How fraudsters used lockdown to lure Irish victims into boats and caravans scam

Websites offered to deliver products to Irish clients who were unable to go to UK due to travel restrictions

Sylvester Hiemstra  at his mobile home in Downings, Co Donegal: he was taken in by islandboats.co.uk’s slick website and professional-sounding customer service, paying over €6,100 for a 5.7m Fletcher Farrow boat. Photograph: Joe Dunne

Sylvester Hiemstra at his mobile home in Downings, Co Donegal: he was taken in by islandboats.co.uk’s slick website and professional-sounding customer service, paying over €6,100 for a 5.7m Fletcher Farrow boat. Photograph: Joe Dunne

 

With three decades in construction under his belt and his family almost reared, Philip Doyle dared to dream a little during the lockdown period. A recreational diver in his spare time and already part-owner of a small boat, he decided he would invest in a larger vessel of his own.

It would be nothing fancy; a power boat with a small cab to sleep in overnight so he could sail it from place to place and stay out for a few days. Enough for a bit of fishing or diving by day, and comfortable enough for a few beers in the evening. He would even bring his dogs along.

But in the space of three days in early May his dream turned to dust. The married father of four from Bray, Co Wicklow, fell victim to a very polished scam.

“I felt like a fool, to be straight with you; no two ways about it,” he says when asked about realising the 6.5m Quicksilver power boat he had paid just over €13,000 for only existed in a photograph. “It was nice little dream I had, but I’ll have to put that back a few years.”

Islandboats.co.uk fooled many Irish victims with its well-designed website
Islandboats.co.uk fooled many Irish victims with its well-designed website

He contacted the Garda immediately, and was happy with its response, while also contacting the banks. However, he later learned that other Irish people had fallen victim to the same scam over the following two months and felt “very disheartened” at that news.

At least 12 Irish victims have lost a total of €83,000 after they paid it to the same fraudulent boat sales site Mr Doyle used and another seemingly related site selling caravans and camper vans. However, there are many more victims, including one in Sweden who has lost €20,000.

The websites offered to deliver boats, caravans and campers to clients in Ireland who were unable to go to the United Kingdom to collect them due to coronavirus travel restrictions. Because of that offer, the sites drew in a lot of Irish victims. Those taken in by the scam are convinced the two websites, which appeared on the internet in March and April, are being run by the same people because of their identical layout and modus operandi.

Caroline Keane, from Co Waterford, transferred €6,000 towards the purchase of a camper van on April 9th. The married mother of two grown-up children, who was buying the camper van from her husband’s voluntary redundancy money, was the first victim identified by The Irish Times.

Another victim, in the southeast, paid £7,200 (€8,000) last month in part payment for a non-existent caravan. Preferring not to be named, he told The Irish Times that he was buying a caravan so his sister with late-stage cancer could safely holiday, isolated from other people during the coronavirus crisis.

“It’s nightmare. I was half-hoping my local bank manager would reimburse me but he’s having none of it,” he said, “My bank manager is a young fella with no experience; he’s only throwing a snowball somebody else is making, he’s not allowed make his own decisions.”

The scams are known as “authorised push payment” (APP) fraud, where a victim is persuaded to transfer money, under false pretences, from their bank account into an account controlled by fraudsters. It has been soaring in recent years, prompting banks in the UK to set up a scheme in May 2019 to protect their customers.

Banks in the UK have since then agreed to cover victims of such frauds but Irish banks have yet to follow suit. The UK scheme only applies to transfers between UK accounts, meaning people transferring funds from Ireland are not covered for compensation.

The Irish victims paid for “phantom” boats advertised on islandboats.co.uk, while others paid for camper vans and caravans which they had seen online on a second fraudulent website, caravan2009.co.uk.

There is a real company called Island Boats Ltd based in Middlesex, and islandboats.co.uk is not its website. Instead, it has traded properly and legally for more than 20 years, with a strong reputation in the field.

Stolen company identities

Meanwhile, the second company victim, Nottingham-based Caravan 2009 Limited has traded properly for more than a decade, selling caravanning accessories. This company, which sells caravan accessories, and not caravans, has never had a website.

There is no allegation of any wrongdoing against either company. Indeed, they are victims, too, since their company identities have been stolen.

The fraudsters created the islandboats.co.uk site to offer all kinds of second-hand boats for sale; from £43,000 (€47,930) speedboats to cheaper ribs (rigid inflatable boats) and creakier vessels dating back to the 1970s for less than £3,000 (€3,345).

A screengrab from the fraudulent website islandboats.co.uk, which is still operating
A screengrab from the fraudulent website islandboats.co.uk, which is still operating

Victims came across the fake websites as they browsed for boats, caravans and campervans. Every advert is packed with photographs and detailed descriptions. When customers rang, their calls were answered promptly and politely by people.

The calls were not answered by people with British accents, although callers believed that they were speaking with people who were based in Britain. Emails were replied to by people with British-sounding names, both promptly and politely.

So audacious were the fraudsters that they encouraged potential clients to check up on their reputations by consulting Companies House record. Of course, when they did so the records they found were for the real companies, Island Boats and Caravans 2009.

The two genuine companies have long trading histories at fixed addresses, had always filed accounts on time, and had no judgments against them. There was much to offer reassurance, nothing to offer doubt.

However, the companies’ identities had been stolen. The fraudsters had simply copied the identities of the two legitimate companies and set up two websites under their names before heading out on a campaign of fraud.

“You get this feeling come over you and you think: ‘How am I going to explain this to my wife and kids, that I’ve just thrown €6,100 into a hole?’

Sylvester Hiemstra (51), a Donegal-based married father of two, ditched plans for a foreign holiday this year once the virus struck. Instead, he went looking for a boat to use for family cruises and for fishing when he went to his mobile home in Downings, Co Donegal.

An invoice to Sylvester Hiemstra from Island Boats
An invoice to Sylvester Hiemstra from Island Boats

By day, Mr Hiemstra works providing security infrastructure in the telecommunications sector in Ireland and is the son of a retired police officer. He always believed, he said, that he would be “the last person you’d think would be scammed”.

But he was taken in by islandboats.co.uk’s slick website and professional-sounding customer service, paying over €6,100 for a 5.7m Fletcher Farrow boat, especially since he had found no negative reviews of the site anywhere.

He even showed the site to sailing friends, and others in security. Everyone thought it seemed genuine, especially when backed by the company filings he had found. So he paid over his money on Friday, June 11th, and the site continued to reply to him by email.

Four days later Mr Hiemstra found a warning about islandboats.co.uk on the customer review site, Trust Pilot, which warned that the legitimate Island Boats company had had its details copied for use by fraudsters on a fake website.

“I had a knot in my stomach,” said Mr Hiemstra, realising he had been scammed. “You get this feeling come over you and you think: ‘How am I going to explain this to my wife and kids, that I’ve just thrown €6,100 into a hole?’ You feel a sense of uselessness, it’s hard to describe.”

Once the money had been transferred to, and taken from the HSBC bank account set up by the fraudsters, communication stopped.

He has since learned that when people like him paid for their boats, and the money arrived in the HSBC account in the UK, those accounts were immediately emptied by the fraudsters. It meant by the time the victims in Ireland realised they had been scammed, their money was gone. For every victim a different HSBC account was used.

Mr Hiemstra said the banks and law enforcement in Ireland and England moved much more slowly than the fraudsters. HSBC told him its investigations into his case would take up to 45 days. Like others, Mr Hiemstra wonders how fraudsters could set up multiple accounts using the hijacked identities of legitimate businesses.

Meanwhile, another victim, Wexford-based Fran Morrison (33) chipped in with a friend to buy a 1990 Bayliner speedboat for “something different to do for the summer seeing as we can’t go away anywhere”.

His wife has cystic fibrosis, and the speedboat was something they were hoping to enjoy in the months ahead. Once his €5,050 fee was transferred, he was assured the boat would be delivered on May 29th. The date came and went without delivery.

He reported it to gardaí, and one garda rang a UK phone number of the islandboats.co.uk website and spoke directly with someone claiming to be from the site, who reassured the garda that the boat would be delivered within days.

Mr Morrison believes that was a stalling tactic designed to hold law enforcement in Ireland at bay, thus buying more time so more people in Ireland would continue to find the website and make purchases or pay deposits.

Eventually Mr Morrison contacted Action Fraud UK himself, Thames Valley Police and HSBC and reported the crime. So did many others. Mr Morrison even tracked down the accountant for the legitimate Island Boats Ltd who confirmed that the company had had its details hijacked and that many people, mostly Irish, had been scammed.

Mr Morrison investigated further and discovered the boat he thought he was buying had been recently sold legitimately by its owner on another website. The fraudsters who set up islandboats.co.uk had simply stolen that advert and put it onto their bogus site.

Wexford-based Fran Morrison, victim of the Island Boats scam. He lost €5,050 when he and a friend went in on a boat together
Wexford-based Fran Morrison, victim of the Island Boats scam. He lost €5,050 when he and a friend went in on a boat together

The previous owner of the boat told Mr Morrison that he was the fifth person – four Irish and one Maltese – to contact him and explain how they had been duped out of their money after seeing his old advert on islandboats.co.uk.

Limerick man Darragh McCormack is the only person who transferred money to islandboats.co.uk that managed to get it back. He transferred €11,500 for a Coastline 6m rib and a Dell Quay 560 Fisherman Pilothouse Boat.

The 32-year-old from Ardagh, Co Limerick, is an experienced sailor with Foynes Yacht Club. He was Dublin Bay Mermaid national champion in 2018 and 2019 and was Irish Cruiser Racing Association Class 4 champion in 2017.

“I’d never bought boats online before and I’ll never do it again. You’d really want to be looking into the eyes of the fella you’re buying off,” he said. Like others, he had opted for an online purchase because of travel restrictions. Many other victims said the same.

Raised the alarm

While the boats being offered for sale were “a bit cheaper than normal” Mr McCormack felt the coronavirus crisis, Brexit and the devaluing British pound were all plausible reasons for the price falls, as has been the case with second-hand cars for sale in Britain.

“The people at the website stopped communicating with me for a few days after I said I’d paid the money and that’s when I thought something was up so I got onto the bank to stop the money,” he said.

He believed his bank had made the transfer more slowly than other victims’ banks. The money did not leave his account for several days and while it was gone from his account by the time he raised the alarm with his bank “it hadn’t cleared on the other end”, with HSBC in the UK.

“If they had continued to reply to me after I made the transfer, they probably would have got my money off me,” he said of the people he had been dealing with in the website.

I’m just absolutely perplexed that somebody can open all of these bank accounts using my company name

Carl Walters, who owns the legitimate Island Boats Ltd company, said he was horrified that fraudsters had hijacked his company’s name. One Irish victim had even tracked down his accountant’s home in England and called to it.

Island Boats Ltd had never been his sole earner, he said, as it was a small company that had only ever sold one model of boat; a Polish-built Suncamper. And he had even stopped selling that in recent years as parity between the pound and euro made it financially unattractive.

For Mr Walters (70) the issue “all kicked off in about late May or early June” when people, mostly Irish, began contacting his wife through social media because she was recorded as company secretary in official records. He immediately contacted Action Fraud UK, Companies House and HSBC.

“The whole thing is quite upsetting. Someone’s done a fraudulent misrepresentation of my company and they’re stealing money from other people. I’m upset for them and for me. It’s my name they are using. I’m just absolutely perplexed that somebody can open all of these bank accounts using my company name,” Mr Walters adds.

Speaking for Caravan 2009, Katey Tebbutt said the company has never had a website and has never sold caravans. Instead, it sells end-of-line caravan accessories on behalf of a larger parent company.

‘Disgusting’

She said her company was contacted by victims, starting in April, but had to tell people they had no association whatever with the site.

“It’s disgusting really, quite upsetting. One of the calls we got was from a little old man and many of the victims seem to be older people. We’ve even had a court summons,” she said, though her company had nothing to do with the fraud.

They also raised the alarm with HSBC, UK police and Action Fraud UK. The fraudulent site – which Ms Tebbutt believed it may have been run via Norway – is no longer “live” in the UK or Ireland but she feared it may still be accessible in some countries.

Garda Headquarters did not reply to a request for comment. However, senior Garda sources confirmed to The Irish Times multiple victims had made complaints to the force about islandboats.co.uk and caravan2009.co.uk. Those complaints were under investigation and the Garda was in contact with Interpol and Action Fraud UK.

HSBC UK said it “sympathises with people who fall victim to scams” and it knew how “traumatic” the experience was.

“These scammers are unscrupulous criminals who use a range of sophisticated techniques for their own financial gain without care for the individuals they target. We adhere to best practice standards to prevent financial crime and where a report of a potentially fraudulent payment or scam is received we take action immediately.”

While caravan2009.co.uk is no longer online, the other fraudulent site islandboats.co.uk was still operating this week.