I f they put their collective brains together, the legion of swindlers out there could probably make the world a far better place. Instead, they choose to scam or con retailers, a soft target. Sometimes it's for just a few quid, sometimes for thousands.

If the testament of our agony aunt page is anything to go by, they also leave people rather nastily with a sense of stupidity (how could I have fallen for that?), a bad aftertaste and sleepless nights when the big scams hit hard with their heavy debt collectors.

The first thing I must say is, don't feel bad. You are not stupid. What you are is human; someone who believes in their fellow human being and therefore trusts them as a first instinct.


Trend spotting


Although they can be tricky to spot, there are patterns/fashions to be observed within the world of scams. The flavour of the moment gets passed on in some sort of grapevine fashion. Hence the rush of a couple of years ago of swarming distraction crimes that seemed to spring up around the country. And the flood of counterfeit £20s and now mobile phones with cameras which 'customers' use to film top-up vouchers and PIN numbers.

Many company scams tend to be tied up with the legislation of the moment, with bogus companies offering to handle compliance form-filling. For example, Data Protection Registration letters still go out demanding £100 for a service that actually costs £35.

Shane Brennan, public affairs director at the Association of Convenience Stores, says: "Regulatory reforms such as the Discrimination Act do tend to leave people thinking it's too difficult to comply, and that's where the scams come in."

Every time the five-yearly round of business rates are announced a rash of rate-reduction specialists spring up offering to get you reductions with nothing to pay unless the appeal is accepted (all appeals are accepted). These companies frequently use debt collectors to harass businesses, collecting fees for no work.


Closing the net


Oldfields and Strattons, the most active of the business rates cowboys who duped hundreds of retailers some 13 years ago, were finally taken to court by North Yorkshire Trading Standards, but it took them six years to get the case together and by then the directors were sitting in the sun somewhere.

The Department of Trade & Industry, as it was back in 2005, closed company after company for publishing scams which requested advertising for community publications, such as drugs awareness books for schools. But for every one closed another popped up. The good news is that the trend seems to be fading.

The European City Guide (ECG) - longest and strongest of the deceitful advertising companies- was closed by the Spanish courts in 2003, but is alive and well again in Valencia. Retailers have rung the helpline about ECG on a regular basis for the past 10 years. There is a website (www.stopecg.org) devoted to fighting ECG.

Most of the scams affecting retailers arrive in person, or over the phone, but now email has added to the fun. The Federation of Small Businesses reckons that online crime and fraud costs each small business £800 a year. Check out the website (www.fsb.org.uk) for its Scamwatch section. It's extensive
From the shop floor
l Barry Yagnik used to run West Fare Fine Foods in Kingston-upon-Thames. He was approached by a business rates consultancy and promised big reductions on his rates. They didn't happen and his business failed. The consultants took out a county court judgement and today he faces a bill of £1,000, which he is paying off at £10 a month while on

job-seeker's allowance.

l Award-winning retailer Steve Denham, whose Londis trades in the affluent village of West Chiltington in West Sussex, says that he regularly gets calls from companies offering to help with business problems. "We just say that we have our own advisors...we are already under contract. We put up our own defences and we buy nothing cold. Staff know they don't have the responsibility to deal with cold-callers

- it protects them."

l Ashok Patel ticked a box to verify his address and then got constant phone calls and stressful debt-collecting threats for more than two years from the European City Guide, which wanted more than e1,000 for a worthless listing for Ashok's convenience store in London's East End. A National Federation of Retail Newsagents solicitor finally got him off this treacherous hook. "I'm very careful these days," he says.
Avoidance tactics
There is certainly one rule that will help with preventing scams - if someone cold-calls you with an offer that sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is. If you need a service, shop around (and even then, read the small print before you sign anything).

l Train staff to refer any cold-callers to the boss. Never fall for the old agreement-seeking question for unsolicited goods that suggests they had spoken to someone there previously ('about your order for till rolls - we'll deliver next week', 'about your ad in the drugs awareness book - which school are you nominating to receive copies?')

l The more aggressive the caller the more certain you can be that it is a scam. Be robust in return

l Remember that anyone claiming to have 'verbal agreement' will have to back that up in court by playing the whole tape of your conversation, not just the bit they prefer

l People get wise to scams and you can quicken the process by reporting them to your trade association, to your local Chamber of Commerce, Trading Standards or Convenience Store.