How social workers can spot the signs of scams

Scams are a form of financial abuse and can be sophisticated, drawn out and based in relationships

phone with post-it note saying scam
Photo: Karen Roach/fotolia

This article comprises of excerpts taken from a new guide on Community Care Inform Adults about protecting adults from scams. The guide is written by Sean Olivier, safeguarding co-ordinator in adult social care, and Trish Burls, trading standards manager, both at the London Borough of Croydon. It is based on their experience as practitioners working in Croydon to tackle scams. The full guide covers the different types of scams, risk factors and approaching victims, and subscribers can read the guide on Inform Adults.

Safeguarding adults with care and support needs from abuse and neglect is a core part of the adult social work role, but social workers may not realise that protecting them from scams falls into this category.

However, the law and policy in both England and Wales is clear that it does. Section 42 of the Care Act 2014 and section 126 of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 (the Well-being Act) place duties on local authorities to make enquiries when they have reasonable cause to suspect that a person with care and support needs is experiencing, or at risk, of abuse and neglect and is unable to protect themselves because of their needs. Section 42 of the Care Act and section 197 of the Well-being Act define abuse as including financial abuse, which itself includes having money or other property stolen or misused, being defrauded and being under pressure in relation to money or property. And a scam is a fraud. It’s an attempt to steal money or goods, usually through some scheme or ploy.

The statutory guidance to the Care Act is explicit in stating that scams, whether internet, postal or doorstep, are a form of financial abuse (paragraph 14.28).

Financial and material abuse can be limited to a person with care and support needs stating that their cash has gone missing, or a pair of earrings has been stolen. Such cases still come in as safeguarding referrals and should be taken seriously. However, the more devastating aspects of financial abuse are not opportunistic in nature or petty theft; rather, they are sophisticated and often drawn out. They are based in relationships with the scammers that are often nearly impossible for professionals to break down.

The relationships that scammers form with victims could be described as adult grooming as the criminal will often spend months befriending a victim and making them increasingly dependent on them.

As such, by the time professional intervention takes place, the first hurdle is often getting the victim to see that their “friend” is in fact a criminal who is defrauding them or intends to. Such enmeshment between victim and criminal is not limited to physical contact (the kind one may see with a rogue trader) but can also be achieved via post or phone or a combination of both.

Types of scams

There are a variety of different scams, ranging from the romance scam, to the pension scam, to the clairvoyant scam. Then there is there is the lottery scam and the doorstep scam. The list is constantly growing. The Action Fraud site lists over 100 different types of fraud and scams and it’s an ever-evolving crime.

Spotting the signs

Scams are not easy to spot at first until you start to identify the signs. These are some of the signs to look out for:

  • A ‘typical’ victim may receive an inordinate amount of post, often ordered as described above. Psychic or clairvoyant mass marketing mail tends to address the recipient by their first name or by the generic term ‘friend’.
  • They may have received ‘holding’ prizes – small items of little value delivered to their home as an enticement to maintain their interest.
  • The landline may ring consistently or at odd hours of the day and night – these callers are often phoning from overseas, their ‘call centre’ is open 24/7 and they think nothing of getting a victim out of bed to instil the mantra of the win.
  • Your client may be very secretive about this aspect of their life if you start asking questions. They have often been groomed into believing that to divulge their imminent win/cure/prophesy will result in all contact being terminated.
  • Some victims may confess to being penniless. It may transpire that all of their money has gone towards constant release fees, paid out in small but increasingly regular amounts.

Many victims will refuse to believe that they are a victim or a target of crime. The fraudster has warned the victim against professional involvement from “authorities”. You may be seen as the one thing that stands between them and their prize. It often takes time for the fraud to emerge, by which time they have ploughed more funds into the scheme. Your words may fall on deaf ears, and you could become the enemy. Alternatively, a victim will often be seen to agree with you, claim it was only a bit of fun and that they only sent £10 or £20 anyway. They will placate you with assurances of not engaging again, or completely understanding that this was a fraud – but they will often continue to engage but in secret.

It is important that working to protect people from scams is not kept within trading standards and social work. Since rolling out awareness sessions in Croydon, GPs, occupational therapists and nurses have all reported scamming cases to the adult safeguarding team.

Consider all professionals who go across the threshold when engaging with clients including police officers (often local neighbourhood teams), domiciliary care workers, pendant alarm response officers, financial assessment officers, housing repairs, third sector workers, tenancy officers and meals on wheels type services. All can be the eyes and ears for safeguarding and trading standards intervention to begin. As such, adult safeguarding boards should be encouraged to take a lead through staff development/training plans and include awareness sessions across the professions concerned.

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