Small business owners around the UK are being warned about a telephone scam involving bogus bailiffs claiming thousands of pounds, supposedly arising from unpaid fees for online marketing. The alias of “Sam Jones” of Bristol enforcement agency Able Investigations and Enforcements has been used in at least five cases nationwide. Whilst this is a genuine company, the fraudster has simply taken their details from the Certificated Bailiff Register on the Government’s Ministry of Justice website. Using these details, they then call hapless B&B owners, including Sussex businesses, saying they owe several thousand pounds to Bristol County Court in a case due that day. They then say that without immediate settlement of the debt further action will ensue.

Victims include Liz O’Rourke, who is aged 77 and for the past 17 years has managed Summerfields, a B&B in Bohemia Road, Hastings. She said a man posing as “Sam Jones” told her she owed £2,700 in unpaid debt to a search engine optimisation (SEO) company and that Bristol County Court was now pursuing the debt. After a panicked call to the court, her mind was put at rest, but she expressed concern that other B&B owners might well pay up due to the convincing nature of the bogus call.

“My first reaction was panic – what had I done, who had I defrauded? Then I checked online with my husband, called the County Court and they told me things would never have reached this stage without lengthy correspondence. The bailiff is real and the company exists, but anyone can find a genuine enforcement agency online and pretend to be calling under their name, so it’s not Able Investigations’ fault and I didn’t lose any money either, fortunately. But the problem is that this guy is getting away with scaring people like me. Even though I’m 77, I still manage to run a business seven days a week, but there are older people around the country who he can convince to send him money. Our industry is highly dependent on internet presence. We do rely on Google Maps and the internet for most of our business, so we’re easy prey for them. My concern is that there are hundreds of people out there doing this and many of the victims will be easier prey than I was. There’s nothing out there to stop them.”

Steve Wood, managing director of Able Investigations and Enforcements and deputy chairman of industry body the Certified Enforcement Agents Association (CEAA), also commented.

“Sadly, as police budgets become increasingly stretched and as the internet pervades every aspect of our lives, fraudsters and scam operators are clearly becoming more prevalent. At a time when the CEAA is making great efforts to improve the reputation and image of our industry, it’s a shame to see behaviour like this taking place. We are of course upset that the good name of our company is being used in such a way, although relieved that Mrs O’Rourke had the presence of mind to check before parting with any money. Unfortunately we expect other bed and breakfast owners may have paid considerable sums to these fraudsters. The only silver lining to this cloud is that we can now help make the scam common knowledge, and hopefully alert anyone running an independent small business to the dangers that are out there. The key message is to treat any requests for money with extreme caution and never make a payment over the phone. We are happy to advise anyone who is being threatened with bailiff action as to their legal standing and appropriate actions.”

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