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June 28, 2018

Private Eye Medicine Balls 1471 April 27, 2018
Filed under: Private Eye — Dr. Phil @ 3:16 pm

We’re Scamming

Many older people resent being called vulnerable, but to scammers they can be easy prey. Whilst car theft and house burglary have become harder due to improved technology and security, there has been a massive growth in relieving older people of their money, secure in the knowledge that they may be considered unreliable witnesses under fierce cross-examination. Professor Keith Brown from Bournemouth University leads research for the Chartered Trading Standards Institute in the field of financial fraud and scams prevention. He estimates that £10 billion a year may be taken from citizens without their full understanding and consent, and not always by criminals.

Brown cites clear evidence of legitimate companies targeting and repeat selling to vulnerable individuals. He highlights the gap in the protective measures offered by the current definition of mental capacity. People in the early stages of dementia have some form of cognitive impairment, but do not lack capacity as defined by the Mental Capacity Act. Yet they are clearly more vulnerable than the average citizen. Brown cites his own mother, who paid over £3000 for unnecessary vitamin D supplements, and £600 to have her front drive spray-cleaned with a pressure hose, leaving sand all over the road. The law states that an unwise decision is not a reason for intervention if a person has capacity, and is foolish enough to pay way above the odds for something. Governments can legally bankrupt hospitals by signing up to overcharged PFI schemes, just as scammers can charge your mum £500 for gutter clearing.

There are plenty of organisations who charge different rates for the same service or product, simply on the basis that they can get away with it due to the customers’ age, gender, cognitive ability, wealth or relative social isolation. The pension industry runs on differential charging, and many care homes rely on self-funding clients to make up for a shortfall in state funded care. Charities and fundraisers may phone an older person every week for a donation, and it is given each time because the person cannot remember that they already donated last week and the week before. Over 300,000 names have now been identified as circulating on so-called ‘suckers lists’, of predominantly older people who are considered an easy touch. Many of these lists are derived from data shared or sold on by charities and other bodies.

And then there are the sophisticated postal scams driven by criminals. Again, many of these scams rely on people forgetting that they have already bought or contributed, and so respond when asked to pay again. More depressing, a few older people admit to enjoying the social interaction that scamming brings, because it’s the only contact they get. Health and social care services are ideally placed to spot the signs of scamming, but since 2009 the number of people with unmet care needs has grown to 1.2 million. Left alone, people are desperate for company. Professor Brown describes poignant examples of older people pulling out their call blocking device because the only phone calls they get are from scammers. Another man had three garden sheds full of products he’d bought through scamming, and freely admitted that the 10 or more items he received every day by special postal delivery was the highlight of his day. He spent many hours a day responding, believing he was connecting to the outside world in a meaningful way.

The cost of scamming is not just the immediate loss of money. Most people do not enjoy finding out they’ve been scammed, often of their life savings and the loss of confidence and dignity that follows can mean they are no longer able to live independent lives. This has a huge impact on the state in terms of social care provision especially if they can no longer help fund their care if they have been relieved of their wealth. It is currently trading standards who are supposed to prosecute and stop scamming. However, like other local authority services, they have experienced huge cuts in their budgets, with a total spend reduced from £213 million in 2009 to just £124 million now. Five trading standard services have a budget of less than £200,000 a year. Many feel they cannot afford to risk a prosecution that relies on the evidence of a vulnerable older person. And most local authorities lack the forensic capability to submit items for analysis including fingerprinting and DNA, to assist with the identification of offenders. Unsurprisingly, the average number of prosecutions per local authority in England and Wales for scamming has remained at one prosecution per local authority per year.

West Yorkshire Trading Standards have bucked this trend and used a ‘suckers list’ of 4500 people from their area. By supporting these individuals, they have saved over £900,000. They estimate that if scam involvement leads to only 10% of victims in West Yorkshire requiring residential care a year earlier than the average person, this would save the local authority £29 million. Time for a war on scamming and loneliness.