Lockdown is a lonely time for my widowed 83-year-old uncle. By nature gregarious and uncomplaining, he has so far endured over three months cheerfully enough, stuck alone in his retirement flat. But when his landline rings (he’s never got on with mobiles), he instinctively reaches for it as the chance for a chat. Or he did.
Over the last ten days, those on the other end of the line have scammed him on three separate occasions. The cumulative effect has left him so anxious and self-doubting that now he thinks twice before picking up.
He is just one of many. Over the course of the lockdown, according to Action Fraud, the UK’s online centre for reporting fraud and cyber crime, some £4.6 million had been stolen – through fake online sales, bogus cold-calls, and non-existent pension plans, among other devious scams.
The criminals exploiting this time of national emergency know exactly whom they are targeting. Three times in ten days, according to the experts, means that my uncle’s name is now on what is referred to a “suckers’ list” – those who have fallen for scams once and are judged likely to do so again. Such details are traded between the gangs behind this racket.
The first call he took purported to be from his bank to tell him there had been a cyber attack on his account. He could transfer funds into a safe place, but the caller would need his card and pin details. The second, again posing as the bank, concerned a pending withdrawal for several thousands of pounds from his account for PPE equipment. They were ringing, as a courtesy, to check it was genuine.
He fell for the first, but was uneasy once he had put the phone down, so immediately called us. We were able to inform the (real) bank and stop any losses. Without knowing it, he was doing what the charity Age UK deems essential in such circumstances – seeking a second opinion (though better if before giving out your details).
On the second occasion, by now better-briefed, he did manage to put the phone down, but – like, many of his generation, by nature courteous and trusting – he was anxious that he had done the wrong thing, as well as fearful he still was about to be robbed.
One of the most pernicious aspects of this preying on elderly people is that it destroys their self-confidence. A successful businessman who has always been adept at managing his money, my uncle is now at risk of losing faith in his own decisions.
The third started with a concerned call, apparently from Microsoft’s Security Team, informing him that his computer had been hacked and offering to repair the damage. Plausibly a customer reference number was given, so he was persuaded to give remote access to his screen, plus pay £153 on his credit card for affording the fraudsters an opportunity to go into computer and steal his financial details.
Luckily, his antipathy to computers means he doesn’t keep such personal financial information on it. We would never have found out had he not mentioned that evening, in his going-to-bed phone call, that he had missed his current guilty pleasure – a couple of old episodes of The Vicar of Dibley – because he had been on a long call.
The scammers had even been so bold as to leave a contact number.
We called them, and experienced their relentless and highly-polished patter as they told us barefaced lie after barefaced lie, so much so we ended up doubting what we knew to be as plain as day.
“Their main tactic is to rush and panic you into taking immediate action,” confirms Joel Lewis, Policy Manager at Age UK. “This isn’t just individuals in their back bedrooms. It is a well-honed industry, which is why it can be so convincing and so hard for any of us, whatever our age, to detect.”
Once scammed, though, our elderly are particularly vulnerable to feeling ashamed as a result, and therefore less likely to report being robbed. In such circumstances, the £4.6 million figure for online and phone fraud during Covid-19 is very likely an underestimate.
At the Take Five, the anti-fraud project led by UK Finance, the banking and financial industry body, its expert team report that during lockdown they haven’t seem a particular spike in cyber scamming. Rather those carrying it out are adept at exploiting any possible event to target people most vulnerable to be conned out of their money.
And for them, whether at bases in the UK, or “boiler houses” of cold-callers on the Indian subcontinent, coronavirus is an extended window of opportunity to exploit the loneliness of self-isolating older people, who are more likely than most to have a landline, to pick it up, and to engage with callers. But this shouldn’t be treated as a generationally specific issue, warns Joel Lewis. “Younger relatives should be careful of allowing the scammers to drive a wedge in families. If those older people who are victims of these crimes are made to feel silly and foolish for falling for it, they are less likely to speak up about what is happening to them.”
Which is where my uncle had got to on the evening of his final online assault. “I’m going to throw my computer away,” he announced disconsolately. That would mean no more Zoom meetings with his great nephews and nieces, and no more (virtual) daily mass that consoles him above all else.
And it wouldn’t make him safe. Earlier this year, an 82-year-old in Scunthorpe, who asked his local paper to be identified only as George, allowed an “electricity man” into his house briefly to check sockets after a local power surge. A few days later, someone with forged National Power identification turned up, saying the first caller had developed Covid-19, and the house therefore needed decontaminating. While George went out for a walk, his house was stripped of all its valuables.
The local police are on the case, and elsewhere are making progress against these unscrupulous criminals. In the same week that George spoke out, a 20-year-old scammer from north-west London was arrested by officers of the Dedicated Card and Payment Crime Unit.
Acting on intelligence provided by Action Fraud (which operates under City of London Police), he had been identified as having tricked more than 200 individuals out of their bank details. His method – another popular one in lockdown – was to send text messages claiming to be the HMRC offering tax refunds to help people through these straitened times.
Important as such results are, though, Sarah Sinden from UK Finance, who works on the Take Five campaign, suggests that just as vital is for all members of the public – young and old alike – to “reprogramme our minds” to resist the scammers’ well-practised methods. To that end, her organisation promotes a three-step process.
First is “Stop”: take a moment (or five) to think before parting with your money or information, and don’t be rushed by the caller.
Next is “Challenge”: consider if it could be a scam, and know that it is OK to reject, refuse or ignore any requests.
And finally, “Protect” : contact your bank immediately if you suspect you have fallen victim to a scam, and report it to the authorities.
I’ve sent a copy of their online kit to my uncle because he has decided to give the computer “another go”, after its been cleaned up. He has also been speaking to a dedicated team at his local police force.
“It’s important to remember that criminals will try to isolate you,” says Sarah Sinden. “We need to all help each other by talking about fraud and raising awareness of these cruel scams.”
For more information, go to takefive-stopfraud.org.uk
Action Fraud: 0300 123 2040 or actionfraud.police.uk
Or visit Age UK