Fraud investigators have warned that people are being targeted by scammers who persuade them to invest their pensions in self-storage units. The UK’s Serious Fraud Office launched an investigation in May, saying that a thousand people had invested around £120m into the schemes.
This is just the latest in a line of financial scams to emerge, many of which target older people. And sadly, loneliness increases the risk of being targeted by unscrupulous predators, including financial scammers.
For some people, their only form of social contact comes from communication with commercial organisations or scammers. These can include telemarketing phone calls or letters from “clairvoyants”, prize draws or catalogues. Strong relationships can develop between the victims and perpetrators of financial scams who maintain a high level of contact.
Some people can receive multiple phone calls each day or large amounts of scam mail in the post. The National Trading Standards scams team, who we are conducting research with, have told us of victims who receive over 30 pieces of mail a day. Responding to the quantity of calls and mail can become an administrative job that provides routine and purpose, which may be highly valued by the scam victim whose time would otherwise be unstructured.
A sense of a personal relationship with the correspondents often develops, and the value of this relationship to the victim may outweigh the potential financial cost of the scam. Lonely people have fewer opportunities to meet with others to discuss finances or scams and are therefore unable to check with a trusted contact whether an offer, or relationship, is genuine.
Financial scammers are skilled at using marketing techniques to establish rapport and familiarity with victims. The language used is persuasive and personal, deliberately designed to appeal to the human need for social contact.
The loneliness of some scam victims can be exacerbated by feelings of shame and embarrassment, reinforced by language sometimes associated with scam victims such as “stupid”, “gullible” or “greedy”. Such words suggest they are culpable, rather than a victim in need of support. This can influence victims’ willingness and ability to report their experience, and may be part of the reason why scamming is an under-reported crime. Because of this, agencies must respond to scam victims in a supportive way, sensitive to the reasons why the individual may have become involved.
Tackle loneliness to beat scammers
The research we are doing in collaboration with the scams team is looking at the experiences of victims. We are also identifying effective interventions and producing good practice guides for professionals working with victims and potential scam targets. One way to disrupt and prevent financial scams is to identify the reasons – such as loneliness – why people are drawn in by them.
Loneliness exposes people to a diverse range of significant risks to mental and physical well-being. It affects people of all ages, but is often triggered by particular life events such as bereavement, poor health, or cognitive impairment. Three in ten people aged over 80 in the UK report feelings of loneliness – higher than any other age group.
Building on previous research, we found that successful interventions aimed at alleviating loneliness are those that focus on well-being and promoting ways of developing a person’s resilience and social networks.
Facilitating social engagement in community activities to promote older people’s self-esteem can help build their resilience. This can then reduce the likelihood that they will respond to scams. Empowering people to safeguard themselves against scams through increased awareness is equally important. Groups set up to promote financial awareness and literacy can help, as can learning materials produced by initiatives such as Friends Against Scams and Scamsmart.
It is estimated that £5-10 billion is lost annually by victims of scams, with the average age of a victim being 75. In an ageing society, the number of people over 65 living on their own in England is projected to increase from 3.5m in 2015 to 4.97m in 2030. This means that unless society makes a concerted effort to tackle loneliness, significantly more people could be at increased risk of being scammed – it is detrimental to their health and the well-being and the economy.
Lee-Ann Fenge receives funding from New Dynamics of Ageing (a unique collaboration between five UK Research Councils—Economic and Social Research Council, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Medical Research Council and Arts and Humanities Research Council), and the Big Lottery Fund.
Keith Brown and Sally Lee do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.