I woke up on Wednesday morning to an item on the Today programme about the carbon credit scam.
It warned that more than 1,000 elderly, but presumably well off, people had been ripped off by 19 carbon credit companies to the tune of £24 million. That's an average of nearly £25,000 per victim. These companies had been shut down by the Insolvency Service.
The firms included Eco Global Markets Limited, which alone took at least £8.5 million from more than 230 investors. It was wound up by the Insolvency Service in July 2013. Two other companies, Anglo-Capital Partners Ltd and Cavendish Jacobs Ltd, which between them took over £1.2 million, were wound up in October 2013. Others such as Tullett Brown had been closed earlier in the public interest.
Better late than never perhaps, but how much more useful would this radio item have been some two and half years ago when the carbon credit scam was just starting? That racket morphed seamlessly, and often with identical personnel, from landbanking, another rip-off which used similar tactics on the same target audience, in this case promising huge gains from tiny parcels of agricultural land when these plots gain planning permission for housing.
At that stage, in mid 2011, I warned that all companies contacting investors by phone to sell carbon credits were scam organisations. I said that the credits were either non-existent or virtually worthless. Some which did exist were sold with a ludicrous mark-up - a 7p credit was sold for £7.
And far from gaining in value, the way they were constructed meant that they actually fell over time.
There was no coherent market for the credits.
A disgraceful scam
The Consumer Minister, Jo Swinson, told the BBC: "[Carbon credits] is a particularly disgraceful scam as it not only preyed on older people trying to maximise their savings, but also targeted their sincere desire to make ethical investments. Instead, investors have been left out of pocket with shares that are either worthless or do not exist."
It is a pity that the consumer minister, the Insolvency Service and the BBC have not extended their range beyond carbon credits – largely yesterday's scam although the victims feel its effects now and into the future – to warn about successor scams such as rare earth minerals and the continuing wine racket.
Because I have been writing about these scams for 30 years, I – in common with other journalists ploughing this never ending and often threatening field – continually worry that no one in authority ever bothers reading our warnings until well after the victims emerge and it is too late to do anything to get their money back.
It is almost the perfect crime. Perpetrators get away with huge sums of money. But even if caught and closed down, the punishment is little more than a rap on the knuckles. Some of the directors of these 19 carbon credit companies have been disqualified from being company directors for varying periods of time. This is easily circumvented, if not by using false names (Companies House makes few checks) then by using an unemployed school leaver as a director.
How many carbon credit scam agents have been sent to prison? None. Yet if they were street kids mugging the same pensioners for a few pounds they would now be doing several years.
Are they forced to repay their loot? Rarely, if only because they mostly spend it as fast as they rip it off, often on illegal drugs to fuel their non-stop phone fraud activity.
It's easy money, as one 90 year old victim told the BBC. He had been pressurised two years ago to spend £60,000 of his retirement savings on carbon credits which were worthless.
He recounted how the scam merchant travelled from London to Cheshire to collect his money, although but he never received paperwork.
He said: "They came to see me at Macclesfield station, and had a drink. I was very impressed, why should they come all the way from London? I should have been suspicious, if they're going to those lengths they must have something unique."
He related that he had paid £20,000 for European carbon credits and £40,000 for Californian carbon credits. The money is long gone.
It appears some victims were told their carbon credits would then be bought by British Airways and Marks and Spencer. This was a total fabrication – neither BA nor M&S had any involvement and were unaware of this use of their names - but citing well known firms is a classic scam move.
This is all stable door shutting. One day, the authorities will nip a scam in the bud. But I am not holding my breath.