Fraud and the Vulnerable
Updated: Jan 31
“There is a sense the victims of fraud feel abandoned.” Victims Commissioner Dame Vera Baird. (BBC Radio 4 MoneyBox 22Jan 2022)
The crime that any of us are most likely to suffer from is fraud. In the last two years I have helped four victims of fraud recover some or all of their funds lost due to fraud. Every single victim had one thing in common, they were vulnerable and, thanks to the epidemic, were even more isolated than they otherwise would have been. They all had varying ability to use modern means of communicating varying from internet and smart phone users, to not having any internet or use of it. They all had incidents, illnesses or misfortunes happen to them that made them vulnerable targets for fraud. Some fell victim to more than one type of fraud, but each person fell victim to an almost identical fraud that robbed them of thousands of pounds in each case.
In the following I will describe the nature of the fraud, how it was carried out in general terms, the action of reporting to the police and Bank and a hint on how to recover funds. As I go through this I will make some criticism of the processes.
In each case before the crime the victim was already a vulnerable person.
What makes a person vulnerable?
Old age, isolation, illness, bereavement, mental health, being victim of a crime, disability, losing a job, having an accident, breaking a relationship, addiction. The list is endless, but in short it is simply being human and you are a very lucky person if at some point in your life you are not at some stage vulnerable. The fraudster is a professional. They seek out the vulnerable, gain their confidence and rob them.
The impact of fraud is absolutely horrendous. Usually the victim has helped the fraudster gain access to their funds. It is this very nature that makes it an intrusive crime that leaves the victim bereft, broken and feeling a fool. The psychological impact in my experience is as bad or even worse than being a victim of assault or robbery. Worse still, the reporting process of this, the most common of crimes, is onerous and unfriendly and possibly ineffective. Banks, rightfully protecting their assets, do not make this an easy process and create barriers to refunds, whether consciously or unconsciously, rather than deal with each case fairly within a set of rules or guidelines as you will see.
In each of the four cases the victim was telephoned by somebody purporting to be from either: the police; their bank or from an “investigation” team. The callers knew the names of the victims and being friendly gained their confidence. In each case they claimed that they were investigating a fraud on their bank account and that the victim’s money was in danger and they needed the co-operation of the victim to catch these fraudsters and make their Bank account safe. To do this they were requested to go into their Bank, or in one case, go online, and make payments to a third party which would ensure that their money was safe and would lead to the apprehension of the perpetrators.
Now, anyone reading this may think, “well that is obviously a scam”, but please consider in each case the victim had certain characteristics that made them vulnerable and three of the four victims had very little if any experience of using the internet. I have had first hand experience of talking to fraudsters and many of them can come across as plausible and genuine in their approach. You have to understand this from the victims’ point of view.
In each case the victims were told to be wary of any Bank staff querying their transaction as they were possibly “involved in the crime”. In each case the picture was painted over more than one phone call and confidence was gained. Three of the victims went to their Bank and made sizeable transfers electronically to the fraudsters on face-to-face transactions. On only one of these three occasions was the transaction challenged by the Bank staff making the transfer and this was done by handing over a leaflet about fraud, but no details about what the client was making payment for was asked. The online transaction was different, it was held up by the transmitting bank, they made a call to their customer and asked if the transaction was genuine, which the customer/victim confirmed it was as advised by the fraudsters!
Now I have every sympathy with a Bank challenging a customer about the transaction, but in each of these four cases their were clear indications or factual knowledge known by the Banks that their clients were potentially vulnerable. It is not enough to ask whether a transaction is genuine, rather you have to engage with the client to understand their situation and get them to have confidence in you and tell you about themselves and the transaction. This is a particular skill that I have seen many bank employees use successfully to thwart a “ would be” fraud, but no job is easy.
The total transferred by the four victims was just over £36,000.
In each of the four cases the victims realised they had been conned within 48 hours, but did not know what to do. Sadly one victim broke down to their partner after holding onto the shame of being a victim for nearly three weeks. The victims were referred to me via people in the community through various channels including in one case their own Bank. Two of the victims fell foul of further frauds and every single one of them had subsequent further attempts made to defraud them.
Reporting the Fraud.
There are two areas that have to be reported to: The Bank and the Police.
Each Bank tends to have a specialist fraud team. Each Bank gears its fraud reporting to being an online process. Now three of these victims did not use the internet regularly or necessarily have the internet or a smart phone. One victim did and followed their Bank’s online process. Those that reported face to face or on the phone found the process painful and intimidating, although I do believe they were treated professionally. The difficulty is that reporting a fraud to your Bank is a process and if this is done with consideration that there is a person behind that process that is fine. From these experiences I believe the staff may have sympathy, but the process does not. Indeed, I believe the process is geared to avoid the Bank repaying funds rather than recoup them. I will propose a remedy for this later.
In addition to reporting the fraud I ensured that each victim issued a letter of complaint claiming that the Bank’s procedures had not protected them and asking for full refund of the moneys released. This may seem a bit harsh, but I did this to set the clock ticking on their complaint’s procedure, some of the victims risked real hardship and difficulty, and “if you don’t ask you don’t get.” Each letter of complaint emphasized the victim’s vulnerability and how it should have been picked up either by using the Bank’s own records or by straightforward observation and common sense.
The reporting to the Police is NOT done to your local constabulary. The reporting fraud has to be done through a centralised organisation called Action Fraud. Whilst they have a helpline manned by very friendly staff the process is geared to be done online.
Action Fraud phone line is 0300 123 2040
Website is: https://www.actionfraud.police.uk/
I found this a problem with two victims as they not only had no internet, they lived in areas where my mobile phone had no internet signal. I got around this by speaking to Action Fraud on the phone and getting them to describe the sort of information I needed to gather in order to make the report for the victim.
Now consider, none of these victims used social media regularly and as such they missed out on many fraud warnings. Even the online Bank user clicked through the warning without heeding it “as it always appears”. Not having the internet or not using it regularly can increase your vulnerability to crime , especially fraud. To Lincolnshire Police’s credit, they recognise this and work tirelessly throughout the county to use many channels of communication, especially face to face to remind people of fraud. Many a time I have taken a leaflet off a Police official in a shop or other venue in our rural towns and villages. Of course, they also use social media and the internet to educate people, but the onus is on those of us that know to educate those that do not. Covid and lockdowns have made this harder and increased the vulnerability of many people as they have become more isolated.
The Response from Action Fraud
In each case after several weeks the response was that no further action will be taken.
The Response from the Banks
Considering the responses were from four different Banks they were very similar.
Each letter referred to “ The Authorised Reimbursement Model (CRM) Code for Push Payment (APP) Scams” . This code can be found on this website www.lendingstandardsboard.org.uk
They each said that the beneficiary Bank had set out the standard of care established in the code – now the victim has to take this on trust as there is no independent means of verifying this.
Each Bank also, quite rightly, pointed out that the code describes a duty of care on the customer to:
“Pay attention to warnings given by the Bank and follow any instructions.
Taking reasonable steps to ensure the person or organisation you pay is who you are expecting to pay.
Any goods or services you are buying are genuine.
The person or the organisation you are paying is legitimate.”
All these points are reasonable and fair. However, they cherry-picked parts of the code.
In my response to this refusal to reimburse the lost money I referred to the same code, especially the requirement for the Bank to take into account the “characteristics of the customer”. Each victim had up to four factors that made them vulnerable, specifically: age; disability; bereavement; health; caring responsibilities. I am convinced in one case at least that the Bank lied about the victim being challenged at the time of the transaction, but I could not prove this just express my suspicion.
I therefore quoted the following bit of the code to them:
In each case within ten days of my correspondence a full refund was issued. If Banks are to quote a code as a reason not to make a refund they need to take into account the full code. They should not hide behind the code and use it as defence, but rather use it to set a standard.
What I would like to see improved:
The Police – As already mentioned the Police do an excellent job in educating the public both locally in Lincolnshire and nationally. The Metropolitan Police has worked alongside Banks producing excellent educational literature to be used throughout the country. However, reporting of Fraud has to be done by Action Fraud and this system does not work in two areas:
It filters most of the cases out so that the Police Constabularies receive very little to investigate. Listen to this episode of Radio 4’s Moneybox program to understand how dire this is: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0013qsh
It is not easy to report a crime other than online. The call handlers at Action Fraud are very good, but the ability to reach them is poor and often when you do speak to them their systems are down.
The Banks – There are two areas that the Banks are failing on.
Firstly, whilst all Banks train their staff on identifying and helping vulnerable customers, when it comes to fraud this is NOT accounted for. Indeed the only motivation is to prevent reimbursement. Instead they should be asking, “Is this customer vulnerable?” and “What could we do better?”
Secondly, the receiving Banks often enable fraud to happen with lack of action. Again I will refer to the push payment scam code:
“Receiving Firms should take reasonable steps to prevent accounts from being used to launder the proceeds of APP scams. This should include procedures to prevent, detect and respond to the receipt of funds from APP scams. Where the receiving Firm identifies funds where there are concerns that they may be the proceeds of an APP scam, it should freeze the funds and respond in a timely manner.”
I do not believe Banks do this adequately. Indeed, separate to these incidents I have encountered three occasions when businesses have erroneously sent funds to a fraudster online. In each case their own Bank refused reimbursement. However, in each of the cases I recommended they ask a solicitor to send a letter of complaint to the receiving Bank complaining that they had enabled money to be laundered and that they intended to make a claim from the receiving Bank. In each case the receiving Bank refunded the amounts lost rather than defend the challenge. The largest amount was £22,000! In two of the cases the recipient was a Money Transfer Service firm. I have a further example of a person I know being victim to blackmail – again a Money Transfer Service firm was a recipient of the funds – the recipient Bank refused to acknowledge that it had enabled money laundering as it had effectively delegated that responsibility to its customer!
These changes do not necessarily need further regulation – it just needs Banks to do their business well and with integrity.
If you have been a victim of fraud, or wish to educate yourself and your family and friends about fraud these may help:
Action Fraud www.actionfraud.police.uk
Little Book of Big Scams by Metropolitan Police www.met.police.uk
Get Safe Online www.getsafeonline.org
Age UK www.ageuk.org.uk
Citizens Advice www.citizensadvice.org.uk
Take Five www.takefive-stopfraud.org.uk
Victim Support www.victimsupport.org.uk
Friends Against Scams www.friendsagainstscams.org.uk
Think Jessica www.thinkjessica.com
Or listen to programs like Radio 4's Moneybox regularly. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qjnv