When I realised a few weeks ago that I had become a victim of internet fraud – for a considerable sum – my first reaction was to keep it to myself. It is, after all, embarrassing to admit you have been duped.
At the back of my mind was the thought that even if I reported the fraud to the authorities, I was more likely to encounter indifference than concern, and less likely to get my money back or see justice done than to experience frustration and powerlessness. How right I was.
My story begins in January when I emailed a friend about high-end Canon camera equipment I was thinking of buying. Within seconds of sending the message, I was astonished to see an advert for my chosen camera pop up in the banner running across the top of my Google email inbox. And instead of the £4,000 or so I had expected to pay, the asking price was less than £2,000. How could I not be tempted?
Of course, I should have smelled a rat. But my defences were down owing to the fact that the ad had come to me via Google, my email provider. Google, I naively imagined, would vet its advertisers thoroughly before granting them privileged access to potential customers; individuals who are identified by Google's own technology as it scans the contents of private emails.
The advert linked to the vendor's website, which was well constructed and convincing. It gave an address in the City of London, where there are plenty of discount camera shops.
I sent off a bevy of emails asking a range of questions. The replies were all prompt and plausible. So I sent my order and felt proud of my financial coup. I was in no frame of mind to smell the next rat that scurried past: if I transferred payment from my bank to theirs, they told me, I could save a 17% surcharge for using a credit card.
If I had any doubts about this procedure, they were allayed by the fact that the bank I was asked to transfer funds to was NatWest, whose online ad reads: "See how we're working to keep your money safe from harm." Its parent, Royal Bank of Scotland, is state-owned.
And, if I'm honest, I didn't want to be put off at this stage. The thought of missing a bargain outweighed any lingering fear of fraud, so I trotted off to my bank and did the transfer. It took 30 seconds. All I had to do now was wait for the postman.
After a fortnight, and feeling slightly foolish for my impatience, I emailed the vendor asking the reason for the delay. But this time my mail bounced back "undeliverable". Next day, the vendor's website had disappeared.
My heart sank as the smell of rat became undeniable. But should I keep quiet and avoid embarrassment, or tell the authorities and risk a double dose of disappointment when they did nothing about it?
At least I could try to get my money back, so I wrote to the manager of the NatWest branch where my cash had disappeared. No one replied.
I contacted the bank's internal fraud team, who took my statement amid audible sighs. When I later sought an update they said they couldn't discuss the matter with me. But they did confirm that they hadn't passed details of the fraud to the police. "We just don't do that," they said.
I contacted the European Consumer Centre – a consumer advice and protection body – who told me that the company I was dealing with had never been registered in the UK, and ran its website from Lithuania. But as they had "no enforcement or sanctioning powers" they advised me to contact the Financial Services Authority (FSA) and the City of London Trading Standards Office.
The FSA said that unless I was alleging that the bank was actively involved in the fraud, it couldn't help. The City of London Trading Standards Office told me it already knew of this fraud – many others had already been caught out. But as it did "not have the resources to deal with a scam of this type" they suggested I contact a body called Action Fraud.
I felt trapped in a maze of pillars and posts, while the fraudsters were left with the loot.
Action Fraud provides an interface between the public and the police, but doesn't have any authority to go after fraudsters. An official took a detailed statement from me and said it would be passed on to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau. "But don't expect to hear from them," she warned.
A quarter of all frauds against individuals in the UK last year were perpetrated online. Last month, when Action Fraud invited citizens to forward emails they believed were promoting fraud, it received 17,000 in two days.
And, of course, the fraudsters who robbed me of nearly £2,000 had found their way into my Google mailbox, uninvited. I had now learned how to spot the bogus companies. When I ran further checks I found more fraudulent ads for expensive camera equipment had gained priority in my inbox.
"Our goal is to provide Gmail users with ads that are useful and relevant to their interests," Google says of this "service". So I wrote to Ronan Harris, Google's European online sales director. "I would never have heard of the outfit that robbed me had Google not facilitated their scam by introducing them to my mailbox."
A week later, Harris phoned me and said my complaint had already been "actioned". This puzzled me because I hadn't named the fraudulent advertisers in my original letter.
But what I really wanted to know was how fraudsters consistently managed to get pride of place in the banner immediately above my incoming mail? Were they paying Google, or had Google been duped too?
It was an auction process, Harris explained – automated, so the ads appear in milliseconds. The "winner" was determined by its "quality score" and how much it would pay for this prime location. How a fraudulent trader could achieve a quality score wasn't explained, although I could see how, with money flowing in and no goods being supplied, the fraudsters could easily outbid legitimate traders to buy Google's best-positioned ad slots.
Harris expressed regret for my loss, but Google will not accept any degree of responsibility for the frauds perpetrated by their paying guests. At the end of our conversation, Harris asked me to name the fraudsters, which I did. He had said Google erred on the side of caution when vetting advertisers, but it didn't look that way to me.
Ten days after our conversation, one of the bogus companies I had named to Harris was still getting its ads into the strap above my inbox.
I may have learned my lesson, but many thousands of others will fall victim to these scam merchants, some no doubt soothed into complacency, as I was, by the fraudsters' respectable facilitators.