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"I went upstairs to get my chequebook": doorstep fraud and the exploitation of the elderly

elderly woman

LSE research shows that elderly adults can be vulnerable to doorstep fraud, criminal activity which may go under-reported because of its complex nature.

Overcharging for replacing garden gates, replastering a kitchen ceiling unnecessarily, and a complete rewiring are some of the examples of work completed on the house of a 60-year-old man suffering from a progressive neurological condition when he was targeted by doorstep fraudsters.

It is one of many instances of criminal activity documented in a new study by Dr Coretta Phillips of LSE Social Policy, who has spent the past year researching doorstep fraud perpetrated against old and vulnerable people. Although the elderly make up a relatively small proportion of the estimated four million people who are victims of fraud in the UK each year, they often suffer significant financial losses and due to its complicated nature, this type of crime tends to be under-represented in national crime statistics.

Dr Phillips researched investigation and prosecution materials for 140 victims as part of her study, creating a varied and complex tapestry of vulnerable people and their circumstances. She found the reasons these crimes tend to go unreported is because victims may often not even be aware that they have been defrauded, and those who may feel shame at being duped.

The study presents a spectrum of doorstep fraud offences, from the low- monetary value victimisation of vulnerable elderly adults, to their repeated targeting by organised criminals. Trading standards officers interviewed for the study reported a man being duped after being offered a free gutter cleaning service, with the fraudsters then charging him £6,000 for unsolicited work in his garden. Another reported an agoraphobic victim being pressurised to visit to a cash machine by the offenders.

Dr Phillips says: “Fraudsters may overcharge for a number of aspects of maintenance and renovation, or demand payment for unfinished or unstarted work. Sometimes the offenders ask for loans alongside their payment, while others rely on their physical strength to intimidate victims into handing over money.”

One of the saddest aspects of these crimes is that coercion and fraudulent intrusion is sometimes, perversely, appreciated by the victims. Dr Phillips explains: “Criminals can help alleviate the chronic loneliness that many elderly people suffer from. If an elderly person hasn’t spoken to anyone for days, they are understandably likely to enjoy having some company.”

“The factors driving doorstep fraud could be multiple: an ageing population as a result of increased life-expectancy is likely to mean there are more ‘available’ victims who can be defrauded. Police involvement in these crimes is sometimes unpredictable, as in some instances the crimes are viewed, wrongly, as civil offences” Dr Phillips explains.

She also links the current political climate to doorstep fraud: “Recent cuts to trading standards budgets can mean that the authorities are too stretched. Interviewing elderly victims is a time-consuming and costly process; due to their age they may be unable to comprehend they have been a victim of a crime. Police and the trading standards officials simply do not always have the resources to investigate all of these cases thoroughly.”

“These crimes are likely to be driven by any number of features of modern society: loneliness, declining community support networks, an ageing population with cognitive impairments, and the consequences of reduced budgets,” Dr Phillips adds. “The task for the authorities is to ensure they are accurately recorded and that victims can receive the support and justice they need.”

In future research, Dr Phillips plans to draw on her experience to further analyse the perspectives and profiles of the offenders who have been imprisoned from such offences, in order to try to determine why certain types of people and groups are drawn to different types of criminal activity.

Notes

From ‘Rogue Traders’ To Organized Crime Groups: Doorstep Fraud of Older Adults is published in the March 2016 edition of the British Journal of Criminology http://bjc.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2016/02/08/bjc.azw011.full

Dr Coretta Phillips is Associate Professor (Reader) in Social Policy at LSE, and a member of the Mannheim centre for criminology. Previous positions include Assistant Professor at the School of Criminal Justice, Rutgers University and Principal Research Officer in the Home Office, Research Statistics and Development Directorate.

Image: https://pixabay.com/en/dependent-dementia-woman-old-age-63611/

Posted February 2016

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