Fulfilled living in later life
Why older people are likely to be caught by scammers, and how none of us are safe

Monday 11th July 2022

Why older people are likely to be caught by scammers, and how none of us are safe

Louise Morse

Once a fortnight, when Joe comes to trim my sloping lawns, we have a little routine. When I hear his lawnmower I open the window, catch his eye and put my thumb up. It means ‘I see you and am transferring the money to your bank now.’ Then I tap the pass code number into the banking app on my phone, select his name and transfer the money to his account. It takes about a minute. Except last week, when the bank app brought up a message about approving its cookies. I looked at it and let all the cookies remain except the one about marketing. I closed the message but to my horror the app snapped shut and wouldn’t reopen. I couldn’t access the account on my computer either, because the security code is in the mobile app. ‘I’ve been hacked!’ I thought in alarm and, grabbing my keys drove just under the speed limit to the bank in town. What I learnt increased my alarm even more.

Services and staff have diminished in my local branch. The counter has been closed and the side offices hardly used. But help is available from the staff still on the floor, and this day there were two women and a young man sitting at a half table and tapping their keyboards. I described what had happened and the man, whose name was Brandon, held out his hand, took my mobile and with a few taps had everything working again. “It wasn’t hacked,” he explained, adding that they weren’t seeing a lot of hacking but they were seeing customers getting caught in sophisticated scams. He said, “There are so many that we are inviting customers to join us online for group meetings to help keep them safe by describing how the scammers work. We’re invited into workplaces, too.”

What sort of scams? “A man came in holding his phone to his ear and looking very distressed. He said the police had called and told him that unless he paid them £2000 immediately he would be deported. I took his phone and asked the caller to repeat the name of the police force they were calling from, then I asked for the caller’s badge number and a case reference number. There was silence then the call was cut off.”

It must have been a well-planned scam, I said, to know that the person targeted was not British-born. How would they get that information? He didn’t have the answer, but said that scams are now much more sophisticated in their approach and their targeting, and we all need to be on the alert. Older people have been particularly vulnerable and now recent studies have found that although they may be neuropsychologically normal, many are more prone to giving cash away than when they were younger, particularly those who Live relatively isolated lives. In a small study, American neuroscientist Nathan Spreng found that one brain region, the insula, was significantly smaller in individuals who had been scammed than those who had not.” The ‘insula’ helps to trigger our ‘spidey’ sense, the hunch that can warn us away from dicey financial situations, he said.

On the other hand, Dr. Spreng notes that ‘many older people can have an edge over their younger selves, an antidote to what we’ve been talking about. You might call it wisdom.’

And people of all ages get taken by scams, not just seniors. The man who Brandon helped in the Bank was in his early forties, he guessed. A critical care nurse lost £45,000 in an elaborate pension investment scam. She was looking after her ill mother when she received a text message offering cash and a better return on her pension if she transferred her pot.

Dame Vera Baird, QC, Victims' Commissioner for England and Wales, says that it is time for police to take fraud seriously and to end the ‘victim blaming culture around scams’. “There are people out there who are really suffering. Sometimes, older people who lose money they intended to leave to their children don’t want to talk about it because they feel ashamed.”

Technology and access to data from a number of sources means that fraud and scamming has become more sophisticated than ever. It’s not just building false friendships through social media, ending in the victim parting with hundreds of pounds, but direct approaches often with detailed personal information.

It may be an idea for churches to arrange for meetings with experts from their local banks to educate their members. I learnt a lot in just a few minutes with Brandon, and I would certainly go along!