Let’s start with a quick update from last month’s column, where we mentioned that a well-known High Street fashion retailer had admitted that it may have overstated the value of stock on its balance sheet by "some £25m". Following a preliminary investigation by external auditors, the company issued a statement admitting that the discrepancy is now believed to be around £58m. At the time of writing, retail analysts still don’t know whether it’s down to a physical loss or a matter of existing inventory being over-valued. All of which reinforces the points we made about the need for any retail business to have regular, preferably external, audits to ensure that the stock values in their accounting systems represent real stock at correct prices.

Hot on the heels of that press release, came an extraordinary story right here in Forecourt Trader. Apparently staff at two petrol forecourts in North Wales received phone calls from someone purporting to be an ’area manager’ of their franchise, who first asked them to send pump meter readings to a mobile number, before asking them to check certain shop stocks and then to transfer some of that merchandise to ’another branch’ by taxi At the time of writing police are still investigating.

It would be easy to say that there’s no accounting for human gullibility; how can anyone fall for a scam where they accept a call from someone they don’t know, asking them to transfer anything valuable? And yet it happens over and over again. The most common examples are the calls supposedly from an individual’s bank, often telling them that there’s been a ’security alert’ on their account and then instructing them to move funds from that account into a ’special security account’ until the matter has been ’resolved’. You can guess the outcome. The media usually only highlights these cases when they involve OAPs who’ve just lost all of their life savings. However, you’ll find that it also happens to working people running their own businesses and is much more common than you’d think.

sensitive time

February is an especially sensitive time to be aware of scammers, particularly those pretending to be from HM Revenue & Customs. Over ten million individuals have just submitted their Self-Assessment Tax Returns to HMRC, and thousands of others are likely to be doing so into this month and beyond. Many of them, particularly the self-employed running small businesses, will not have done it themselves. They’ll have used accountants to do it for them; and there’s a good chance that a fair proportion of them won’t know the details of what’s gone into those returns unless they’ve had to make a payment already. And then some of them may get an apparently delightful email advising that they’re due a ’tax refund’ all they have to do is download a form, fill it in with their bank details and wait for the money to appear. But of course the money won’t appear. Same thing happens every year.

Time for some elementary security and common sense. Firstly, if you do file your own tax return, remember that part of it already asks for details of a bank account to which HMRC can make any re-payment of tax that might be due to you. They will not send you an email asking for those details again. If your tax advisor filed your return, they’ll already have provided the same details to HMRC. Nobody needs to ask you again, and certainly not by email, text message or similar. And if your tax advisor did obtain a tax refund for you, you might expect them to have told you in person any way.

lengthy log on

If HMRC needs to tell you something, they’ll write to you, or send you an email telling you to log into your Gov.uk account but it will not contain any links to take you there, you’ll have to go through the whole lengthy log-on process manually.

Secondly, and more generally: if you receive a call, text, or email from someone you do not personally know, and who’s number or email address doesn’t appear in your existing list of contacts, do not respond to it, do not act on it. Whether they claim to be your bank, accountant, HMRC, or ’Head Office’ you should already have their regular, official number or email address somewhere in your own records. Treat any other approach as suspicious and use the contacts you already have to check what’s going on. Under no circumstances should you simply accept instructions from people you don’t know to provide financial information let alone to transfer funds. Nobody ever got fired for checking with ’Head Office’ before releasing anything of value to strangers.