The police’s organised crime unit has this week issued a fresh warning to residents in the Burnham-On-Sea area about the threat of ‘courier fraud’.

Police say the south west region is being targeted by unscrupulous fraudsters, who are preying on vulnerable elderly people, some of whom have been duped out of thousands of pounds during the past two months.

The number of people who have been targeted in the West Country has now topped 200, with 15 offences recorded in the Avon and Somerset police force area, including the Burnham-On-Sea area. One local victim lost £34,000.

Police believe the amount of cash demanded by the fraudsters could top half a million pounds across the region.

The perpetrators contact potential victims – who are often elderly – by telephone. They are then encouraged by the fraudster using an elaborate and convincing reason to withdraw large sums of cash, which they are then asked to send to London by taxi or via a courier, who will collect the money from their home.

The culprit claims the money is potential evidence for an investigation. The money is needed so that it can be forensically examined.

Another scam involves someone also claiming to be a police officer based in London, who informs the victim that two people have been arrested in the capital. When arrested they had in their possession bank cards which contained details of the victim. The victim is asked to recall the bogus officer.

Because the fraudster does not replace his phone, the unsuspecting victim speaks to him and is encouraged to provide private banking details and may also be asked to withdraw cash.

DCI Will White of the police’s Zephyr crime unit said: “We really don’t know the extent of this extremely worrying problem. It is possible that the thousands of pounds which have been demanded and lost and the sums that we have been prevented from being surrendered may only be the tip of the iceberg. It is possible that some victims may feel too embarrassed, ashamed or humiliated to come forward and report that they have been duped.”

“We would like to hear from these people, so that we can establish how widespread this particular crime is and so that support and advice can be provided,” said DCI White.

“The police and the banks will never ask you for banking details or PIN numbers on the phone. Similarly, they would never send a so-called ‘courier’ to collect bank cards or money.”

“In recent incidents the victims did the right thing when they became suspicious of callers. They hung up the phone and called the police. They waited until they could hear a dialling tone or used a different phone to call us, ensuring that the scammers weren’t still connected to the line.”

“The more we talk about this scam and the more people who are made aware of it, the less likely that they are to become victims. We need people to spread the word. If you have elderly and vulnerable relatives, neighbours, colleagues and friends warn them to be vigilant and on their guard for telephone calls of this kind.”

“We are also appealing to taxi owners to be vigilant, especially if asked to courier small packages to London for elderly people,” said DCI White.

Already some arrests have been made in connection with courier fraud although people are urged to remain vigilant. Three men from London aged 23, 22, and 18 have been arrested in connection with courier fraud. Two of them admitted offences and have been released on court bail to await sentencing. Avon and Somerset Police have arrested two further men from London in connection with courier fraud. They have been released on police bail, pending further enquiries.