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October 2023

My own family got scammed: help change a damaging narrative on scamming

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

It had to happen. A close member of my family has been scammed. I am sharing this story to highlight the real and growing threat of financial scams.

The criminals were able to persuade my relative to send a significant amount of money by pretending to be another member of the family (I will call her Julie).

Aside from being upset and angry on their behalf, I was also worried about the emotional impact of the scam: that my relative might have felt judged or blamed in some way for being taken in (“Why would you be so daft as to fall for this?”)

The family member talked me through what happened, and it was very clear how well planned and sophisticated this scam was. It was carried out with real skill, with the text messages very carefully constructed to be plausible and establish trust.

Here's what happened:

  • The criminal scammers sent my relative a text message purporting to come from ‘Julie’, a member of their immediate family, saying she had damaged her mobile phone and couldn’t transfer the number to her new phone (hence she was using a new number)
  • Julie’s message explained this meant that she couldn’t login to her bank account because she couldn’t transfer the required info from the damaged phone. She was stressed because she had an urgent bill to pay
  • As it happened, this information did ‘fit’, as Julie was currently having her house renovated (new roof, new windows etc). So, having an account to settle was very plausible. Julie said she would reimburse the money as soon as her new phone was sorted
  • This all took place via a series of conversational messages over a few hours
  • My relative then made the bank transfer to a bona fide, if somewhat unusual, internet bank (Modulr FS), which they did check out before making the payment
  • After this there were a couple of follow-up messages from the scammer, asking for a second transfer, but thankfully the bank stopped a second payment later that day. When my family member did manage to speak with a member of staff at the bank, they were very helpful. So, credit to Santander

The criminals had put together enough information to make the text messages feel plausible. My family member said:

So, a (very) hard won lesson. Do spread the word. I shall now always check with the person by an independent method (different phone number if possible, e.g. a landline phone, or face to face conversation) if anything like it ever crops up again. With hindsight we should have tried calling the supposedly broken phone’s number and would have found it wasn’t broken at all. In this case, however, we thought we were already in contact with ‘Julie’ by text. Santander tell me that having been successful, the scammer may well try again in the future.

I found out about this on the same day I attended the first meeting of the Coercive Control: Supporting Scam Victims Taskforce (SSVT), set up by the National Trading Standards Scams Team (NTSST).

Following the launch of Coercion and control in financial abuse; learning from domestic abuse in October 2022, NTSST has been working with a number of prominent national individuals, looking at how we take our learning and understanding of coercive and controlling behaviour in domestic abuse and bring this into work to combat scammers. The idea behind the task force is to help deliver this work. I was very pleased to accept an invitation to participate. On the task force are representatives of specialist law enforcement units on economic crime from the City of London Police, the banking sector, national third sector agencies, academics, researchers, local authorities, and trading standards teams.

When I was talking with my family member about the scam, they felt they should have been more alert to it, not to be drawn in like they were. They are computer-literate and confident with technology, but still got caught.

The risks for older adults who lack digital skills are even greater. And many older adults are not: Age UK’s recent analysis reveals that almost half (46%) of over-65s in the UK are unable to complete all eight of the most fundamental tasks required to use the internet safely and successfully.

To help address this, the library service in Norfolk run excellent FREE drop-in and 1:1 sessions around three key themes: basic digital skills to enable you to get online; identifying scams and misinformation to stay safe; and using the internet with confidence to keep in control. See below for more information.

Victim blaming

“It was partly my fault” is not an infrequently heard comment, and it feeds a damaging misconception, i.e. ‘Why were these victims so stupid or foolish to fall for the scam in the first place?’

This victim blaming needs to be challenged head-on. We need to change the narrative here. It makes a person less likely to report a scam, which in turn blunts our intelligence and weakens our ability to protect others. It camouflages the real and present threat. We quite rightly have improved our response to victims of other types of abuse, but not in respect to scams.

In the case of my family member, it was not some opportunistic chancer who just happened to get lucky (although there are scams like this). No, this was highly sophisticated, well thought-through and executed with a high degree of skill.

Each of us can really help here in shifting the narrative away from the idea that the fault lies with the victim, to one which exposes the very sophisticated nature of what the scammers are doing. We need to have a clear understanding of how clever the criminals are in winning the confidence and trust of their victims.

We need to get just as skilful to combat this threat. And I think we are.

For example, do have a look at the excellent work of Dr Elisabeth Carter from Kingston University, London. Dr Carter has spent a great deal of time researching and understanding the ‘persuasive impact and use of language‘ in order for the fraudster to convince their victims to part with their money, have a look at Scams: the power of persuasive language Guidance for community health and social care workers to help identify and prevent scams in society.

Dr Carter is a member of the task force.

A few years ago, Lee-Ann Fenge, Sally Lee & Keith Brown from the National Centre of Post-Qualifying Social Work (NCPQSW) at Bournemouth University wrote an excellent book on scamming and mental capacity: Safeguarding Adults: Scamming and Mental Capacity. Staff from NCPQSW working with Age UK have developed a learning package about the risks posed by financial scams called ‘Scams Prevention and Victim Support'.

Three practical actions
Here are three, easy to do actions we can all use to tackle this threat:

  1. Tell your loved ones, friends and anyone you have contact with through your work about the National Trading Standards Scams Team Friends Against Scams training. This is a great short awareness session in person or online, helping to raise awareness of this type of fraud. My family member has now done it and found it very helpful. Age UK also have great resources.

  2. Sign up for an alert from your local trading standards service on scams. Here is the link for the Norfolk alert (if you live outside of Norfolk, just google your local trading standards service)

  3. Check out the further information and materials on scams on the NSAB website. Share these on. Please tell people about the free Norfolk Libraries Online, Safe and In Control course

Remember #Tell2andProtectMany. Its simplicity disguises its brilliance. It works like this: You tell two people about the actions above, these two people each tell two people. Now, four people, each tell two people and so on. You get the idea.

Here’s the great part: within 10 connections, we have 512 people with a safeguarding message against scams.

Thank you.

Walter Lloyd-Smith

NSAB Board Manager

Email: [email protected]

Norfolk Libraries – Online, Safe and In Control training course
Open to all older adults regardless of their current experience. Sessions at the following locations and times:

  • King’s Lynn Library on Mondays, 11am - 1pm. One-to-one support can be booked at a convenient time by speaking with a staff member or calling 01553 772568.
  • Great Yarmouth Library on Tuesdays, 10am - 12pm. One-to-one support can be booked at a convenient time by speaking with a staff member or calling 01493 844551 or 01493 842279.
  • Thetford Library on Thursdays, 10am - 12pm. One-to-one support can be booked at a convenient time by speaking with a staff member or calling 01842 752048.