There are around 850,000 people with dementia in the UK. And the rise in the number of people who are mentally frail or who have dementia is providing an opportunity for criminals. One Trading Standards Officer told me that these fraudsters were using ‘grooming’ tactics and that they would try and trick someone into handing over all their savings. But, even more worrying, some legitimate companies may be taking advantage of elderly people who are vulnerable or have dementia.
People with dementia are being scammed – what scams to look out for
If a relative has dementia, it’s a delicate balancing act to give them the support they needed while not taking away their independence. The last thing you should do is to undermine their confidence by making them feel they can’t manage. But if they are struggling to look after their finances or losing their ability to reason, they could be an easy target for a criminal or fraudster.
There’s not much detailed research in this area, but the Alzheimer’s Society produced a report in 2011, entitled Short Changed, which looked at how people with dementia were being scammed. It found:
- 62% of carers said unsolicited/ unscrupulous cold callers or doorstep salespeople were a problem. Usually the salesperson was trying to sell products and services to the person with dementia.
SAVVY TIP: Common examples included selling double-glazing, new windows, mobility aids, stair lifts and orthopaedic beds. The carers said these were goods the person did not need.
- 15% of carers reported problems with rogue traders. They said the person they care for had either been approached by rogue traders trying to do building work that didn’t need to be done, or they’d actually had unnecessary work done. This was described as a growing concern, particularly by professionals working with people with dementia who felt that organised criminals were becoming alert to the vulnerability of people with dementia.
SAVVY TIP: I’ve spoken to several Trading Standards Officers who paint the same picture. They say that rogue traders and criminal gangs invest time in befriending an elderly person with dementia. They know that if they pick the right person they (either the same gang or another one) can defraud them over many years. Some people have been cleaned out of their life savings and others have taken out a loan to carry on handing money over to the criminal gang or have signed over their home to them.
- 70% said that cold callers routinely targeted the person that they care for. Common hazards included inappropriate selling, such as an energy company putting pressure on the person to change supplier and high-pressure tactics, where people were sold memberships and subscriptions. There were also more complex ‘boiler room scams’, where someone pretends to be from a legitimate financial organisation and recommends that the person invests in (often worthless) shares.
SAVVY TIP: It’s not only people who have dementia who are targeted by boiler room scammers. What’s worrying is that victims — whether or not they have dementia — typically lose £20,000. If you or a relative receive calls from a boiler room company or if you’re scammed out of money by buying worthless shares, contact the Financial Conduct Authority which is the financial regulator.
- Around 40% of carers reported scam mail was a problem. These carers said that the person with dementia had been regularly targeted by scam mail. Some said their relatives had lost money by entering competitions. Some of these are obviously dodgy/fraudulent, but there’s a whole industry of companies that sell low value items to encourage people to enter prize draws. They’re not illegal (or sometimes they may only infringe civil rather than criminal law) and they are sometimes based overseas, which makes it hard for action to be taken against them.
Letters for non-existent prizes in lotteries or prize draws where there’s a minute chance of winning can be more persuasive than you’d think, especially if the recipient has dementia or something like mild cognitive impairment (which can be a pre-cursor of dementia).
Once someone has responded they may be on a ‘suckers’ list’ and they’ll get inundated. I’ve seen at first hand the ‘junk mail’ one elderly man had received over 12 months – everything from lottery scams through to legitimate catalogue companies offering prize draws as an incentive to buy their products.
SAVVY TIP: If you think that a relative is being targeted by junk mail scammers, get in touch with The Citizens Advice consumer service on 03454 04 05 06 or a charity called Think Jessica, which was set up after an elderly woman called Jessica was scammed by fraudsters. Even seemingly benign companies may sell someone’s personal details onto a third party.
What you can do
One of the difficulties of helping someone with dementia is that they may think that friends and family are stealing from them when they aren’t (which may mean they don’t want to accept your help), and may, conversely, put a lot of trust in complete strangers. The Alzheimer’s Society has a useful list of tips for managing your money if you have dementia or you’re caring for someone with dementia.
Here are some of my suggestions for relatives or carers.
- Keep an eye out for anything that seems unusual. It could be lots of new books (which may have been ordered from mail order companies on the promise of a prize), work on the roof or driveway (often a money spinner) or piles of junk mail.
- Get a trusted friend or neighbour to help. If you don’t live near your parents/relatives or aren’t able to keep an eye on what they may have signed up to, see if you can ask a friend or neighbour to get in touch if they believe your relative is being scammed by rogue traders.
- Set up an ongoing power of attorney. You can find details of how to set up a lasting power of attorney in England or Wales on the GOV.UK website. Without one you cannot manage your relative’s financial affairs once they’re unable to make decisions for themselves. Lasting powers of attorney set out who should look after your relative’s affairs if they’re unable to.
SAVVY TIP: If the person is in Scotland, they need to set up a continuing power of attorney (the equivalent document). There are details about how to set up a continuing power of attorney on the Office of the Public Guardian (Scotland) website. In Northern Ireland, it’s called an enduring power of attorney. There are details about enduring powers of attorney on the NIDirect.gov.uk website.
The only other option is to turn a single named account into a joint account, but you would have to do this while your relative had mental capacity and with their agreement.
- Know your rights. If your relative has signed a contract after a sales man or woman came to see them at home (or work) and the goods or service cost more than £42, they have the right to cancel the contract within 14 days if they change their mind.
SAVVY TIP: Since August 2013, if someone has signed a contract or bought something at their home that costs more than £42, and they’ve been bullied or misled, they have 90 days in which to cancel and get their money back.
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