Independent Age has issued a warning after 91-year-old Agnes was conned out of tens of thousands of pounds, and was left trying to borrow money from her family. The charity says Agnes is one of an estimated half a million older people bled dry by the scammers.
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Agnes has been targeted by a series of scammers over the past three years. In the first place she was hit by a boiler-room shares scam, where she was sold thousands of pounds of worthless shares.
Her daughter Catherine and son-in-law Rodney had no idea what had happened, until she rang them to ask to borrow some money, saying she had to make a payment on her shares. They then found out that she had spent all of her savings buying worthless shares, with the family estimating she had spent thousands of pounds.
Rodney immediately reported the scam to the police. He then found out that his mother-in-law had received a call from someone offering to buy back the shares from her, if she made a payment to "release the funds". That's when she asked Rodney and Catherine for a loan of £4000. The couple recognised this as part of the fraud, and tried to persuade Agnes not to send any more money.
Unfortunately Agnes' problems didn't end there: being the victim of one scam meant that Agnes was then targeted by more scammers, after being put on what is known as a 'suckers' list'.
Rodney says, "After that came a raft of companies trying to flog her stuff by mail and phone. They'd tell her 'You have won a house,' or, 'Congratulations! You have won £15,500', 'You will be lucky', 'There's a cheque waiting for you', or 'Act now to see if you are a winner.' None of these 'prizes' were ever going to arrive. They are scams. It was so frustrating trying to communicate that to her."
Rodney and Catherine only found out by chance that Agnes had been the target of these scams when they discovered she was losing £600 a month. At first, they thought that Agnes's account had been compromised. They then found out that she had been sending cheques to these companies to buy items from them; often she didn't even know if the things she had bought had been delivered.
"She tells me she is buying the stuff for her friends in the village. She is being secretive about what she's doing," says Rodney, "We have tried to sit down and talk to her about it. It's tragic, scammers are taking advantage of her. Her mail is awash with junk mail. I think, at the end of the day, whatever money she has left in her account, it is her right to do with it what she wants, but these people are villains."
Rodney says, "Scammers are leaching money drip by drip from my mother-in-law. They are crooks and wretched people. They are disgusting. The problem is that when she dies she wants to leave something to her grandchildren. I feel powerless to help her. She sits at home and talks through the calls that people make to her. She talks to anyone that phones her."
Although anyone can be the victim of a scam, older people may be more vulnerable because scams often target people who live alone, are at home during the day, have more savings and valuables and are willing to talk to fraudsters. In 2015, the Financial Ombudsman found that 80% of phone scam victims were aged over 55 and 65% of doorstep scam victims were over the age of 75.
What can you do?
Lucy Harmer, Director of Services at Independent Age, said: "Agnes' story is tragic, and even with support and advice from her family they say she still ended up as a victim and losing probably tens of thousands of pounds." The organisation has produced a Scamwise guide, with lots of information on spotting and avoiding scams.
Harmer has also put together 10 do's and don't to help protect yourself
1. Be suspicious – Treat unexpected communications with suspicion, even if they're not asking for money. Always ask for identification before letting anyone into your home, and call the company they say they're from to check who they are. Don't ring a phone number on an ID card – look up the company in the phone book instead. A legitimate tradesperson won't mind you doing this.
2. Take your time – Don't let scammers pressure you into buying anything or making decisions on the spot. Ask for time to consider and check the accuracy of what you've been told.
3. Seek expert advice – If someone you don't know offers you an investment opportunity that sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Always speak to an independent financial adviser before making any investment. You can also check with the Financial Conduct Authority to see if a company is registered.
4. Be cautious when buying online or over the phone – Use a credit card rather than a direct bank transfer to pay for things like goods and holidays, as you'll be more protected as a consumer if anything goes wrong.
5. Create strong passwords – Strong passwords for your online accounts will make it more difficult for hackers and scammers to access them. Stringing together three random words can create a strong and memorable password. You can also use a mix of numbers, lower and upper case letters, and punctuation. Make sure you have different passwords for all online accounts.
1. Give out personal or financial details – Whether over the phone, via email, or in person, don't give any personal information out until you've confirmed that the person getting in touch is genuine. If you're not sure, don't risk it.
2. Transfer money to someone you don't know – Don't transfer money from your account to a new or unfamiliar account, even if the person calling or emailing says it's to protect your money or the account is in your name. Never send money to someone you've only met online, no matter how much you feel you can trust them.
3. Call back unknown numbers – If you get a missed call from a number starting 070 or 076, don't call back as you may be charged a very high rate for making the call. They might look like mobile numbers but are actually premium rate numbers.
4. Give out your PIN – The bank and police will never ask for your PIN. The same goes for your card or cheque book, so don't hand these over to anyone who calls or comes to your door to ask for them.
5. Feel ashamed if you do get scammed – Remember, anyone can be the victim of a scam, no matter what their age, background or income. If you have been scammed, it can be very distressing, but don't feel embarrassed: you're the victim of a crime and it's important that you report it and get any support you might need.