The impact of financial scams cannot be measured by monetary loss alone; in some cases, particularly when the victims are older and vulnerable people, they can cause permanent damage to a person’s quality of life.
“In one case, someone lost their house and went into respite accommodation,” says Sean Olivier, a safeguarding coordinator at Croydon Council.
“Through the stress of it they became unwell and never went back home. People will lose all their assets and that’s horrific and terrible, particularly at the end of your life.”
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Scams are estimated to cause between £5 and £10bn worth of financial loss to UK consumers each year, according to research, but are largely underreported. Fraudsters are also regularly targeting vulnerable people – the average age of a victim is 75.
Thanks to the Care Act 2014, local authorities and social workers now have an important role to play in protecting people from this form of financial abuse, which includes doorstep crime and internet, postal and telephone scams.
The scale and size of the problem also recently prompted the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) to issue guidance for social workers on how to recognise the signs of someone who is a victim of scams and how to support them.
Community Care spoke to Olivier, who has worked extensively in this area with his trading standards colleagues, about the council’s approach to these cases; and to Keith Brown, professor of social work at Bournemouth University, who explains what research tells us about how to prevent vulnerable people from falling victim to scams.
Olivier says that prior to the introduction of the financial abuse provisions in the Care Act 2014, social workers in Croydon noticed they were having an increasing amount of contact with trading standards officers.
“We had to stand back and look at what was going on – why are we doing all of these home visits, and what’s the cut across between our clients and your clients?” he says.
“We found there were a lot of clients who had what we now call care and support needs who were engaging in advanced fee fraud, scam lotteries, or rogue traders were targeting them. We also had some clients who were victims of both, or repeat, scams.”
This prompted the council to develop a joint working protocol between the two teams, in order to standardise expectations and responses when working with these cases.
“Basically it was about setting expectations across adult social care, so whichever social worker picks up the case, they know they must work with trading standards.
“That was really helped then by the Care Act guidance, because it placed such great emphasis on financial abuse and obviously scams fall under that category.”
The guidance requires safeguarding adults boards to consider how to involve local trading standards teams in their work, and states that scamming cases should always be reported to local police and trading standards services for investigation.
In the last year, Croydon council has enquired into approximately 150 reports of financial abuse, Olivier says, and the social work response is two-fold.
Firstly, practitioners must consider a section 42 enquiry under the Care Act to determine if the person has been financially abused, and secondly they must decide if the person needs a social work assessment, which could result in a care package.
One of the most difficult tasks is getting the victim to realise that they are in fact a victim, Olivier adds, because often they have such an “entrenched relationship” with their abusers that they are more likely to believe them over statutory officers.
“We often have to work very hard and very consistently to give a message,” he says.
He points to research by Michael Preston-Shoot on self-neglect, another complex and challenging area of adult safeguarding, which uses the phrase “slow-burn approach” to describe how professionals should work with clients who are self-neglecting.
Olivier says this approach is also applicable to victims of scams, who need to feel supported about their victimhood, not embarrassed.
“You can’t walk into someone’s lounge and say ‘everything you’ve known for the last few years has been a lie, you’ve lost all your money and we’re here to help’,” he says.
“It doesn’t work like that. There’s a massive social network and belief system that needs to be unpicked at the client’s pace.”
Key to this is understanding exactly what it was about that person, at that time, that made them engage with the scam, Olivier adds, and this is where social workers need to use their psychosocial skills to have an honest conversation.
“It’s very important to recognise that this did not come out of the blue – people are normally susceptible to these scams at a low ebb in their lives.”
“If you don’t answer that question then, in my opinion, your client will be re-victimised.”
Olivier says that the scams can take on “such social significance” in a person’s life – the scammer sometimes being the only person buying them a birthday present, for example – that it is important for social workers to replace that with something else.
“This is where the good old social work assessment comes in,” he adds.
“Social workers need to know what’s happening in their local communities so they can link people to alternative activities that are meaningful and pertinent to them.”
Croydon council also works with the local Age UK charity to provide a specialist financial advocate for older people. The advocate provides practical support, such as securing the person’s assets and going to the bank with them to place limits on daily withdrawals, in order to minimise the impact of the abuse and prevent re-victimisation.
“There’s value in the fact that he’s not from one of the statutory agencies and people will often share things with him that they won’t share with us – that’s all positive.
“It’s worked incredibly well and has allowed us that protection plan that if left to social workers I don’t think would be there, because we don’t have those financial expertise.”
Olivier concludes that social workers must get to grips with scams and rogue traders because this type of abuse is “so comprehensive and so life-changing”.
“No one is saying that because of the Care Act social workers suddenly need to be experts in forensic fraud investigation – but you need to link with colleagues who are.
“And as a social worker you do need to be equally comfortable being the enquiry officer in the case of someone who’s lost £200,000, as you are for someone who’s lost £20 – for all the reasons why that’s more important and more devastating.”
What research about scamming tells us: Keith Brown, Bournemouth University
Keith Brown has coordinated research on how to prevent vulnerable people in society from falling victim to financial scams. This has included working in partnership with national trading standards organisations to produce a guide that describes the different types of scams currently taking place, and offer advice on how to prevent this abuse.
He says that historically a lot of safeguarding work has been about “knocks and bruises”, but a whole new area is now being uncovered and needs to be understood.
“We have often underplayed hugely the emotional and psychological significance of feeling duped and having someone come in and con you of your life savings.
“But actually the impact of this can be as profound as the terrible situation where someone has been knocked about and has bruises. The trauma of it is huge.”
He adds that the impact on family and carers has also often been underestimated.
“If your mother was scammed out of her life savings, how do you feel as her daughter when you realise that you had no idea that this was going on?
“The impact on the wider community and family is vast – and very profound feelings of shame, horror and anger come out.”
‘Spotting the signs’
One key task for social workers, and other professionals working in this area, is to know what they should be looking out for when visiting people at home, Brown says.
This could include piles of mail, thousands of pounds worth of inappropriate gifts or products like vitamin tablets and beauty products, general “tat” in the house, or any evidence that charities or other organisations are calling the person frequently.
“Clearly that’s a difficult task and would require thousands of social workers, but as we move more towards strengths-based work, then there is a role for social workers to work with their communities to help them better understand the problem.
“What we’re fundamentally going to need is more people in a community talking about these issues and taking care of their neighbours.”
Brown adds that unless that happens, the problem will never stop because the criminals are far too sophisticated for, – “putting it bluntly, a handful of social workers”.
“There’s a lot of money to be made here,” he says. “It’s not just somebody doing something for a prank, this is highly sophisticated, targeted criminal activity.”
‘Face up to loneliness’
Brown says that society also needs to face up to the issue of loneliness to help tackle the problem, because many people falling victim to scams are lonely and isolated.
He recalls meeting people who receive huge amounts of scam mail, sometimes 10 or 20 letters a day, and their houses are “literally rammed full of it”.
“They are aware they are being scammed, but will use phrases like ‘the only reason I have to wake up in the morning, or to live’ is to wait for the postman and answer the scam mail – because they have no other contact with the outside world.
“Councils will know about the people on their patch that they have a relationship with, but there are clearly lots of people that are so lonely that no services know about them.”
He adds that councils face such significant financial pressure that they may not want to find a whole new lot of clients – but those clients do exist.
“Social work should be about supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our society – and increasingly we are realising that these people are the most vulnerable.
“We need to step up our game in trying to support and protect them from this.”
The different types of scam
The Care Act guidance states that internet, postal, and doorstep scams are becoming “ever more sophisticated and elaborate” and are more often than not targeted at adults at risk. Scamming is a broad term and covers a number of different crimes, including:
Doorstep criminals come to a person’s home and offer to fix an often non-existent problem with their property, such as changing a tile on the roof, or painting a fence, but charging an unreasonable fee. Or sometimes they pose as police officers or someone in a position of authority in order to extract money.
Mass marketing mail crime
These scams often see victims receive vast numbers of letters, either telling them that they have won a large prize in a false lottery and have to pay a fee to release it, or repeatedly getting them to enter money into a prize draw that they will never win.
In other cases, victims are enticed into buying large numbers of products, such as toiletries, cheap jewellery, or food items, which are not quite what they claim to be.
Scammers usually make contact over the telephone to obtain personal details, and common telephone scams include pension, investment or charity scams.
These scams are largely done by criminals, but also by legitimate companies, such as charities, acting in an immoral way. For example, an older person who is in the early stages of dementia, or who is forgetful, may receive calls from and make donations to a charity every week because they can’t remember making it the week before.
Internet crime comes under many different guises, such as scammers asking for a person’s pin number after claiming that their bank details have been hacked.
A more recent addition is ‘clairvoyant scamming’. Groups of criminals abroad will trawl through obituary pages in online local newspapers in the UK and then contact the deceased person’s spouse to say: ‘I am a clairvoyant and if you pay me some money I will contact your husband/wife and speak to him on your behalf’. If the person stops paying, then the criminals will threaten to “curse them” unless they continue to pay.