card and to use it later. Chip and PIN has been effective; as a result, much more fraud is happening on the internet and the telephone.

I return to something that I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Wyre Forest. When financial institutions send out statements or bits of information, or ask us to borrow yet more money, or to take out insurance or whatever else they are selling, for goodness’ sake, they should shove in a bit of paper to tell the customer about the latest scams, such as boiler room fraud.

I have never received any information from my bank telling me to watch out for phishing attacks. However, many people simply do not know what phishing attacks are all about. If they have not been warned by their banks or the credit card companies, why should they be on the lookout for them? They may think it a bit odd now and again to receive an e-mail from another bank, one that they do not deal with, and they probably say to themselves, “Oh well, I’ve been sent that in error.” The fact is that people need to be told.

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Awareness of scams is limited, and there are always new ones. As one scam is closed, the fraudsters are already thinking of the next one. There is no final victory. We need the financial institutions and the Government to tell us all the time what is going on.

Bob Spink: The hon. Gentleman has mentioned various scams. One scam has not yet been discussed. Phishers from other countries will sometimes try to develop a personal relationship with the recipient of an e-mail, eventually agreeing to come here to meet that person—probably a vulnerable person—but on the way to the airport they have a crash and are taken to hospital. They then say that they need money to be sent to them immediately so that they can get out of hospital and come over here—or some such heart-rending story. Those are the more sinister and awful scams. They play on people’s relationships and emotions.

Mr. Evans: I had not heard of that. That is a new one, and people should be made aware of it. We are talking about vulnerable people, but the perpetrators are callous and do not care. They do not care that an 80-year-old lady will lose her life savings. All they want is her money. I have been told of people in hospital being sent flowers by fraudsters in order to get more money from them. How callous can they be? Yet that is exactly what they do. That was a good example of a scam—one that I have not heard of before.

I believe that the onus is on the Government, working with the financial institutions, to run an advertising campaign. I cannot remember the last campaign on ID fraud. Capital One, in trying to sell its credit cards, now and again says that one can take out protection against ID fraud. How about the Government working with the financial institutions in running a proper campaign? Given the credit crunch, this is a time when everyone’s awareness ought to be raised, because a lot more people will be desperate for cash. We are coming up to Christmas and people will want to buy presents for their families. They may have lost their job or seen their savings being depleted, and they will be desperate for money. This is the time when people ought to be aware that others out there will be trying to get their money.

It has been suggested that we need to take an international approach, working with police forces throughout the world on intelligence in order to close such scams.

One case mentioned by the hon. Member for Wyre Forest was of a professional man—someone who ought to have known better but who, for all sorts of reasons, went ahead. Many of the letters that I have been shown by victims of fraud fall into that category. People say, “How come they fell for that? How come they parted with thousands of pounds to someone they did not know?” It happens because people are vulnerable, and if the fraudster gets them at the right moment they will part with their cash. In many cases, however professional people are, they do not believe that nasty people out there are quite prepared to steal their money.

Common sense is important. “Buyer beware” is vital on the internet, because whatever the problem, someone will be trying to sell an easy solution. Awareness is the order of the day. We cannot turn the internet back.
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Sales on the internet are huge, and we need to do a lot more to protect people from themselves, and from their own gullibility.

I make one aside. Financial institutions and the credit and debit card companies should invest far more in new technology. For instance, people using their credit cards to buy stuff on the phone are asked for the three digits on the back of the card or the four digits on the front. I know of one instance when the person taking that information used it against the person who owned the card. The number was written on a slip of paper and put in a pocket. The information was then abused. When buying items on the computer or even on the telephone, why cannot we slip the card into the mobile telephone or tap the numbers into the phone so that no one can hear the information that we have to give for the security check?

Internet fraud is on the rise. We have to do more to protect people. One thing that must be done is to ensure that people are far more aware of possible scams.

Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. In the absence of further contributions from the Floor, I remind Members that we must terminate the debate at 11 o’clock. Forty-four minutes remain for debate. We now start the first of the three winding-up speeches. I appeal to the Opposition Front-Bench speakers not to exceed more than a third of that time each.

10.17 am

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) on securing this debate, and on representing his constituents so effectively—a role which we all play as Members of Parliament.

For the purposes of this debate, I looked back to my debate on 5 December 2007, which was on the same subject. The Chairman on that occasion, the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), took exception to the direction in which I took the debate. I was focusing on the fact that, a couple of days before, we had seen the loss of 25 million family records. I thought at one point, Mr. Cook, when you were leaning forward, that you were about to leap on the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who was focusing on medical fraud and those who promote or encourage medical tests. I wondered whether you were about to call him to order for taking the debate in a slightly different direction.

I was fortunate in that previous debate to have been well briefed, thanks to the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who is chairman of the all-party group on identity fraud. That group’s work has informed all who have taken part in today’s debate.

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