In Applying the Brakes, its new report published today, Age UK warns that a 50 per cent cut in Trading Standards budgets over the last seven years – rising to over 60 per cent in some areas[i] – has undermined the ability of local authorities to tackle scams among older people. And with the latest crime figures showing that people are now five times more likely to be targeted by a fraudster than a burglar[ii], the Charity is calling on the Government to ensure that all local authorities have the resources needed to meet their safeguarding duties under the Care Act.[iii]
Trading Standards services have a key role to play in tackling fraud yet severe budget cuts are damaging their ability to act according to Age UK – with many spending little more than the price of a latte, per head, per year.[iv] A 56 per cent reduction in Trading Standards officers from 2009 – 2016 have left some services with just one qualified officer to cover the entire area,[v] forcing some to stop tackling doorstep crimes or providing consumer advice altogether.
The Charity is warning that if the Government wants to make tackling fraud a real priority it must ensure Trading Standards services have the resources they need. Official figures show that 3.2million cases of fraud occurred in the year to September 2017,[vi] and Age UK’s own research has found that more than two-fifths (43%) of older people – almost five million over-65s[vii] – believe they have been targeted by scammers.
Drawing on the many and varied experiences of older people and their families gathered through Age UK’s services and research as well as collating the existing data on scams, Applying the Brakes sets out a vision of a safer future through recommendations for banks, police forces, local authorities and the Government.
Age UK is also calling on all banks to take immediate and strong action to prevent scams. The Charity wants banks to radically improve their security systems to prevent fraud, including better identification of customers at risk and suspicious transactions; to bear a greater level of liability for losses where the customer has been misled into authorising a payment; and to provide extra protection to customers in vulnerable circumstances such as those living with dementia.
Through the report, Age UK is calling on the Home Office to make fraud a strategic policing priority and ensure police forces have adequate resources, incentives and guidance, and hold them accountable for action.
And while acknowledging the impossibility of eradicating fraud completely, the Charity wants the Government to be alert to the potential for fraud arising from policy change, such as the recently introduced Open Banking initiative. Reforms to private pensions (‘freedom and choice’), for example, have been followed by an increase in pension fraud – pension scam victims lost £8.6m in March last year, a record monthly high.[viii] Raising public awareness of pension and investment fraud is important but not enough by itself – prompt policy changes are also needed to help pension providers prevent fraud taking place, including a ban on pensions cold calls.
Although anyone can be scammed, Age UK is warning that older people – particularly those who live alone or with cognitive impairment – are at greater risk of being targeted by some types of scams. Common scams affecting older people are often offline and include postal scams, pensions and investment fraud, phone scams and cold calls, as well as online scams including email and online dating scams. Financial losses are common, but being scammed can also seriously affect people’s quality of life and wellbeing.
Many people experience a deep sense of shame, embarrassment, depression, social isolation and a decline in physical health, with some even losing their independence following a scam. Some older people lose their life savings, decimating their retirement income, while those defrauded in their own homes are more likely either to die or go into residential care within a year.[ix]
Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK, said:
‘However tough our laws are to prevent and combat fraud, they are pretty toothless if the staff just aren’t there to enforce them. Local Trading Standards officers have been cut back to the bone in many areas as councils struggle with big Government funding cuts, and the end result is that fraudsters have far more freedom to operate than would otherwise be the case. The whole population is at greater risk of being scammed as a result, but older people more than most, as they are especially likely to be targeted by these despicable crimes.
‘It’s not just that there aren’t anything like enough Trading Standards officers, the Police aren’t consistently able to give fraud the priority it deserves either. Unless and until we see changes on both these fronts, older people will be far more open to the risk of fraud than any of us like.
‘In addition it’s clear that banks must not only act quickly to trace and return money transferred in a scam, but also do much more to find new ways to prevent scams in the first place. The Payments Regulator’s development of a model for reimbursing victims of payment fraud, in collaboration with the banking industry, is welcome but it’s important this does not place unfair or unrealistic expectations on consumers.
‘We know that scams can have a devastating emotional and financial impact on older victims, seriously damaging their quality of life and wellbeing. Government, councils, trading standards, police forces and banks all have a part to play in working together to stop these appalling crimes.”