/ Home & Energy, Money, Shopping, Technology

We should protect, not patronise, older people against scams

Man with magnifying glass

Scams against older people are on the rise and there are a number of reasons why they can be at greater risk. But how can we protect them when it’s so easy to be taken in by scammers’ elaborate ploys?

So why are older people susceptible to scams? Well, loneliness often leads older people to embrace those who engage them in conversation, either in person or on the phone, and this can sometimes affect their judgement.

Older people may also be less likely to have access to the internet to check the legitimacy of a company. And, they may not have experience of the fact that banks and other institutions never ask for details over the phone.

Why scammers seem convincing

Scammers work by putting pressure on someone to commit to buy very quickly, suggesting an offer is only available for a limited period, or that paying now will secure a discount. This can make older people in particular feel forced to act against their better judgement.

Recent scams include elderly people being telephoned by a fraudster pretending to be a police officer, informing the victim that their bank credit card is being used fraudulently and advising them to withdraw £5,000 from their bank, so an officer can take and mark the notes.

They are further advised not to reveal their reason for the withdrawal of this cash to the bank, as it may interfere with their investigations and stop them from catching the thieves. If the victim appears doubtful, the fraudster tells them to seek immediate verification by calling 999, but then keeps the line open by not hanging up. So when the victim dials 999, they unknowingly reconnect with the fraudster and all the details are confirmed by an accomplice.

Alternatively, scammers ask victims to check bank card misuse with the bank, using the security number on the back of their card. Once again, by not hanging up, the fraudster keeps the line open. Then the victim, using the bank’s printed security number, unknowingly connects with a fraudster, who confirms that the claims are indeed correct.

They also ask for PIN details over the telephone. In one recent case, the fraudster obtained the victim’s PIN number and arranged for their credit card to be collected for ‘finger printing’. As instructed, the victim double-sealed their credit card in two envelopes. Fortunately, the courier company became suspicious and informed the police.

Are old people really a soft target?

It is very important not to patronise older people, or to assume that everyone over a certain age is susceptible to scams, but in my view, it is even more essential to protect older people wherever possible from unscrupulous individuals, who believe their older victims are a soft target.

It is easy to assume that most people won’t be taken in, but my own 81 year-old mother was recently called by a ‘florist’ and ended up paying £160 over the phone, and it turned out to be a local brothel. That is how bizarre scams can get.

There are a number of practical measures which we can all take to protect ourselves against scams, such as buying a telephone with screening mechanisms. I have recently invested in such a phone myself and have eliminated all cold calls to my home, yet not to my mobile! I am still searching for a solution there.

Remind your older relative not to be bullied into any deals and to check them out with you or someone else they trust first. And if they are put under any pressure at all, they should not hesitate to call the police.

This is a guest contribution by Deborah Stone, co-founder of myageingparent.com, to mark Older People’s Day. All opinions are Deborah’s own, not necessarily those of Which?


I have a caller display on my phone which lets me know who is calling, numbers on my contact list come up as names ,it is well worth the money.Calls from unknown numbers do not get answered as do withheld numbers. I am 76 years old and live on my own

Deborah Stone says:
1 October 2015

I think those phones at every helpful, but some people still answer all calls, especially if they are lonely

Caller display is a great idea, there are apps you can use with your phones which help with using one for those who find it difficult. Necta Launcher, has a smart SOS feature that sends emergency texts which is really helpful for anyone living alone. Having first-hand experience with my own grandparents, I know I feel safer knowing my grandparents have access to technology which is not confusing and keeps them safe.

[Sorry Roland, your comment has been edited to align with our Community Guidelines. Thanks, mods]

This is a difficult subject. One the one hand older parents who might be susceptible to this sort of technique do need protection, but are often highly resistant to being protected, even by their own offspring. On the other hand it’s equally important to ensure that older parents are not ‘protected’ by offspring more anxious to get their hands on the money than they are about their parents’ safety.

Possibly one answer lies in developing more real-life social opportunities for elderly parents. It’s at these sorts of gatherings that they can be shown what’s happening in the world of fraud and how best to deal with it. The biggest hurdle I find is lack of comprehension regarding the internet. If they’re not au fait with internet nasties and risks it can be immensely difficult to help them. One excellent example of this is the group organiser who send out Round Robin emails to the group with everyone’s emails clearly visible in the CC line. For years I’ve been carefully (and I hope not in the least condescendingly) explaining to group secretaries the risks involved and how to circumvent them. It has never worked.

Not only that but even apparently intelligent people who use the internet on a daily basis seem to resent being told that it’s a bad idea. So I doubt there are any easy solutions to this one.

It’s interesting you should mention that about newsletters, Ian. For years I have been trying to get a local neighbourhood organisation to put their circulation list in the Bcc: box instead of the To: or Cc: box but to no avail. They seem to assume that all the members are as pure as the driven snow and would never forward a mailing to anyone who might misuse the information. In the end I unsubscribed and now catch up with the group’s doings by looking at their noticeboard. I originally thought this tendency arose with people who had not worked with computers in an office environment and perhaps were not aware of the ways to avoid revealing addressees’ e-mail addresses but your final para suggests otherwise. Perhaps they think that listing the names and e-mail addresses is more sociable and cohesive, and enables members to communicate with each other. I thought there were some controls on this under the Data Protection Act but I am out of touch on how it applies in the non-commercial arena. I am sure within the murky world of scamming there are ‘scouts’ whose business it is to gather names and e-mail addresses and couple them with other information to produce ‘leads’. Unprotected circulation lists are a gift to such people.

When using bcc it is worth indicating the intended recipients at the start of an email, e.g. Members of ……… Society. That makes it clear that it is not a personal email.

Indeed, and a very good idea. But the real problem is that when everyone’s addresses are listed on the CC line it only requires a single recipient whose computer has a virus or been compromised in some way to infect everyone on that list.

Good point Wavechange, or even include the org’s name in the heading.

I don’t think there’s much defence against the problem Ian has cited, other than to keep your antivirus status bang up to date.

Even if you do that for yourself, a single infected recipient might lead to a huge increase in Spam. I simply don’t understand why most folk seem almost hostile to having this pointed out.

Deborah: perhaps this is something you might do through your website?

Ian, I think the reason for their hostility is they don’t have a clue what you are talking about.

Many people have had no training when it comes to computers. They can manage the basics but the rest is gobbledygook to them.

All the more reason for Deborah to feature some items about the problem on her website, perhaps?

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On the question of funeral plans, there have been two fairly recent conversations on this subject which are worth reading –

Is Dying Too Expensive? [05/09/2013], and

Pay Now to Rest in Peace? [16/06/2013]

And there was also a lot more coverage through comments in a Conversation earlier this year called –

Are Products Aimed at the Over-50s Delivering Poor Value? [17/01/2015]

I wouldn’t say there is intense pressure to take out funeral plans, but it is a competitive business and there is a lot of persuasive advertising . These plans lock in the cost of a future funeral at today’s prices according to the grade of funeral selected. However, as the previous Conversations advised, there are extra expenses arising at a funeral that will not be included in the plan and could rise at a faster rate then current inflation so independent additional saving is advisable . I don’t think one should dismiss funeral plans out of hand as they can be a good idea for lots of people but the simplistic marketing might lead some people to make the wrong choice.

One area where there ought to be better advice is in cases where an Inheritance Tax liability is likely to arise. In those cases it might not be a good idea to pay for the funeral in advance through a funeral plan; the expenses of a funeral are deductible from the value of the estate for the purposes of calculating the IHT liability but this cannot be done where a pre-paid funeral plan exists. I doubt if the companies selling these plans point that out to their clients, or do a proper fact-find to check whether the plan is appropriate for their circumstances.

My 86 year old brother who lived in Vancouver passed away last year and to our astonishment and surprise, in his will he requested no funeral, although he could well afford one. Once I got over my initial shock I can see the logic behind his thinking, except as John makes the point for IHT purposes.

Obviously an individual choice but it is not necessary to have a funeral if you dont want one. Whilst on the subject, a new Which? App has appeared on my browser and I can’t make up my mind whether it represents a funeral director or the Grim Reaper but it’s giving me the creeps. Can anyone advise how to get rid
of it please 😕

Deborah Stone says:
1 October 2015

I think you make some very valid points and we will look at both of them on myageingparent.com

It is kind of interesting to have a Which? Conversation written by a , I assume , a commercial entity.

I have had a look at the site and some of the solutions that they offer and I am impressed. Just goes to show what is possible with intelligent and dedicated people.

I had hoped that Which? would be more active in this area however I doubt very much they would be this effective. However the Which? consumer base is vast and in fact the ordinary members, that is those who are shareholders, some have been members for over 40 years and the average ordinary member clocks around 30 years.

It is a shame that more subscribers are not recruited to become ordinary members joining the 7000 existing as not only do you see the Accounts etc and vote but obviously live longer : )

Deborah Stone says:
1 October 2015

I’m pleased that you liked our website. We have worked very hard to provide practical advice for families and older people across all issues.

The PC set-up for the computer illiterate and the mobile phone plug socket that informs family that the kettle [whatever ] has been boiled are imaginative and I believe useful.

As a matter of course I receive emails from several charities, some review and gadget sites, and I receive emails from the French and American consumer bodies, look at the RICA site, and plus daily emails from Stiftung Warentest – and both these innovations were new to me.

My current concern is saving Which? from self-destructing however I have always had half an eye on the items for the elderly given parents … and the possibility I might end up that way : )

I’m glad to see that you have enjoyed this W? Conversation by Deborah and there are a lot of positive solutions from myageingparent. However, I thought that you would also like to see what we have to offer on Which? Elderly Care with our new guide to Scams and older people to reassure you that Which? isn’t resting on its laurels:


We too aim to take a practical approach and I hope you will find plenty of interest among those pages. It is proving to be a popular area of the site. It will be good to know what you think.

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Yes older people are softer targets and are more likly to have the money the fraudtsers are after too.

I think the thing that annoys me most about scams is the amazingly soft punishments handed out to the people who commit these offences.And thats second only to the feeble attempts at regulators to do anything about it. And please don’t try to defend them with the tired excuse that they’re under funded, They have ample opportunity to loddy whoever to be able to set and keep most of the fines they dish out, they just choose not to.

One new phone has done more to protect my parents than the ICO, TPS and OFCOM combined.

The only organisation I feel that takes their socially repsonsibilty seriously is ****** ***** as I can’t recall ever getting a spam email. Wish I could say the same for BT who are quite happy to connect scammers, or Royal Fail who are quite happy to deliver scam mail. Newspapers who are quite happy to run scam ads. It’s time those organisations are held equally responsible for the crimes that they are allowing to happen under their watch.

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the latest scam is about council tax and a rebate i had the call 2 days ago they hung up when I said I would get in touch with my local council office

Deborah Stone says:
1 October 2015

We will alert our readers. Thank you

One of the biggest scams on the elderly is that of Retirement Flats. I believe Which did something a while ago and then forgot about it.

Every year hundreds of thousands of people are ripped off by unscrupulous freeholders. Service charges bare very little resemblance to actual cost.

These people know that the average retiree just wants a quite life and at present the law offers little in the way of protection.

If Which took this case up properly then HM Gov would need to take proper action.

I am promted to ask where is the Government .Why are they allowing this .It is totally out of order.Are they burying their heads in the sand ???!!

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Julie, things are not as bad as David Jordan suggests.

There are appeal processes for dealing with excessive or unjustified service charges. Residents are able to apply to a tribunal for a ruling if (a) they think a charge is unreasonable, or (b) they think the standard of work it relates to is unsatisfactory, or (c) they think they shouldn’t be paying it at all.

A householder paying a service charge has the right (a) to ask for a summary showing how the charge is worked out and what it’s spent on; and (b) to see any paperwork supporting the summary, eg receipts. The landlord/freeholder must provide this information – it’s a criminal offence if they don’t.

These protections have been in force through many governments’ terms of office and is firmly on the side of the resident. There is also a very helpful Leasehold Advisory Service which provides plenty of information leaflets and advisory services to help people who are having difficulties over their lease.

I find that if I answer in any language other than English they give up. Gaelic is good also Japanese. I am not fluent in them but know enough phrases to throw them

Ian Cockburn says:
12 December 2015

Nobody should be receiving these scam calls. These people need putting behind bars – permanently. More so where it comes down to elderly people. I want to ask just how these people are getting peoples contact details from in the first place. This never used to happen. The government really needs to take action as this is breach of security and should not be. Cameron needs to come into the land of the living and see what’s happening on his own turf before looking after anywhere else.