One on ten adults in the UK has been the victim of mass marketing fraud and more that 3.2 million people have handed over cash to con artists after being approached by letter, email or telephone, it was revealed yesterday.

According to the Office of Fair Trading, the total cost of fraudulent mass marketing, which uses mass communication tools to reach large numbers of people cheaply and easily, is more than £3.5 billion every year.

The most notorious scams centre on an advanced fee, where prizes or money are offered but to access them the victim must pay up front. A large proportion of mass marketing fraud is reported to originate in West Africa.

The figures are revealed as the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) announces that it has set its sights on the organised criminal gangs behind these frauds in the UK and abroad. Officials say they have seized fake cheques, postal orders and bank drafts exceeding the value of £8m.

Paul Evans from Soca, said the UK has become a staging post for the illegal trade: “In some of the emails we have intercepted there are appalling examples of vicious exploitation … and threats of violence.”

The home secretary, Jacqui Smith, said: “This type of fraud is … costing UK victims huge sums of money every year … It will not be tolerated.”

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