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Scamming: Vulnerable Individuals

Volume 614: debated on Thursday 8 September 2016

I beg to move,

That this House believes that the elderly and vulnerable are a high-risk group from having harm done to their financial, emotional and psychological wellbeing from criminals who target them with scam calls, post and visits; praises the work that trading standards bodies do to combat scams; calls on financial institutions and the communications industry to put in place mechanisms to protect potential victims from scams; further calls on the Government to recognise the threat from scams to victims’ ability to live independently; draws attention to the measures proposed by Bournemouth University, the Chartered Trading Standards Institute and National Trading Standards Scams Team on financial harm as useful first steps in tackling such scams; and calls on the Government to make suggestions on further steps to tackle such criminality.

It is difficult to overstate the damage done to our economy and society by fraud and scam artists. Such people prey on some of our most vulnerable citizens and can strike at many points in our lives, whether we are buying a home, hiring a tradesman or investing in our pensions. As a former consumer rights and personal finance journalist, I have seen at first hand the real harm that these fraudsters can do. They not only leave people poorer, but can cause a huge range of health and confidence problems far into the future.

While working for the BBC in 2003, I covered the story of a Southampton pensioner who fell victim to scam artists pretending to represent something called the Canadian lottery. They convinced him to wire £1,600 to Canada as an administration fee to unlock his winnings, which of course never materialised. Instead, there were only escalating demands for more cash, and good money went after bad; indeed, in the end that individual paid out more than £9,000 to those fraudsters. In a particularly cruel twist, I remember he told me that he had been told to wait up with his wife, because someone would call at his house to deliver a cheque for his winnings and a bunch of flowers. The door was never knocked on. When he spoke to the fraudsters again, they laughed down the phone at their own cruelty. It is very easy to form snap judgments about people who fall victim to these sorts of schemes—indeed, the victims often blame themselves, which is one reason why only 5% of cases come to light—when we ourselves have been lucky enough never to fall victim to one.

My hon. Friend is making a good case. Does he agree that these crooks are getting ever more sophisticated? Using scanning technology and the ability to take pictures from the internet, they often copy the logos and trademarks of reputable companies, which makes it even harder to detect the scam.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. There is an ever-rising tide and the methods are becoming more sophisticated. While we are talking about logos, these people use governmental logos—that of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs among others—so that they can pretend to be quasi-governmental. They also use logos that are very similar to governmental logos and those of other institutions. He is quite right to raise that point.

As I say, it is easy for us to rush to snap judgments, and some people do that about what they perceive as their own foolishness. However, the gentleman I was discussing was no fool. He had run his own business for more than 30 years. The scammers were not only persuasive but, as they often do, preyed on his very best instincts, especially the thought of how he could help his children with the winnings.

I thank the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) for co-signing the motion. I also thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have talked to me prior to the debate to recount their stories of constituents who have been affected. I was struck by one from my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), who wrote to tell me that an elderly lady in her constituency was robbed of almost £35,000 by people posing as, of all things, an anti-fraud unit from her local bank. Unfortunately those fraudsters were not caught, and as the banks are not liable, her savings have not been returned. That has had a devastating impact—not just financial but emotional—on the lady concerned.

Those incidents are just two among the thousands that occur each and every year. They highlight why we need to do more to combat this detestable style of crime. I thank the many external organisations that got in touch with me, especially those that provided so much useful data and information, such as the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, Age UK, Financial Fraud Action UK, Standard Life and the Fairway financial consultancy.

The cost of fraud to the economy is truly astonishing. According to the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, it amounts to £52 billion a year. Numbers can get thrown around, but to put that into context, £52 billion is more than we spend on defence or education. If we were to cut that figure by just 10%, we would reinject £5 billion into people’s savings and the wider economy itself. That would equate to much of the economic boost that has come about in recent years due to payment protection insurance payouts.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for leading the debate. A quarter of the population of my constituency is over the age of 65, and the average age of those being scammed is 74, so my constituents are particularly concerned. He talked about financial cost, which is of course important, but those being scammed are some of the most vulnerable in society. This is an issue of not just the financial cost, but the human cost.

I could not agree more. The demographics in our constituencies are very similar, certainly in terms of age—in Silhill ward in my constituency, 40% of people are over 65. As my hon. Friend says, the average age of scamming victims is 74. Fraudsters have many different ways of making their approach, but in the main they instinctively target elderly people—although not to the exclusion of everyone else—because, frankly, the older generation is quite polite. They do not want to put the phone down straightaway and they might respond to a letter. However, as I will explain, as soon as someone does that, they enter a whole new world in terms of the information gathered by these fraudsters.

The national average cost of fraud per victim is purportedly just over £1,000, but the amounts can be a lot higher. I was staggered to find that in my constituency the average cost is £9,000 for each event of fraud, which probably reflects our relatively affluent population and also the fact that we have an older population, as my hon. Friend and I discussed a moment ago. Older people are disproportionately the target of scammers, but we must not forget that the youngest reported victim that I have been alerted to was only 19. Can we imagine starting out in life, effectively, as an adult, and finding that one of our first experiences is to be hoodwinked by one of those despicable fraudsters? That demonstrates that no one who is old enough to handle their own finances can afford to be complacent about the risk of fraud.

Being stung is often only the start of the process. A victim’s details can be sold on more than 200 times, putting them in the sights of a much larger pool of international criminals. The National Trading Standards scams team has found an astonishing 106,000 potential victims of fraud on captured criminal target lists. The fraudsters call those sucker lists, which shows what they think of people. Investigations suggest that the names of 560,000 victims from the UK are already in circulation.

We must not fall into the trap of considering only financial costs as the social and human damage caused by fraud can be just as severe. Indeed, according to trueCall, the phone screening service, the impact of scamming is comparable to that of violent crime. For starters, 29% of victims suffer a major depressive episode in the 20 months after a crime, compared with just 2% of non-victims.

Has my hon. Friend also considered the risk and actual harm caused when scammers market fake medicines online? That is a particular problem. Operation Pangea has been seizing many such products as they come into the UK, but people need to be aware of the danger of buying from online pharmacies. They need to be sure that they are buying from a reputable agent of the pharmacy industry in the UK, and people can look at logos to check that they are doing so.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. She will have come across that issue in her role as Chair of the Health Committee. As I understand it, such cases are not simply a question of being defrauded of money; they can actually cost people their lives, in the worst possible circumstances.

As well as depressive episodes, 45% of victims suffer a generalised anxiety disorder compared with just 15% of non-victims. The stress that victims suffer can both exacerbate pre-existing health conditions and induce post-traumatic stress, and 10% of victims have unexplained hospital admissions within three months. The circles of these frauds—their effects within our wider society—roll outwards and outwards. More horrifyingly, people who have been defrauded are two-and-a-half times more likely than non-victims to be in care or dead within two years of the event. Scammers take so much more than cash. They can rob us of our self-confidence and elderly citizens of the ability to live independently.

We should not forget the people who fight back. I have enjoyed reading stories of people called scam baiters, who turn the tables on these predators by wasting their time and making fools of them. I particularly liked one story that the BBC covered a few years ago of a gentleman who managed to persuade a Nigerian scammer to daub himself in war paint to prove his dedication to a made-up religion. Overall, however, the clear knock-on effects for personal independence and relationships add huge invisible costs to the headline figures of fraud.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent case he is making about this very important subject. From personal experience, I know that some scammers concentrate on people who are beginning to suffer from short-term memory loss. Will he explain to what extent that is a feature of this phenomenon? If it is, as I suspect, a very significant feature, does it not highlight the importance of people who are beginning to lose their faculties trying, whenever possible, to give power of attorney to reliable relatives so that they are not vulnerable to being taken advantage of in this way?

That is absolutely correct. We also need better training for bank staff. Nationwide is very good at spotting the signs of when an individual is being defrauded. I remember one case that was told to me by my grandmother, who is 91, of a lady on her estate who had tried to withdraw several thousand pounds from the Nationwide with two burly men behind her. That case related to fake tarmacking and the usual fake repairs. Nationwide must be commended for stopping that withdrawal from happening. The Post Office, too, has put in place such training. My right hon. Friend is right to make the link between scamming and the ever-increasing instances, due to longevity, of dementia in our society. This is another challenge we must meet as a society through financial institutions, and family and other support networks.

The clear knock-on effects for personal independence and relationships add huge invisible costs to the headline figures I mentioned, both by increasing demand for state support and simply in terms of human misery. One of the reasons why fraud is so difficult to tackle is that it can take many different forms. Con artists are adept at exploiting people’s unfamiliarity with the technical aspects of a product or service in order to trick them. They are also quick to exploit the latest news story or Government initiative, and sometimes simply try to exploit our generosity after a natural disaster by posing as someone in need of disaster relief. An email apparently coming from a disaster zone and asking for help is a very common trick of the fraudsters.

Several constituents have visited my surgery to complain that their insurers will not allow them to take money out of their pension funds to invest into unregulated investments—so-called “penny shares”—which allow scammers to sell people worthless stocks and other asset classes. I am sure that other hon. Members have received similar visits. I have had to be very clear to those individuals that their insurers are perfectly right and that they should never put their pension at risk. I encourage Members to remain vigilant about such stories. This “pensions unlocking”, as it is called, is just one way in which con artists are trying to exploit the Government’s new, more liberal pensions system. I fully support the Government’s desire to give more power to individual savers, but such cases highlight the importance of developing anti-fraud protections alongside policies, rather than after they are implemented. That applies to our regulators, too.

Impersonating banks is another common form of financial fraud, as the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury discovered. According to Financial Fraud Action UK, scammers are now targeting individuals directly for passwords, passcodes and PINs as security systems become ever more sophisticated and complex. FFA UK reported that losses to financial fraud totalled £755 million in 2015, but that was only what was reported. Worryingly, that figure represented a 26% increase on 2014, despite bank and card company security systems intercepting and preventing £1.76 billion of fraud, or £7 in every £10 of potential losses.

Fraud is also flourishing on the internet. According to consumer group Which?, more than 5 million online scams were carried out last year, with an astonishing £9 billion lost to fraudsters. It also reports that six in 10 of us reported being targeted by online scammers in the 12 months up to May this year. Frankly, I am surprised the figure is only six out of 10; I am forever being asked to wire money to various parts of the world, basically for it to be laundered. The most common types of fraud are phishing emails—usually purporting to be from a bank or senior official—seeking money, and bogus computer support.

Alongside this cutting-edge crime, the more traditional forms of fraud flourish too, such as false tradesman tricking people into paying extortionate amounts for unnecessary work and often providing cover for outright distraction burglaries into the bargain. I was struck by a case sent in by the Chartered Trading Standards Institute on this very point. The case involved a 78-year-old pensioner from Lincolnshire who lived alone and was isolated from family. The pensioner was conned out of his house by a conman who convinced him that major repair work was needed on his property. After being cold-called and visited, he agreed to will part of his property in return for the work being carried out. However, the documents he signed actually gave the house to the scammers, who then placed him in a caravan park. It was only the victim’s testimony in court that guaranteed a conviction. The officers involved had no doubt there were other victims, silent victims, who had lost homes in this way.

The huge financial and human costs of fraud make the case for action clear, but the problem could very well be much more serious than we realise. The CTSI believes that only 5% of scams are ever reported, with fear and shame keeping victims silent and preventing them from seeking help. There are already some very strong efforts in this area. In addition to the preventive measures by banks and card companies that I have already mentioned, trading standards has been collaborating with charities and the police to afford better protection to victims. For example, there has been a concerted effort to provide previous victims, and those whose age or health makes them likely to be victimised, with call blockers. These have so far protected 1,600 vulnerable people and blocked 95% of 81,000 attempted nuisance calls.

Based on the overall statistics, trading standards estimates that more than 11,500 scams, which would have been carried out, have been stopped. Expanding the capacity of trading standards, as many have called for, would make these efforts more effective. More needs to be done, especially when the resale of personal information makes so many people vulnerable to crimes such as identity theft. The CTSI has called for much stricter regulation and control of personal data to counter industrial-scale and legal harvesting of personal data which can then be put to illegal use or sold on. So often, the first purchase of the information can be done through clicking a box, for example to sign up to a newsletter. The information then goes into the ether. I do not believe that people know quite what they are signing up to: there is no transparency. The first few purchases of that information might be bona fide and legitimate. Further down the scale, however, we start to find in investigations that holding companies, which are a front, are effectively buying in the information for fraudsters.

Despite the fact that 85% of people, a huge majority, think that businesses have an equal or greater responsibility to protect their customers from fraud than consumers, the Cyber Security Breaches 2016 Survey found that only 5% of firms invest in ongoing monitoring of hacks into their systems, despite more than six in 10 reporting such breaches. I know from personal experience that some banks have a long way to go in their own security arrangements, too. Very recently, HSBC asked my wife to send some very sensitive financial and personal information to a private email address. That was legitimate. It was bona fide. But what on earth is a bank doing allowing private and sensitive information to go outside its own networks?

Some firms report to me the astonishing claim that some of our current systems work against responsible corporate behaviour. A partner in the financial consultancy firm Fairway wrote to me that the Financial Ombudsman Service was holding his firm accountable for losses incurred via some very risky, and frankly quite murky-sounding, investments that his firm had clearly warned its clients to avoid because they would put their life savings at risk. One adjudicator at the FOS had apparently suggested that the firm should have refused to advise the people involved. How can we have a system that makes it harder for people engaged in potentially problematic and risky investments to receive professional advice? It is essential for us to ensure that our regulators are focusing on the authors of dodgy investment schemes which blur the line between legitimate business and outright fraud, and not unfairly penalising those who try to help.

The Government can also make a real difference by stress-testing policies and building anti-fraud protections into them as they are developed, rather than waiting until afterwards. I know that the Cabinet Office has made great strides in relation to the sharing of information throughout the Government to track down benefit fraudsters and other financial scammers.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on an excellent speech. I strongly endorse what he has said about Government schemes. He mentioned pensioners earlier, and in recent years, particularly in south Wales, they have been targeted by green deal scams. I agree wholeheartedly that it is important for the Government to build in safeguards when they are developing policies, to prevent people from being scammed on the back of legitimate Government schemes.

That is a very good point. I remember the fraud that took place way back when tax credits were launched. The fraudsters cotton on incredibly quickly, and they see the opportunities. They seem to be extremely flexible in that regard. Scam artists are very quick to move on any new opportunity. They cost the Government hundreds of millions of pounds by exploiting the green deal, and, before that, Labour's tax credits proved so vulnerable that the online portal set up to claim them is still closed a decade later.

We also need much clearer warnings for people. Despite the best of intentions, much of the advice on offer is too cautious, and contains too much room for doubt. There is too much reliance on caveat emptor. It would be much better to lay out some very clear rules, such as these. If a tradesman knocks on your door to say that you need surprise repairs, just say no. Thank him or her, and, if you are worried, call a reputable professional yourself. If someone tries to convince you that you have won a lottery that you did not enter, just say no: it cannot be made clear enough that that never happens. If someone tries to persuade you to make a risky investment with your pension, just say no: that precious investment has to look after you in your old age. If you want to invest, always take the time to seek proper, independent professional advice.

Is the hon. Gentleman as worried as I am about the number of people who respond to communications? He mentioned the lottery. Once people have responded to one communication, they will receive many more. I heard of one person who received up to 10 or 20 a day. Moreover, the communications are coming from abroad, which means that they cannot be intercepted and stopped. It is causing a great deal of heartache to very vulnerable people.

Order. Before the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) responds to that intervention, let me point out that, while I appreciate that he is making some extremely important points and the House is very attentive, a great many other Members wish to speak, not just in the current debate but in the next. I am sure that he will conclude his speech very soon.

I am actually on my last paragraph, Madam Deputy Speaker, but thank you for the reminder.

The hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) is absolutely correct. If the Post Office is alerted to the position, it will stop mail and set up a separate “scam mail box”, which is a very good initiative.

Fraud is a detestable crime which preys on our worst fears and best instincts, and I hope that, together with the police and other organisations and across the Government, we can start to stamp it out.

Order. Before I call the co-sponsor of the motion, let me repeat that a great many Members wish to speak in both this debate and the next one. I must therefore impose a five-minute time limit on Back-Bench speeches. That does not apply to the next speaker, who is deemed to be the spokesman for her party.

I am delighted to co-sponsor the motion and this important debate along with the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), with whom I have sparred in the past but with whom I am in complete agreement today.

The cost of scamming in our society is undoubtedly huge and cannot be counted only in terms of pounds and pence, although the financial cost is significant. Scamming affects the elderly and other vulnerable members of our communities, not exclusively but disproportionately, and the problem is becoming greater with each passing day. The Office for National Statistics predicts that by 2030 the number of elderly people living in our communities will increase by 34%, from 11.6 million to 15.7 million, and the number of people living with dementia will increase from 850,000 to 2.1 million.

The people who perpetrate scams use sophisticated techniques to scam their victims, repeatedly in some cases. Trading standards, although already hard-pressed, is working on the front line to do all that it can to safeguard the vulnerable. The most sinister, cynical and cruel aspect of scamming is that it is criminal activity which targets those who are most vulnerable in their own homes. The one place where any of us should feel safe becomes the setting for people being conned out of their money via sales scripts, data collection and targeted mail. Scams can involve, for instance, pension fraud, bogus equity release schemes, fictitious prize draws, false investment opportunities, upfront payments to release lottery wins, upfront payment for building work that is either never started or never completed, and investment scams. The most common telephone scams are cold calls. I hope that everyone who is in the Chamber today will feel able to support my ten-minute rule Bill on cold calls next week. I do not have time to talk about it now, but it is fascinating.

The impact of scams goes far beyond financial loss. It is emotional and psychological, and has even been shown to have an impact on physical wellbeing. At worst, it can ruin lives and split families, with the consequences lasting long beyond the initial trauma of financial loss. Moreover, even when financial losses are comparatively low, scams lead to a breakdown in consumer confidence. The full effects of the harm caused by them is difficult to estimate, as only about 5% of victims report that they have lost money. We know that the average victim loses about £1,000, but we also know that many lose hundreds of thousands of pounds. We know that victims of scams often feel embarrassed, and are afraid that their families will judge them to be no longer capable of living alone. For that reason, scams may not be reported, which leaves the victims open and vulnerable to repeat scams. Some people find it extremely difficult even to admit that they have been victims of a crime.

We should not forget that the impact of dementia and other impairments makes vulnerability much more pronounced and the ability to target an individual repeatedly much more possible. As we heard from the hon. Member for Solihull, it has been demonstrated that victims of scams are nearly two and a half times more likely to require increased care provision, or to die within two years of being scammed. It has also been reported that victims often experience a rapid drop in their physical health after realising that they have been scammed.

The scale of the problem and its associated costs are absolutely huge. Alongside this growing problem, we all know that trading standards are struggling to cope, although the work they do is worthy of very high praise and demands our respect. I also want to highlight the excellent work carried out by CIFAS, which works to prevent fraud and financial crime through the sharing of confirmed fraud data. Last year, CIFAS prevented more than £1 billion in fraud loss by sharing data across sectors. Its data show that in 2015 in my own constituency of North Ayrshire and Arran, 278 frauds took place and there were 103 victims of fraud. We know that that is a mere snapshot of the true level of fraud, which is likely to be much higher.

I want to single out for particular praise North Ayrshire Citizens Advice Service, which carried out a range of activities to promote Scam Awareness month, which was July, providing training to advisers, raising awareness of scams among clients, and working in partnership with local community groups, the third sector, Police Scotland, and Ayrshire College. It also worked closely with my local Member of the Scottish Parliament, one Kenneth Gibson, whom I mention purely in the interests of domestic harmony.

Scams do so much more than rob people of their money. They rob them of their confidence, their belief in themselves and in their judgment, their self-esteem, their willingness to trust people and the help they may be able to offer them, and ultimately their ability to live full, happy, independent lives. What makes all of us vulnerable to scams is shown by research carried out by Which? All of us are overconfident about our ability to spot a scam. Ironically, that makes us all the more vulnerable. The gap between confidence and ability is dangerous.

So what can we do about this problem? I absolutely agree with the suggestion put forward by trading standards that financial institutions should recognise that clients with dementia are by definition more at risk of being scammed and that measures need to be taken to protect that group as a duty of care. Those who are diagnosed with dementia live with a cognitive impairment and that must be recognised. The sharing of personal details and information with other organisations should require a clear opt-in, as opposed to an opt-out. The normal default position of charities and other organisations should be that personal details are not passed on or shared, except to report a safeguarding concern where there is a suspicion that a person may be at risk of harm from scamming.

In addition, customers should be able to formally notify their bank in writing that they feel at risk and request that all transactions over a certain amount to new payees have a 24-hour delay before being processed. That will give time for the proposed transaction to be challenged and potentially stop scammed money from leaving a scam victim’s account.

Those eminently sensible and fairly straightforward measures would do much to protect those most at risk of scamming—the elderly and the vulnerable in our communities. I urge the Minister to reflect on those proposals to help us to tackle the problem that confronts people who are robbed in their own homes and subsequently find the experience scarring. The effects are far reaching. Let us do more to protect the victims of scams. It is the least we can do.

I wholeheartedly congratulate the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) on securing this important debate. I know they have a long-standing interest in tackling scamming, especially when vulnerable individuals are the intended victims. They have set out the wide range of harm that fraudsters and scammers can cause. I assure the House that tackling scams is a priority for this Government. Scams can have a devastating impact, particularly on the most vulnerable people in society. Mass marketing frauds can affect any one of us, at any time. We are more likely to be a victim of fraud than of any other crime, but when caught out we can sometimes feel ashamed or not want to admit we have been hoodwinked. That, however, can make it hard to get a full sense of the problem. It is really important that we do all we can to understand it and respond, which is why I welcome this debate.

We know that older people are more at risk. The National Trading Standards scams team says that the typical person it provides support to is 74 and living alone. That is why I welcome the work of Bournemouth University and the Chartered Trading Standards Institute to investigate the impacts of scams on older people. Their report on financial scamming earlier this year set out clear recommendations for action by the Government, by charities and by private institutions such as banks. As much of the debate today is focusing on the report’s recommendations, and I will address them directly.

The first recommendation was for all agencies, including banks, to recognise their duty of care to those with dementia and to take measures to protect them. The second was to strengthen rules on data protection to reduce the risk of vulnerable people ending up on so-called suckers lists used by criminals to target their scams. The third was to introduce safeguards at banks and building societies to prevent those who feel at risk of scams from losing large amounts of money.

I thank the Minister for the interest she has taken in this issue. I know from personal experience that it is difficult to get a bank to take action unless someone has already given power of attorney, as I said in an earlier intervention. When this happened to someone very close to me and I told the bank concerned that I needed to be tipped off if there were any unusual withdrawals, nothing really happened until a particularly alert cashier, on her own initiative, did that. After five years, I eventually got success: the fraudster was forced to repay all the money and to pay the costs of the case. Therefore, will the Minister do everything possible to persuade banks, if a power of attorney is not in place, to have procedures in place if a worried close relative asks them to monitor irregular or unusual withdrawals and let them know?

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that constituency case. It reflects the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull made that some banks have good procedures in place and some do not, and that some staff have been well trained and some have not. We need to ensure that every person working in the bank is as good as those identified by the Nationwide, which my hon. Friend mentioned. I will come on to address the wider point: what more banks and building societies can do to protect their vulnerable customers.

I am pleased to report that the Government, regulators and private companies are responding strongly to the recommendations that I have outlined. The Government have taken action more widely on nuisance calls, including a new requirement for all direct marketing callers to provide caller line identification. That came into effect on 16 May. The measure increases consumer choice, by making it easier for people to identify direct marketing calls and to choose whether to accept them. It will also increase the Information Commissioner’s Office’s ability to investigate such calls.

Members may also be aware that, in the Queen’s Speech on 18 May, the Government announced their intention to bring forward a Digital Economy Bill. Among other legislative changes, it will introduce a measure making it a requirement for the Information Commissioner to issue a statutory code of practice on direct marketing.

I wonder whether the Minister in the legislation will also address the fines that are meted out when people breach the rules. She may be familiar with the case of Pharmacy2U, which, disgracefully, sold the details of more than 20,000 of its customers, many of them very vulnerable, to marketing companies. The fine of £130,000 is derisory and no meaningful deterrent.

As always, the Chairman of the Health Committee makes a powerful point, and I am sure those responsible for drafting these measures will take them into careful consideration, ensuring that the scope of the measures captures some of the very harmful behaviour of scammers and fraudsters and that there is sufficient deterrent to those considering undertaking these crimes from the regime of punishments put in place, including fines.

The overall aims of the new code of practice will be to support a reduction in the number of unwanted direct marketing calls and to make it easier for the Information Commissioner to take action against organisations in breach of the direct marketing rules.

Secondly, the Government-funded national trading standards scams team is working with the British Bankers Association, the Building Society Association and others to produce a new national banking protocol for doorstep crime and other scam issues discovered at branch level. The Financial Conduct Authority is building on this. Its ageing population strategy will consider how older consumers engage in financial services and make best use of the products and services they use. The FCA intends to release a regulatory strategy and recommendations by 2017.

My hon. Friend mentions trading standards services, and may I ask her to praise the work of both Poole and Dorset trading standards, which do such a good job in this area? However, they can only do their work if the victims come forward; that is the only way in which successful prosecutions can be secured. So I invite her to continue her work with trading standards and to highlight the important work they do to ensure we get prosecutions.

My hon. Friend raises an important point. My own trading standards team in Cornwall, like that in Poole, does an excellent job. In addition to the vital work they do in all our communities, they are supported by national bodies—one for Scotland and one for England and Wales. A lot of this activity is related to organised and serious crime, and these national bodies do make sums of money available for support where we are seeing particular instances of scamming in communities. That national and local working is a very good model.

Following scandals in 2015 that highlighted unacceptable charitable fundraising practices, a new Fundraising Regulator has been established. Chaired by Lord Grade of Yarmouth, this independent regulator is tasked to set high standards of fundraising practice and to deal with public complaints when those standards have been breached. It has a range of sanctions and can refer serious non-compliance or abuse to the relevant statutory regulator.

The scams team has also been working in partnership with Royal Mail and other postal operators, training over 2,000 postmen and women to spot scam letters. Already over 700 vulnerable households have been identified and are getting support. Even more importantly, contracts to carry the mail are being cancelled, stopping the letters from getting to their intended victims in the first place.

Enforcement is important in tackling this crime. That is why the Home Office launched a joint fraud taskforce in February this year. The taskforce includes, among others, the City of London police, the National Crime Agency, Financial Fraud Action UK, the Bank of England, National Trading Standards, CIFAS, as the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran mentioned, and Age UK. The taskforce is a good example of the approach we are taking to crime prevention. This is very much the focus of the modern crime prevention strategy the Government published in March this year. Its key themes are about working together to understand the drivers of crimes—why and how they are committed—and then working together to try to stay one step ahead of the criminals to prevent more crimes from happening in the future. The work of the taskforce oversight board is an excellent example of such collaboration, bringing government, law enforcement and industry together in a focused way to develop a clearer and common understanding about the changing nature of fraud and how we can all take action against it.

In its first few months the taskforce has demonstrated that it works. Improved data sharing has led banks to close hundreds of accounts linked to fraud; bank branches in London, alongside the Met and trading standards, are introducing a new fraud intervention, and prolific fraudsters have been arrested since the launch of a new campaign in July.

I can assure hon. Members that the Government regard tackling scamming as a priority, and we will continue to work with national and local partners to address the issues raised today and to do everything we can to prevent the horrendous consequences of the scams we have heard about and to enable more of the good work we have seen.

I want to highlight one extremely good example I came across from Trading Standards Scotland. It funded and co-ordinated a project to install over 200 call-blocking devices in vulnerable consumers’ homes. These devices block 95% of nuisance calls. The impact of preventing scammers from reaching vulnerable and elderly people should not be underestimated. Trading Standards Scotland estimates the resulting saving to individuals and the public purse is between £3,000 and £7,000 per call-blocker.

But really what we are here to do today is to think about the effect on people, and I would like to read a quote from one of the beneficiaries of the scheme that illustrates the true human value. She says:

“I have got my life back. I am nearly 70 and I think how did I let people get me like this? My son is ill and cannot protect me. I have had to get police protection in the past for nuisance calls. Now I can protect myself—it is marvellous. I feel in control. We can sit and have a cup of tea without being disturbed. The dog is even less stressed.”

In conclusion, I repeat my thanks to the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran and my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull for securing this important debate. I will be listening intently to the contributions of all Members today, and I can assure them of our utter determination to tackle this dreadful criminal activity.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) on securing this debate on a subject I must confess I did not know nearly enough about. But I do know now that my own constituency is affected by scams in the same way as are many other hon. Members’. One of the local police divisions informs me that the main scam taking place there is one that has been referred to in this debate. Crooks pretend to be from the bank and state that unusual activity is happening on the victim’s account. Information is requested, and then a so-called safe account is set up, and the victim is asked to transfer the money to that new account, which, of course, is almost the opposite of safe.

A local officer there, PC Blades, informs me that

“we are talking about large sums of money being taken”,

with an equally large impact on the victim. He also confirms that it seems that

“a lot of fraud activity goes unreported as persons feel ashamed at being caught out with such scams.”

Tragically, as we have heard, this is the picture all across the country, with the average victim being 74, and the average loss £1,000, but with many losing much more, yet only 5% of victims report being scammed to the authorities. I have been astonished to learn about the scale of the problem—the number of people losing out, the financial losses resulting, the range of industries affected, the different types of scam, and the techniques and technologies employed, from vishing to phishing and cold calling to copycat websites.

The only thing that is less of a surprise is the personal distress and misery caused, which Members have eloquently described. I, too, was horrified to read that victims of mass marketing-type fraud in particular are often placed on so-called suckers lists and their details are then sold on to other fraudsters, increasing their risk of becoming a repeat victim. So anything that can be done to clamp down on that practice must be done.

This is all rather depressing reading, so how do we set about that task of preventing scams and bringing perpetrators to justice? We all have a responsibility in raising awareness by highlighting ScamSmart or Know Fraud, by supporting Scorpion or Pension Wise, and by backing campaigns such as scam awareness month and the excellent “Avoiding scams” information leaflet from Age UK. I confess that Action Fraud had barely entered my consciousness until a few months ago. By introducing this debate, hon. Members have made me determined to ensure that as many of my constituents know about it as possible.

The messages that we have to promote are not particularly difficult ones, but they are easy to forget under pressure, particularly for vulnerable people. The first message, which other hon. Members have mentioned, is that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is—certainly if a cold call is involved. I know that we will be returning to that issue next week. Another message is that people should take expert advice, and the local citizens advice bureau will be happy to help. Also, people should not be afraid to doubt someone’s honesty when they are being asked to part with cash. Unfortunately, a lot of people find that difficult.

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman is saying about the information from the local citizens advice bureau—

Order. A load of time has been used already and we have an oversubscribed debate next, so it is unfair to use more time making interventions. Does the hon. Gentleman really need to intervene? I think that he was hoping to speak for two minutes at the end anyway.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The point I was making is that we should encourage vulnerable people not to be scared about doubting someone’s honesty when they are being asked to part with cash. The fact that they are scared to do that is exactly what makes them vulnerable. We must encourage them to see that there is no downside to challenging someone in that way, because honest people will not be upset by such action. We must also encourage people to report any scams. That could help them to see justice being done and perhaps even to gain some redress. It will also help to prevent other people from falling victim to such crimes.

All this awareness raising can take us only so far, however, when the range and sophistication of scamming activity is increasing all the time. It cannot be relied on to protect significant numbers of people in those crucial moments when they are being hounded for their cash. Going beyond awareness raising, the proposals from the organisations to which the Minister referred, including Bournemouth University and the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, along with those that we have heard from hon. Members today, all provide powerful pointers for Governments at all levels about what further steps could be taken.

The opt-in procedure that my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran mentioned is an attractive proposition. It could involve placing a 24-hour stop on any significant transaction or group of transactions relating to a vulnerable person’s bank account, during which time a nominated representative could be contacted to provide an opportunity to challenge the transaction. In short, it should be as close to impossible as it can be for a vulnerable person to transfer the entire contents of their account to somewhere else without major questions being asked.

We also need to think about considerably increasing the resources that we invest in tackling this problem, using not only public money but the time and money invested by companies to protect their most vulnerable customers and clients. For my own part, I shall happily sign up to be a “scambassador” and I know that many other hon. Members will do so if they have not already. The fight back against these wicked and callous fraudsters deserves all the support it can get.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) for bringing this important debate to the Floor of the House. I am going to focus on scams targeted at the elderly. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on older people and ageing, I hosted the launch of the first report of the Sussex Elders Commission. This was the first listening exercise of its kind for older people, and it received almost 2,500 responses from elderly residents of Sussex about policing, crime and community safety. It asked them about their concerns and what they feared most about staying safe. Their concerns about scamming were profound.

Based on projections from national data, the commission estimated that there could be as many as 13,000 cases of elder abuse in any given year in Sussex alone—two counties with a combined population of only 1.6 million. For example, the commission heard that one man’s elderly brother was dying of cancer and quite frail. He was persuaded to pay £2,000 for essential roof and damp repairs, but the only work completed was some painting over of the damp. A couple aged 85 and 86 were scammed out of £8,000 through a postal scam, and their daughter lost money in the process of trying to recover the funds. Another woman was charged £450 for a minor building repair that was subsequently valued at £30.

Scams targeted at elderly people purposely target vulnerable people. The perpetrators see them as more trusting and less inquisitive. They may be less mobile and more easily cornered. Perhaps they are lonely and isolated, and therefore more welcoming of contact from other people, whether strangers or not. They might just be keener to ensure someone leaves them alone, and therefore more willing to pay a price in order to get rid of them, just because it is easier. Also, some older people might not have all their faculties and might not be aware that they have become a victim of a scam.

The scammers formulate a scheme designed to prey on those characteristics, particularly the vulnerability and isolation of older people. Even worse, they are able to pull this off while the victim is at their own front door, sitting in their living room using their own phone, opening their own post or responding to what seems like a personal email. As a result of the impact of such scamming, one in five older people in Sussex is afraid to answer the phone in their own home. These scams are carried out not only by strangers in far-flung countries or nearby communities, but by members of the victim’s own family, or perhaps by a carer or close friend. An investigation by The Times earlier this year found that adult social services had received allegations of 21,935 cases of theft and fraud against elderly victims in the 12 months to March 2016.

I welcome the Home Office’s creation of a joint fraud taskforce in February this year to develop better solutions to address the increasingly common nature of these types of crime. Age UK is also doing very good work, including in my own county of East Sussex where the average high-risk victim loses £23,000 over a three-month period. It provides support services to victims, with an individual support plan to address their needs, including advice on handling unexpected calls. But as a society we also need to do more to encourage family members to better protect and look after their elderly relatives. For example, investing in hidden cameras for an elderly relative’s home can make it easier for the police to catch regular perpetrators. One of the big issues at the moment is that it is too easy for them to get away with it and repeat the crime. We have heard a lot about call blocking technology, but it is incredibly difficult for older people to install it themselves, so we should urge family members to do that for their elderly relatives.

We have heard about a duty of care, whether on the part of postal workers or of bank staff, and I believe that that should go further. I suggest that scams targeting the elderly be re-categorised as an aggravated crime, because they specifically target a vulnerable person. This could form part of a new type of crime named elder abuse, and I appeal to Members to support my campaign to change the law to recognise this new type of crime. We already treat child abuse as a separate crime, and while I obviously recognise the real differences between physical child abuse and scams against the elderly, both are especially repugnant because they target those least able to defend and protect themselves.

San Diego in America has an official elder abuse prosecution unit. As the Ministry of Justice conducts its review of sentencing, I would strongly encourage it to make elder abuse a priority focus. We should draw on initiatives such as the one in San Diego, where the reporting of elder abuse is mandatory. Referrals follow a checked process which makes it easier to collect evidence and to prosecute, and caseworkers are assigned to any older person who is seen as the victim of abuse or a scam. Anyone who betrays the trust placed in them by the elderly, or who specifically targets the elderly because they are trusting—

I want to congratulate and sincerely thank the hon. Members for Solihull (Julian Knight) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) for securing this debate today. We have heard already about some atrocious cases of scamming that have affected the most vulnerable in our communities. Scamming in the UK has an average financial detriment per person of more than £1,000, but some victims have been forced to re-mortgage or even sell their homes to cover the cost. I would like to draw the House’s attention to the issue in Wales. From April 2015 to May 2016, 8,774 instances of fraud were reported in Wales, but it is estimated that only 5% of scamming victims report being scammed to authorities, so the reality is far worse.

I would like briefly to highlight one scam that has affected a number of my constituents. Residents have been targeted with an automated voicemail message claiming to be from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and warning of an impending lawsuit. After being asked to press 1 to speak to a caseworker, a person then asks for certain personal details such as national insurance numbers, which are then used to commit fraud. Claiming to be from HMRC is a common tactic used by criminals and, unfortunately, it is often successful. I have had constituents contacting my office in tears, ashamed to have been caught out and unclear as to where to go to report what has happened to them.

Many would argue that scamming is at crisis point in some constituencies, and the crisis will only worsen if it is not given the necessary attention. We have an ageing population, many of whom are living with dementia, which is due to increase in the coming years if we believe health experts, and scammers are deploringly exploiting the condition of many elderly people.

Fraudsters also have new avenues to explore. Statistics from Financial Fraud Action UK show that 58% of people have received suspect calls—an increase from 41% in the previous year. It is difficult to assess the exact extent of scamming because so many victims choose not to report such crimes, but we can say with near certainty that it will increase. The Office for National Statistics predicts a 35% increase in elder abuse by 2030. We must recognise this tremendous problem, and I am glad that the House has had the opportunity to highlight it today. It is our duty not only to draw attention to scamming and its effect on individuals, but to look for the solutions.

Sufficient investment in support for those falling foul of such crimes is crucial. Groups such as trading standards continue to do excellent work, but budget cuts mean that they cannot reach their potential. Call blocking projects across the UK have done wonders to tackle the issue, but they can continue only with sufficient funding. It is unacceptable that, according to the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, there has been a 53% cut in front-line officers at trading standards services since 2009. It cannot be denied that that has contributed to the issue and further cuts will only worsen the situation. The Government must invest not only in services to help the victims of the crimes we are discussing today, but in the police to allow them to raise awareness of the problem.

In the scam in my constituency, South Wales Police worked locally to let people know about the issue through social media, reaching hundreds of thousands of people across the area. The Government must make suggestions about further steps to tackle such criminality and cuts cannot continue without consideration of the consequences. I am glad that Members from both sides of the House are in the Chamber today to discuss the issue, on which there is clearly considerable consensus and common ground, but we cannot ignore the fact that Government cuts have contributed to the dilemma. I urge the Government to examine the issue, in particular the role that cuts are having on the ability of front-line services to tackle the problem.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) on securing this important debate. Like all Members, I have experienced constituents at my surgery tearing their hair out, almost in tears, following scams. If time permits, I want to focus on two particular cases. Both were perpetrated against professional people who did all the appropriate checks, and I want to highlight that they feel let down by the investigatory and regulatory authorities. One couple lost £19,000 as a result of an investment in a carbon offset scheme, and the others lost £38,000. The reality is that if those couples had lost such amounts by having their homes burgled, it is fair to say that they would have had a much more positive response from the police and other authorities and would certainly have had an investigating officer whom they could contact personally.

The first case was reported to ActionFraud, but the correspondence that the couple received amounted to this:

“Please find attached a copy of the Crime report as requested. We advise you to keep this information safe”.

The letter indicated that further advice can be found on ActionFraud’s website and ends:

“Kind regards, Claire”.

That does not inspire much confidence. As the investment was US-based, my constituents, in despair, sought support from US authorities. I must congratulate the New York police department, which actually looked into the matter and came back to them. A Lieutenant Phelan emailed the couple, giving his personal contact details, which was at least a positive and helpful response.

I received an email from those constituents, which reads:

“My reason for writing is that there appears to be very little of a practical nature the UK government is doing to support the victims of this crime.”

Based on what the Minister said, it is fair to say that we are now getting a more positive response, and I point out that this email was written in 2014. It continues:

“We fell victim to the approach of a Wealth Advisory company based in Switzerland at a time when we had a sum of money to invest and were looking for an ethical investment…I did as much research as I could on the company and on this potential investment and found little to deter us despite my misgivings about the cold calling…When I contacted the FCA, they were polite but disinterested. They said they would be in touch with me and asked if I would be willing to give further information…I have heard nothing further…They advised me to contact the local Police…I submitted a report to Action Fraud.”

My constituents were told by the local police that they could not investigate further until ActionFraud referred the matter back to them. They went on to say:

“I appreciate we have been gullible but, if this has happened to us, I have no doubt it has happened and will continue to happen to others.

I wanted you to know about the inadequacies of the support offered to the victims of this particular type of crime.”

The second case involved a familiar scam that used the name of a well-established and reputable organisation, copying its contact details, letterheads and so on, as we heard earlier. Personal contact was made between three supposed investment brokers and my constituents, who became friendly and familiar with them, building up the confidence that they could invest safely and, again, doing all the appropriate checks. However, they were also referred to ActionFraud. I understand from my question at Home Office questions on Monday that ActionFraud is being encouraged to ensure that more referrals go back to the local police force so that action can be taken. I urge the Minister and her colleagues to do what they can to ensure that our police and regulatory authorities take a much more serious approach when people lose their life savings.

To be fair, following my correspondence with ActionFraud, I have been invited to a programme run by the City of London police to inform me of its activities, so I hope that I will be able to report something more positive.

The hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) made mention of the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, and I recommend its website to anyone seeking more information. Victims tend to be elderly and therefore less likely to use the web, so we must ensure that all mediums are used to get the message over. I trust that the Minister will take note.

One of my elderly constituents recently told my senior caseworker about an unsolicited call he received from a company claiming that his property’s council tax banding was incorrect and that it could secure him a rebate for a fee of £69.99. It immediately took payment from his debit card over the phone, but—surprise, surprise—my constituent then received a letter from the company stating that it could not secure a rebate. The Lanarkshire joint valuation board, which is responsible for setting the council tax bands, could have checked whether the banding was correct at no charge. Therefore, the “service” offered in the original, unsolicited telephone call was completely unnecessary. I am deeply concerned and further troubled that other vulnerable constituents may be affected by the company and its questionable practices.

My research staff looked into the history of the company, which hid behind office moves and changes of directorship. I wrote to the company, raising my concerns about its business practices and requested a refund for my constituent, but the response was lamentable. My office then reported the situation to the local trading standards team at North Lanarkshire Council, who were extremely helpful. After chasing the company for a refund, they visited my constituent and, after assessing the situation, fitted a telephone screening device to prevent further unsolicited sales calls—exactly one of the devices mentioned by the Minister. Unfortunately, because my constituent used a debit card not a credit card to pay the fee, he was unable to get the money back. Many elderly and vulnerable adults do not have a credit card but, as most of us will know, there is enhanced consumer protection when using one.

Through another case, I have been made aware of a company based in my constituency that has a record of dubious sales practices throughout central Scotland. The company came to my attention when the family of a 79-year-old man, whose wife suffers from dementia, contacted me. The company made an unsolicited visit to the vulnerable couple, offering an external cosmetic service for their home. After taking an initial £800 deposit, the company signed the couple up to nearly £6,000-worth of unnecessary cosmetic work to their home. So keen was it to get the money out of this vulnerable couple that the company did not even check whether they owned the property, which they did not.

Further research into this company shows that they claim to offer a 10-year guarantee, but on closer inspection of their company records a pattern becomes clear. The business practice is to have several companies, with similar names, offering exactly the same services. The directors then fold the company when the heat becomes too great, moving their main business over to one of their many other companies, always with the same two directors in charge. The guarantees are therefore not worth the paper they are written on. That sharp business practice also has a knock-on effect within communities, as it creates reputational risk to other bona fide companies. In an increasingly competitive market, it is difficult for consumers to work out which companies are trustworthy and which are untrustworthy. Unfortunately, many consumers believe that a 10-year guarantee shows that a company is trustworthy, but in the case of this company, nothing could be further from the truth. I also feel for the staff employed by such charlatans, as they, too, may be unaware that the business is built on sand.

I therefore fully support the hon. Member for Solihull and my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) on this, and urge the Minister to show the leadership needed to co-ordinate a strong, public service response to these despicable practices.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) and the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) on securing this important debate. Financial scamming and fraud has a devastating impact on the elderly and the vulnerable, and we have heard today, from Members on both sides of the House, stories of both financial loss and the incredible mental distress caused to people, many of whom are among the most vulnerable in our society. Each of us will have constituents who have lost significant sums of money to scams, with many falling victim because they are too trusting, because they underestimate the maliciousness of those who perpetrate these crimes or because they are subjected to a continual bombardment of nuisance calls and, in desperation, give in.

Scammers are highly organised, predatory and exploitative. Yesterday the Stockport Express, my local paper, reported that so far this year almost 300 people have fallen victim to fraud as a result of cyber-fraud, nuisance calls and bogus traders. In my constituency, trading standards have warned of a recent scam where constituents receive a call claiming they have paid excessive council tax and are encouraged to part with personal banking details in order to gain a refund. Victims cannot even trust the numbers on their phones to be genuine any more, as highlighted on last night’s BBC1 programme “Rip Off Britain”. This shocking new scam allows fraudsters, with the aid of a simple mobile phone app, to phone victims under a number that appears to be genuine—like a bank’s—and helps persuade them to part with sometimes large sums of money. This type of crime is becoming even more sophisticated as criminals are able to “ghost” phone numbers and hijack genuine phone numbers, so they appear legitimate. It is important that we continue to take steps to address these new types of fraud, as and when they appear.

People who are ill, isolated or lonely are particularly affected by these types of crimes, as the internet or phone line may be their only link to the outside world. Leaving aside the financial loss, their feeling of safety in their own homes is undermined, and they often become more isolated and distrusting. I welcome the initiatives that have been put in place to tackle this type of crime, such as setting up the joint fraud taskforce earlier this year, and I look forward to hearing about its achievements and the actions that have been taken to identify intelligence gaps and vulnerabilities. I am pleased that there will be a better co-ordinated approach to the sharing of intelligence between banks and law enforcement agencies, which will address areas currently exploited by fraudsters. I look forward to hearing from the Minister in due course what progress has been made in the few months it has been established. It is vital that we raise awareness about this important issue, so that those most at risk can spot scams and protect themselves. I welcome the work of groups such as the Chartered Trading Standards Institute and its “scambassadors” programme, which I support.

I want to take some time to address the language of scams, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull. The word “scam” implies an idea of culpability or negligence on behalf of the victim, and may change how people view the nature of the crime committed against them. We say that people have been “scammed”, “conned” and “cheated”, but overwhelming these people should be described as what they are: good, honest people who are the victims of the most heartless fraudulent crime. As a result, the probability that the fraud will be reported decreases, as the victim feels embarrassed, ashamed and guilty.

Finally, I just wanted to mention the importance of a long-term strategy. The elderly as a demographic group is increasing in size year on year. That, combined with changes in pensions drawdown handing capital to people earlier, means that the severity of this, and the necessity for greater protection and awareness, is more profound. Therefore, as we prepare for an ageing population that has greater access to capital in an ever-evolving technology-dominated industry, we must ensure that the most vulnerable in society receive the appropriate support and assistance to protect them from falling victim to these devastating crimes.

Dishonest individuals have always sought to deceive and to take advantage of the most vulnerable in society. Sadly, as our world has increasingly moved online, transforming the way we communicate, do business and live so much of our lives, many fraudsters have used the same technologies to increase their activity and come up with ever more elaborate ways of defrauding vulnerable people. Action Fraud estimates that about 70% of fraud is either conducted online or is cyber-enabled. For most of us, casework relating to scams probably makes up a relatively small amount of our postbag and email inboxes, but that does not mean that this is not a sizeable problem. Clearly, many of the people most at risk of fraud and scams are also among the least likely to come forward to their MPs or to the police and other agencies.

Sadly, I do not need to speculate on this matter, as shortly before I was elected a member of my family received a letter that was apparently from the Serious Fraud Office and that said—this is ironic—that it needed help to catch some serious fraudsters. There was a telephone number supplied, which, when rung, gave details. Unsurprisingly, what was needed was some money to be transferred into an account, which could then be used as some kind of “trap” for the “fraudster”. Unfortunately, my relative wanted to help the authorities and so transferred the money. Of course, there was then another call saying, “Thank you very much for that. We just need that bit more money.” This went on until, fortunately, the one time she went into a post office branch the lady behind the counter, who knew my relative and knew that this was not normal conduct, contacted another relative with her concerns. So this was finally stopped, but only after several thousand pounds had been lost—it still cannot be recovered. More importantly, this has left my relative, who has always been a proud, intelligent and independent person, seeing herself as clumsy and being embarrassed; she feels stupid to have been taken in in such a way.

We, as a must society, must play our part in protecting the most vulnerable, and that includes protecting them against fraudsters, online and otherwise; local authorities, the police and politically and technologically savvy members of our communities must be involved in this. I was heartened to hear my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister authorise the expansion of police volunteer roles, so that individuals with digital skills are able to support police digital investigations by providing the technical expertise to cyber and digital units. That scheme has been piloted in Hampshire and Gloucestershire, and I hope to see it expanded much more widely around the country.

There is much more that can be done in partnership with financial services to trace these criminals. We are all familiar with the necessary anti-money laundering regulations. For anyone wanting to set up a current account or to change signatories on a voluntary organisation’s bank account, navigating the endless paperwork can feel like an interminable process, and yet it is apparently impossible in many of these cases to trace the bank accounts into which these transfers have been made. It is even less likely that any of those moneys will ever be recovered. Surely, it is not beyond the wit of man or of the people running these financial institutions to do much more to enable those accounts to be traced. It is simply not acceptable that victims and vulnerable people are left scared in their own homes. Online threats have changed, and the way that we respond to them must change so that we can protect vulnerable people in our communities.

I wish to congratulate the hon. Members for Solihull (Julian Knight) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) on securing this most important debate. I also pay tribute to all those who have spoken today as their contributions have helped us to discuss this very important issue.

Scamming is an increasing problem in our communities, mostly targeting the elderly and vulnerable. The average age of a scam victim is 74. Given that the Office for National Statistics predicts that the number of elderly people in our communities will increase considerably to more than 15 million by 2030, the potential number of scamming victims is likely to increase as well.

It is not only the financial loss that causes pain, but the severe psychological and emotional wounds that can take considerable time to heal. Victims will inevitably suffer financial loss, and very often depression or even relationship breakdowns. What is terrifying is that, potentially, a third of all victims of scams will fall prey to another scam within 12 months.

Mass-mail scams alone cost the UK consumer between £1 billion and £5 billion every year, with an average loss per person of £1,000. It has been known for victims to lose up to £1 million of their savings. This week, a gentleman told a drop-in for scam awareness that he had lost his home to a scammer. There are more than 190 trading standards services across the UK, each working to tackle scams in their area. However, cutbacks and budget pressures mean that the number of officers working on the frontline has fallen by 53% since 2009. Some service areas are running with fewer than one professionally trained member of staff.

The current budget for trading standards services across the UK equates to just £1.99 per person per year. These local teams are in place to step in when a victim of a financial scam is identified and to work with the police to help bring justice. However, the fact that only 5% of victims report crimes, often due to embarrassment, means that criminals continue to scam vulnerable people of their savings with little consequence.

The National Trading Standards scams team was founded in 2012 and identifies vulnerable individuals to the local authority teams by using captured criminal databases. The team shares a £13 million target along with other financial crime teams, which is shockingly low when we consider that financial scammers cost UK consumers between £5 billion and £10 billion every year. National Trading Standards could tackle this issue more effectively in partnership with other Government agencies, such as adult social care and the police, by sharing intelligence and safeguarding victims. However, both bodies are experiencing their own limits on resources, reducing the opportunity for partnership with National Trading Standards. Safeguards against scams, harm and abuse need to be an integral part of care and support. This is a perfect example of this Government cutting funding to vital services, which has a detrimental effect on the public.

A vital tool in combating financial scams is consumer awareness. Many websites sell direct marketing leads to any purchaser without restriction. Many websites allow people to purchase lists of personal details for “market research”. However, those people do not necessarily have to represent a business to use them. One such site that I identified was Targets Located, which has a top 10 of people to be scammed. Disabled car buyers is at No. 1, with 390,000 people receiving the high rate mobility component of DLA—they are ripe for the picking. Second is high-stake shareholders. The third place belongs to people who regularly donate to charity. Such sites are making sure that, for a small fee, people can acquire the personal details of the most vulnerable people in our society. Regulation on the sale of personal data would dramatically reduce the number of vulnerable people falling victim to financial scams.

To tackle the issue of scamming, the Government seriously need to review police funding. Police resources are already suffering as a result of police budgets decreasing year on year. Should that be allowed to continue, we will see more scams being carried out in all our communities. Co-operation between trading standards and the police is vital but it can only happen if both services are given the funding for resources that they so desperately need. We have a moral responsibility to protect the elderly and vulnerable in our society. We must ensure that the resources to do that are made available to the professionals who have the skills to best offer this protection.

I thank all Members for their contributions to this debate. The variety of stories and concerns highlights the fact that this subject touches so many of our constituents, and, in some instances, our immediate families. I welcome the Minister to her place and her commitment to focus the Government on tackling this most cruel and silent of crimes. This issue concerns not just Government, but private firms, the third sector and the wider society in general. Fraud will always be there, but we can make it harder for those involved if we act together.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House believes that the elderly and vulnerable are a high-risk group from having harm done to their financial, emotional and psychological wellbeing from criminals who target them with scam calls, post and visits; praises the work that trading standards bodies do to combat scams; calls on financial institutions and the communications industry to put in place mechanisms to protect potential victims from scams; further calls on the Government to recognise the threat from scams to victims’ ability to live independently; draws attention to the measures proposed by Bournemouth University, the Chartered Trading Standards Institute and National Trading Standards Scams Team on financial harm as useful first steps in tackling such scams; and calls on the Government to make suggestions on further steps to tackle such criminality.