‘Until we conquer loneliness we will never stop the financial scamming of vulnerable older people by criminals.’ That’s the stark message from the country’s leading expert on scamming Professor Keith Brown, Director of the National Centre for Professional Practice (NCPP) at Bournemouth University.
And as Dorset Community Foundation’s ‘Hidden Dorset II’ report reveals one in five households in the county experiences loneliness with those in Dorchester, Portland and Blandford particularly at risk, the dangers are clear.
Prof Brown, who advises the Home Office and the Department for Health and Social Care and leads research on behalf of the National Scams Team and the All-Party Parliamentary Group (Financial Crime and Scamming), says the 50,000 cases reported in the last year – a number that has doubled in three years – are only the tip of the iceberg.
It is thought that of the total number of frauds, between just five and ten per cent are reported.
‘That means the 50,000 that are reported are likely to be around half a million cases in reality,’ says Prof Brown. ‘Fraud costs are estimated to be about £10 billion a year. It is a massive problem.’
Victims are identified by highly organised, frequently well-trained criminals often using information from ‘suckers’ lists’ available on the so-called ‘dark web’ to prey on older vulnerable people, typically socially isolated and in the early stages of cognitive decline. More than 300,000 names have now been identified in circulation on ‘suckers’ lists’ being traded by criminals.
‘For a variety of reasons in most cases the criminals get away it. People that have been scammed are invariably reluctant to report it because they’re ashamed or feel stupid. If they do report the crime the source of the scam is often incredibly difficult to identify and in any case the money is often out of the country in seconds.
‘Scams are dealt with by Trading Standards and Dorset residents are fortunate to have a very good and responsive Trading Standards team, but they are a small team and scams are only one part of their remit.’
Not only does scamming often undermine the confidence, health and wellbeing of victims, it takes its toll on relatives and carers as well, not being able to support and protect loved ones from scammers causes real heartache.
‘I liken where we’re at with our understanding of financial scamming and how to deal with it to the dawning realisation of the scale of child abuse. In 1979 child abuse was still recorded as ‘Non Accidental Injury’. We have come such a long way in the forty years since then in terms of acknowledging and dealing with child abuse, but as far as scamming is concerned we’re still at 1979.
‘We have so much more to understand and discover in terms of the scale and the impact of the problem.’
In recent years there has been a measure of success in disrupting mail and phone scams. However, as banks close branches and encourage customers to go online the criminals are shifting their focus to the internet where to some extent everyone is at risk, but particularly more vulnerable people.
There are examples where call blocking technology has been installed to prevent calls from scammers – twenty or thirty a day – and some of those it was intended to help removed the technology because they found it worse not having any calls at all than answering calls from scammers.
‘One victim of mail scams had three garden sheds filled with scam mail – he received so much mail each day he had a personal delivery service,’ says Prof Brown, ‘but he wouldn’t stop the mail because in his words dealing with and answering scam mail was the only reason he could find to get up each day.
‘The problem is loneliness. If there’s one tip to prevent scamming of our loved ones it is to stay in touch with them, talk to our neighbours and relatives, and look out for signs they are being scammed.’
The NCPP has produced a series of booklets about financial scamming and worked with Age UK to develop the Scams Prevention and Victim Support Toolkit, a learning package about the risks posed by scams. It has also produced a toolkit aimed at community nurses and healthcare professionals to help them spot and support scam victims as these are often the only professional that the lonely elderly come into contact with.
‘If an older person is scammed out of their life savings and they have to go into care, the state picks up the cost, but how many additional instances of that happening would it take to bankrupt a local authority – surely this is the greatest challenge facing public services in our generation?’ asks Prof Brown.
He believes we can do more to protect ourselves in older ager if families have better conversations about financial affairs so that their intentions are made clear and wishes fully understood. The Mental Capacity Act provides mechanisms such as Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) that allow people to authorise others to act on their behalf if they lose the capacity to manage their own affairs.
‘We understand what a Will is, but in actual fact LPA is probably more useful as it comes into play when the person is still alive,’ he explains, adding that by the end of 2018 more than three million LPAs had been registered with the Office of the Public Guardian, up from 2.6 million at the start of the year.
If his quest to understand and thwart a dizzying array of financial scams appears personal, it’s because it is. Prof Brown’s mother had dementia and died four years ago, but not before she had been scammed out of thousands of pounds.
‘I make no bones about it, this is a crusade and the reason I go to the lengths I do is because I wasn’t able to better protect my mother from scammers. Despite all of my training and experience and a lifetime of working in this field I was not able to protect her all the time – a few scammers got through and took advantage of her.
‘So I want to make sure I do all I can to stop this from happening to other people – this is what drives me.’
National fraud and cyber crime reporting centre
0300 123 2040
Office of the Public Guardian
Government body set up to protect the private assets and supervise the financial affairs of people who lack mental capacity for making decisions.
Dorset Trading Standards
01202 224702 / 01305 224702
National Trading Standards
Teams oversee a range of issues such as rogue traders and scams
National Centre for Post Qualifying Social Work and Professional Practice at Bournemouth University
Featured Research – Financial Scamming
• First published by Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine