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10 Nov 2012

Identity theft, 19th-century style

Bridgnorth is a pretty town in Shropshire, England, noted today for its funicular railway, historic buildings, and magnificent views of the River Severn, but in 1889 its peace was shattered by an attempted theft of astonishing boldness.

On 9 October, Miss Eliza Jane Scoffham entered the local branch of the Metropolitan and Birmingham Bank, saying that she had been sent by Mrs Blaythwayt, a customer of the bank, to pick up a chequebook on her behalf. The clerk, perhaps convinced by a letter of introduction that Eliza was carrying, handed over the chequebook.

Little did the clerk know the truth. Mrs Blaythwayt was indeed an old friend of Eliza’s. In the past, she had even been kind enough to lend her money. But Mrs Blaythwayt had no idea that Eliza would repay her kindness by fraudulently obtaining her chequebook, then spending the afternoon hiding in a room above a confectioner’s, practising forging her signature.

The Scoffham Case - sketches in court

Court sketches of the identity theft case in 1889

Later in the day, Eliza returned to the bank with a forged cheque to the value of GBP210 – equivalent to roughly GBP20,000 today. Eliza asked for the cheque to be cashed into gold. The cashier made up a parcel of sovereigns. Eliza’s behaviour, however, had raised his suspicions, and he put the parcel behind the counter while he went to make further enquiries. Once his back was turned, Eliza grabbed the money and ran out. The cashier set off in hot pursuit and managed to catch up with her before she reached the railway station.

Eliza was convicted by a court in Shrewsbury just a few weeks later and sentenced to nine months in prison. The case caused a sensation in the local media.

Some of those contemporary accounts are held in the HSBC archives, as Sara Kinsey, HSBC's Global History Manager, explains:

"Local newspapers didn't just cover the event - they produced sketches, and even wrote a song. It's not hard to see why. This was an extraordinarily bold attempt to steal a significant amount of money and lots of little details which add to the sense of drama. Accounts suggest that Eliza was dressed as a nurse and wearing a wig, and threw off the disguise as she tried to flee.

"For a British audience of the time, in a society which preferred its women to be demure, the fact that Eliza was a woman only made her crime more shocking. What's more, she was a teacher; so the ingredients are all there for huge public scandal."

Eliza was thwarted by nothing more than the vigilance of a quick-witted clerk. In more recent years, with the advent of online banking, the battle to protect customers' money has moved into a whole new arena. There is a far greater level of sophistication on both sides. Criminals' techniques have evolved to include such methods as malware – programmes hidden or disguised inside a computer's operating system, spying on the user's activities and collecting their financial details. Banks have responded with ever tougher encryption, security software and authentication devices to help customers bank online with confidence.

Evidence suggests that in some parts of the world, these efforts are bearing fruit. Financial Fraud Action UK, a body working on behalf of the whole of the financial services industry to coordinate efforts to boost security, reported that the cost of online fraud in the UK fell between 2010 and 2011. However, the same report also underlines that online fraudsters are stepping up their operations. 2011 saw an 80 per cent increase in "phishing," for example – a type of scam where a criminal sends an e-mail purporting to come from a customer's bank, containing a link to a false website. If the customer enters their personal details, the criminal will be able to access their account.

Phishing, malware, and other forms of online data theft may use the latest technology, but Ms Kinsey argues that the Scoffham case proves that they are all based on age-old ideas:

"In some senses the 'Tricky Lady Swindler of Bridgnorth' is the great-grandmother of today's online fraudsters. She was working on exactly the same basic principle; collecting enough information to be able to pose as someone else in order to withdraw money from their account. Different context, same crime."

You can read more about how to keep safe online – and protect yourself from modern-day Eliza Scoffham – by following this link.