Open and Transparent Quality Mark 2016/17

Working together to take a stand against scams

PCC Alison Hernandez discusses the impact that scams have on our communities and becoming a SCAMbassador

SCAMS are a scourge on our communities. They are operated by criminals with the sole purpose of identifying and exploiting often vulnerable, elderly and mentally impaired people.

Scamming, sometimes knows as personal fraud is when people are persuaded to part with money or personal data as a result of face to face – out of the home or on their doorstep, postal, telephone or electronic communication received into the home. This can often be in the form of fictitious prize draws, false investment opportunities, pension fraud and bogus equity release schemes, clairvoyant or dating scams and fake lotteries.

Scams are believed to be costing the UK economy between £5bn and £10bn a year. Scammers will often target the vulnerable – often elderly people living alone and generally inundate the victim over a period of time. Doorstep crime is also common where people are asked to part with money for work that doesn’t materialise or is of poor quality.

I think part of the problem with this crime is the way we all regard ‘scamming’. When you hear someone say “I’ve been scammed” it is very often followed by “how stupid am I?” – it’s like they are blaming themselves for becoming victims. But that should not be the case - some of the scams being operated are very convincing and even the brightest minds can fall foul. Many professional people and businesses fall foul of scams every day.

Neither is it true that scammers only target the elderly and vulnerable. When I attend an engagement event I ask people if they have received a phishing email and almost everybody says they have.

But agencies are getting better at catching and convicting scammers but there is a duty on those who can influence the criminal justice system to push for more consistency in sentencing, particularly at the lower end of the spectrum. At the top end, for large scale confidence fraud where a number of victims are deliberately targeted, sentences of up to seven years are common if the fraud is in excess of £500,000. Where the value is between £20,000 and £100,000, sentences of up to four years are more likely. But I have heard concerns that some sentencing, of lower level offenders, does not act as a deterrent.

The true cost of scams – in terms of both monetary value and effect on victims – were outlined in a conference held in Plymouth recently called ‘Take a Stand Against Scams’, part of a new campaign run by National Trading Standards. One really interesting thing to be discussed at the conference is that ‘scamming’ is an area of crime that public health is taking more of an interest in.

It has been identified that there are strong links between victims of fraud and scams and mental health issues, isolation, suicide and even increased likelihood of death. As well as financial trauma, scam victims are more likely to suffer health issues. Elderly victims of fraud are 2.5 times more likely to die or go into care within two years than those who are not victims. And because victims are generally elderly, often living alone, the demographic of Devon and Cornwall suggests we will have more victims than in most other areas.

The facts back this up. Nationally, Action Fraud reports that 53 per cent of people aged 65+ have been targeted by scammers, and, on average, each loses £1,000 each. In Devon and Cornwall the problem seems to be much greater. In Plymouth, the director of public health reports the average age of victim is 72 and the average loss is £10,000 - much higher than the national average.

So what can we do to help victims and stop others from falling foul of scammers?

Well in Plymouth, for example, victims are now being visited by Trading Standards and PCSOs to ask what help and support they need. Also a number of accredited organisations from the Victim Care Network provide advice.

Well from my point of view, as part of our strategic alliance with Dorset, I am working alongside my opposite number Martyn Underhill to make sure the matter is being discussed at the highest level. Martyn sits on a fraud task force which has been set up by Home Secretary Amber Rudd and, as part of that, he is investigating how effective Action Fraud works with local forces.

Action Fraud is the national reporting mechanism for all fraudulent crimes but the feeling is that it doesn’t always link in with local forces, meaning victims aren’t always getting the support they need.

I was delighted to have been invited to become a SCAMbassador – to work with decisions makers across the country to take action to raise the profile of the problem and what action can be taken to reduce it and support victims. But like many areas of crime, the best way that we can make a difference, lies very close to home.

We all know somebody, be it a relative, a friend, or a neighbour who is vulnerable to this type of crime for one reason or another. Please keep your eyes and your minds open and look for the warning signs – such as piles of unsolicited mail piling up behind the door or regular and unknown visitors to a vulnerable person. Be curious – you might just stop a crime and prevent someone you know becoming a victim.

You can also join me in supporting the excellent campaign being run by National Trading Standards to take a stand against scams and join ‘Friends against scams’. www.friendsagainstscams.org.uk. You can take an online training course by visiting www.friendsagainstscams.org.uk. You can help the campaign by looking at supporting the great work by becoming a Friend or SCAMchampion.

At a personal level we can all Take Five to Stop Fraud https://takefive-stopfraud.org.uk/

Alison Hernandez

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