People in the UK are still falling for old-fashioned 419 scams and advance fee fraud in droves, according to new complaint figures published by the government’s Consumer Direct service.

In the year to September 2010, the most frequently reported scam was advance fee and money transfer fraud with 1,035 cases, ahead of the 867 reported bogus prize draws, 606 ticketing scams, and 509 fake foreign lottery wins.

Below that came the 488 non-existent career opportunities, several hundred fake slimming aids, working from home scams, and investment opportunities that make up a depressing landscape of contemporary social engineering crime, much of it not computer-based.

These figures are likely to be a huge under-estimate – many people don’t report fraud at all or try to but don’t realise that organisations such as Consumer Direct might be interested.

This is now more than mere nuisance with a parallel Consumer Direct survey showing that that as many as one in 20 people might have lost money through one scam or another last year, with seven percent of those losing more than £4,000 ($6,500).

Advance fee scams vary in sophistication from traditional pleas for bank details in order to deposit money from an African dictator to more recent fraud involving asking people to donate to charity. The common theme is that cold callers or emails as for bank details, often with an upfront payment to oil the misery.

It should be obvious, but nobody should ever hand over their bank details, even to a bank, when they have been cold called, regardless of how convincing the request sounds.

In other cases, consumers are asked for credit or bank account details in order to rectify a non-existent account problem, and so the list gets longer.

“Scammers are using ever more sophisticated and cunning tactics to dupe people out of their cash. We want people to recognise the warning signs, and feel confident enough to seek advice from friends and family or from Consumer Direct,” urged Michele Shambrook of the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), the government body that oversees Consumer Direct.

The organisation has launched a ‘scams awareness month’ as part of its awareness-raising remit, but the impact of this is likely to be modest. In a world where financial services are used remotely by phone and the Internet, the opportunity for fraud remains considerable.  

A better long-term plan would be to give consumers a way of reporting fraud and attempted fraud, which would give police and possibly consumers more up-to-date intelligence of the types of fraud that are happening at any one time.