50% cut from Trading Standards budgets over the last seven years

Dramatic cuts in Trading Standards budgets since 2010 are leaving millions of older people at greater risk of becoming victims of fraud, according to a new policy report by Age UK.

In Applying the Brakes, its new report published in early March, Age UK warns that a 50% cut in Trading Standards budgets over the last seven years, has undermined the ability of local authorities to tackle scams among older people. And with the latest crime figures showing that people are now five times more likely to be targeted by a fraudster than a burglar, the charity is calling on the government to ensure that all local authorities have the resources needed to meet their safeguarding duties under the Care Act.

Damaging budget cuts

Trading Standards services have a key role to play in tackling fraud, yet severe budget cuts are damaging their ability to act, according to Age UK, with many spending little more than the price of a coffee, per head, per year. A 56% reduction in Trading Standards officers from 2009 – 2016 have left some services with just one qualified officer to cover the entire area, forcing some to stop tackling doorstep crimes or providing consumer advice altogether.

The charity is warning that if the government wants to make tackling fraud a real priority it must ensure Trading Standards services have the resources they need. Official figures show that 3.2 million cases of fraud occurred in the year to September 2017, and Age UK’s own research has found that almost five million over-65s believe scammers have targeted them.

Immediate action needed

Age UK is also calling on all banks to take immediate and strong action to prevent scams. The charity wants banks to radically improve their security systems to prevent fraud, including better identification of customers at risk and suspicious transactions; to bear a greater level of liability for losses where the customer has been misled into authorising a payment and to provide extra protection to customers in vulnerable circumstances, such as those living with dementia.

And while acknowledging the impossibility of eradicating fraud completely, the charity wants the government to be alert to the potential for fraud arising from policy change, such as the recently introduced Open Banking initiative. Reforms to private pensions (‘freedom and choice’), for example, have been followed by an increase in pension fraud; pension scam victims lost £8.6m in March last year alone, a record monthly high.

Older people at greater risk

Through the report, Age UK is calling on the Home Office to make fraud a strategic policing priority and ensure police forces have adequate resources, incentives and guidance, and hold them accountable for action. Although anyone can be scammed, older people – particularly those who live alone or with cognitive impairment – are at greater risk of being targeted by some types of scams. Common scams affecting older people are often offline and include postal scams, pensions and investment fraud, phone scams and cold calls, as well as online scams including email and online dating scams. Financial losses are common, but being scammed can also seriously affect people’s quality of life and wellbeing.

Many people experience a deep sense of shame, embarrassment, depression, social isolation and a decline in physical health, with some even losing their independence following a scam. Some older people lose their life savings, decimating their retirement income, while those defrauded in their own homes are more likely either to die or go into residential care within a year.

Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK, said: ‘However tough our laws are to prevent and combat fraud, they are pretty toothless if the staff just aren’t there to enforce them. Local Trading Standards officers have been cut back to the bone in many areas as councils struggle with big government funding cuts, and the end result is that fraudsters have far more freedom to operate than would otherwise be the case. The whole population is at greater risk of being scammed as a result, but older people more than most.

Not a priority

‘It’s not just that there aren’t anything like enough Trading Standards officers, the police aren’t consistently able to give fraud the priority it deserves either. Unless and until we see changes on both these fronts, older people will be far more open to the risk of fraud than any of us like.

‘In addition, it’s clear that banks must not only act quickly to trace and return money transferred in a scam, but also do much more to find new ways to prevent scams in the first place.

‘We know that scams can have a devastating emotional and financial impact on older victims, seriously damaging their quality of life and wellbeing. Government, councils, Trading Standards, police forces and banks all have a part to play in working together to stop these appalling crimes.”

Age UK offers free information and advice for anyone who is worried about being scammed, including free guides: Avoiding scams, Staying safe and Internet Security, among others.

For further information contact Age UK Advice on Freephone 0800 169 65 65
or visit www.ageuk.org.uk/avoidscams