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Stamping out scams

8 February 2016

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Elderly scam victims are more than twice as likely to go into care than their unaffected neighbours. General practice can play a vital role in spotting victims and helping them through difficult times

Many of us will be targeted by scammers at some point in our lives. We might receive an email from a long-lost ‘cousin’ from overseas who promises us a large inheritance, or maybe we’ll receive a letter in the post saying we’ve won thousands on a lottery we never entered.
Most of us will shrug these scams off, hang up the phone, delete the emails or shred the letters without giving them a second thought. Some will question who would actually fall for such seemingly ludicrous claims. But many of us, our parents, friends, neighbours, will, for a multitude of reasons, fall foul of the scammers’ tactics, often unknown to those closest to them.
Scammers are a scourge on our local communities. Primarily targeting the elderly and most vulnerable in society, their ruthless tactics leave victims socially isolated and ashamed of telling their friends and families what’s really going on behind closed doors.
The health implications that result from being scammed are wide ranging, but the vast majority of victims suffer at least some level of emotional and psychological stress. Many report anxiety, severe loneliness and feelings of helplessness as a result of their trauma, and the domino effects of this stress upon a victim’s independence in the years following the scam can be catastrophic. Victims of doorstep crime are two point four times more likely to go into a residential home or die in the two years following their experience than others in the same age group. Trading Standards estimates that the figures are similar for those having fallen victim to mass-marketing and other types of scams.
Financially, the average loss is estimated to be around £1,000 per victim, with a total UK loss of £5-10 billion. Sadly, it’s not uncommon to find victims who have been responding to these scams for years and have lost hundreds of thousands of pounds. In either case, victims can be found living in chaos, not eating properly and failing to turn the heating on as they are behind with their bills. For repeat victims, the prospect of winning is an unobtainable dream they can’t give up on. If that means going without other necessities to fund the scammers that is a choice they feel that they have to make. In these instances, victims will go without basic necessities such as food to fund the scams. For elderly individuals living alone, this behaviour can continue for months and can quickly lead to malnourishment and further ill health as a consequence.
Help is out there but the consumer protection landscape is complicated and chronically underfunded. Trading Standard’s services are principally delivered locally, by councils, with a combined and total budget of about £130 million. The Trading Standards estimates that there are about half as many Trading Standards officers as there were five years ago and local budgets have fallen by up to 85%. National Trading Standards is effectively a £13 million pot of additional cash to allow a handful of local trading standards teams to look at issues of national significance, such as the National Trading Standards scams team (NTSST). Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) is the professional body for all trading standards professionals and counts about 85% of them among its membership.

The list
The NTSST has uncovered cases of systematic targeting of elderly and vulnerable residents and repeatedly uncovered cases where victims details have been sold on to other scam companies and placed on so-called ‘suckers lists’. Once on a ‘suckers list’ it is almost impossible to get off and details can be sold on hundreds of times. One known victim had his details sold on more than 200 times and was scammed out of over £40,000.  
The impact and profitability of scamming should not be underestimated. These fraudsters are not small-time criminals, but large organised crime groups making huge profits from de-frauding the vulnerable.
The NTSST has identified countless victims who receive dozens, sometimes even hundreds of pieces of scam mail through their doors every week. Other research conducted by Trading Standards has also indicated that the elderly and vulnerable are more likely than other groups to be scammed over the phone. The latest figures indicates that 52% of all calls to the elderly are nuisance calls (16% of those are estimated to be scams). This is six times the national average and indicates that the vulnerable have been specifically targeted.  
To date, the team has identified more than 240,000 potential victims from so-called ‘suckers lists’ across the whole of the UK. However, many more will still be out there, alone and unidentified as it is estimated that only 5% of victims actually report being scammed.

Solving the problem
NTSST is working on a twofold approach with a number of stakeholders including the banks, Royal Mail and other postal services to help disrupt scam companies and protect victims.
By training postmen to spot when a resident is receiving dozens of pieces of mail a day and then make a referral back to Trading Standards, the team has identified many more victims and been able to step in and help. Similarly with the banks, the team has worked to implement safeguards so that for example, if an elderly resident is requesting two cheque books a month, it is flagged and someone steps in to see if there is a problem.
At a more local level, the NTSST shares its data with local authority trading standards services who are then able to intervene with victims on a one-to-one basis. This usually involves writing to the victim and then making a home visit. If someone is found to be a victim the team will then work to support them, referring their case to adult social care if necessary and, with permission, contacting family members to ensure a long-term support network is established. Where possible the team will also link victims with other support mechanisms and befriending services such as those run by the charity Age UK.
In terms of preventative measures to try and break the communication cycle, local teams will write to scam companies telling them to stop contacting the victim with immediate effect. In some cases, where telephone scamming has been particularly prevalent, local Trading Standards teams also work to install call blocking technology, which has been found to block up to 98% of unwanted calls.
These, and other initiatives like them, are slowly but surely starting to build up a joined up response, which is having a real effect in flagging up victims and helping trading standards to make interventions earlier.  
This is all great work but it is just the tip of the iceberg. With diminishing local authority funding and budgets to trading standards being slashed, local services are unable to help every victim. The NTSST relies on other support networks to help spread the message about scams and encourage everyone to play their role. This is where local GP services could assist.

In practice
General practices across the UK have a critical role to play in helping to identify potential scam victims. There are a number of practical steps that practices could take to help achieve this including:

  • Displaying information posters.
  • Providing leaflets to patients on what to look out for.
  • Speaking to elderly and vulnerable patients that are recently widowed, or are known to live alone, to make sure they are aware of the scams and offer them someone to share their concerns with. The average age of victims is 74 and many will see their GP more regularly than their family so this could provide an essential lifeline.
  • Provide information to patients about the Citizens Advice consumer helpline where they can report their experiences formally.
  • Refer patients of concern to Trading Standards for further investigation.

Local trading standards services and the charity Think Jessica (see Resources) are able to provide resources to share with patients.

Robyn Ellison, policy officer Chartered Trading Standards Institute. Louise Baxter, heads up the National Trading Standards scams team.

Think Jessica