Topic Dementia 3

Financial abuse and scamming of adults at risk

Published: 14/12/2017

Author: Professor Keith Brown and Dr Sally Lee

Financial abuse and scamming is an area of research which is critically relevant to social work practice: financial abuse is the second most commonly reported form of abuse (Adult Social Care Statistics, 2016) and becoming a victim can have significant consequences on the wellbeing of victims and their families.

The Care Act 2014, s42 (3) introduces fraud and scams within the definition of financial abuse requiring professionals with responsibility for the care of adults at risk to have skills and knowledge in how to recognise and support scam victims. Research (Redmond, 2016), confirmed by findings from work currently being undertaken by The National Centre for Post Qualifying Social Work (NCPQSW) at Bournemouth University, indicates that there is limited awareness amongst health and social care practitioners about the abusive nature and devastating impact of financial abuse perpetrated by parties unknown to the victim, such as scammers. At NCPQSW we are investigating this crime both from the personal perspective of individual victims, exploring the impact of their experience, whilst also investigating broader organisational and professional knowledge, skills and responsibilities in respect to scamming.

Financial abuse from scams is an issue made increasingly urgent by the growth in incidents of fraud (ONS, 2017), combined with social changes including increasing numbers of people living alone into old age (Poppi, 2015), many of whom are socially isolated (ONS, 2015) and living with cognitive impairment such as dementia (Alzheimer’s Society, 2016); all factors which potentially make people more susceptible to responding to scams (Lubben et al., 2015; Olivier et al, 2015).

Loneliness is a particular factor leading to scam vulnerability, which scammers exploit by using lures and approaches which reinforce a ‘relationship’ with the victim to make them feel special (Lea and Webley, 2006). The findings from our research confirm this understanding of the link between loneliness and scam targeting. Loneliness is a significant social ill with research by Age UK (2016) finding that 200,000 older people (aged 65 and over) have not had a conversation with friends or family for a month, and 1.2 million older people are persistently or chronically lonely. Loneliness can have a profound impact on mental and physical wellbeing as it ‘disrupts the clarity and structure of the self, which in turn, disrupts people’s mental health’ (Richman et al. 2016: 546). It leads people to seek social connections without fully appraising the type or quality of contact offered.

Scamming is a global concern with the internet creating new opportunities for ‘high tech’ methods of financial exploitation, in addition to ‘low tech’ face to face, postal or telephone scams. Growing numbers of older people are now using computers (ONS, 2017) exposing them to further routes to communication from scammers. In addition victims details such as age, address, type of scam they responded to and how much money was taken may also be collected onto ‘suckers lists’ which are then sold on to other scammers – this means victims may be repeatedly targeted.

Whilst the full-scale of scams is unknown, research indicates that scams are a vastly under-reported crime (Age UK, 2015). This may be because victims report feeling embarrassed about being duped or may not even accept that the interaction was not genuine (Gibson and Qualls, 2012). However the National Trading Standards Scams Team (2015) estimate (from data collected from trading standards teams across the UK) that between £5 - £10 billion is lost to scams annually. Whilst scams are fraudulent schemes designed to financially exploit victims (see the Fraud Act, 2006 and Unfair Trading Regulations, 2008) legitimate businesses and charities can also act unscrupulously by, for example, using pressurised selling techniques. The ‘grey area’ around legitimate marketing and ‘sharp practice’ creates ambiguity which scammers use to their advantage and serves to further obscure the full extent of the problem.

Our scams research is ongoing; we continue to focus on gaining a better understanding of detriment caused to victims both in respect of financial loss and impact on their physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing. At the same time we are working with key law enforcement, health and social care, consumer and financial sector partners in developing learning tools and good practice guides, raising awareness amongst leaders, organisations, professionals and the public, and influencing social policy. We are coordinating the national research and response to financial abuse from scams and as part of this we are committed to making the learning materials resulting from our research freely available.

Related resources

Visit The National Centre for Post Qualifying Social Work - Financial Scamming website for further information and free downloadable resources:

Keith And Sally

Professor Keith Brown and Dr Sally Lee

Professor Keith Brown is the Director of the National Centre for Post Qualifying Social Work and Professional Practice at Bournemouth University Dr Sally Lee is Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the National Centre for Post Qualifying Social Work and Professional Practice at Bournemouth University and a member of the team undertaking research investigating financial abuse from scams in collaboration with a number of Key National Agencies


Adult Social Care statistics NHS Digital (2016) Safeguarding Adults Annual Report, England 2015-16 Experimental Statistics. Health and Social Care Information Centre Available from:

Age UK (2015) Only the Tip of the Iceberg: Fraud Against Older People, Age UK, London Alves, L., Wilson, S. (2008) Effect of loneliness on telemarketing fraud vulnerability amongst older adults, Journal of Elder Abuse and Neglect, 20:1, 63-85

Age UK (2016) Later Life in the United Kingdom: October 2016, Age UK: London. Available from:

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Gibson, S. and Qualls, S. (2012) A Family Systems Perspective of Elder Financial Abuse, Journal of the American Society on Aging, 36:3, 26-29

Lea, S, E,G and Webley, P (2006) Money as tool, money as drug: the biological psychology of a strong incentive. Behavioural Brain Sciences, 29 (2):161-209.

Lubben, J, Gironda, M, Sabbath, E, Kong, J and Johnson, C (2015) Social Isolation Presents a Grand Challenge for Social Work, American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare Working Paper No. 7 Available from

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Richman, S,B, Pond Jr, R,S, Dewall, C,N, Kumashiro, M, Slotter, E,B and Luchies, L,B (2016) An Unclear Self Leads to Poor Mental Health: Self-Concept Confusion Mediates the Association of Loneliness with Depression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 35(7): 525-550.