The number of people falling prey to ruthless scams is soaring.
Trading Standards officials say they have seen a 30% rise in the number of people asking for help over the last 12 months and they claim con artists are even selling details of vulnerable victims to other scammers.
Officers responded to a total of 980 calls last year – but they say it is just the tip of the problem with many victims too embarrassed to come forward, or do not believe they are victims.
Today, Marilyn Baldwin, who launched the charity Think Jessica after her elderly mum’s life was taken over by hundreds of criminals demanding her cash, revealed her charity had received hundreds of calls for advice from people in Lancashire including concerned relatives, police, and even wardens at sheltered accommodation complexes in Preston.
Her mother, who has since passed away, missed family occasions because she was opening and responding to the thousands of letters she received, and lost £50,000 – but still did not accept she was a victim.
Marilyn, 57, whose charity can deal with up to 22,000 inquiries a day, is campaigning for the Government to give powers to family members or other agencies to receive vulnerable victims mail and filter out the scams from genuine mail.
She said: “Every elderly person is at risk.
“Through these suckers lists, criminals know who will respond, and where they are. We have had contact from wardens at sheltered accommodation in Preston saying piles of the stuff is being delivered and they are trying to make residents understand the dangers.
“For every victim the authorities know of, there are more who don’t report it or don’t believe they are a victim. We know of some cases where people had been sworn to secrecy by the scammers, even turned against their families.
“The criminals create fictional characters, some claim to be the FBI or Barack Obama. These characters get into their heads and create a delusional world that becomes the victim’s reality.
“My mum was 78 when it started and it carried on until she died at 83. I think it contributed to her death because her life was taken over by opening letters, reading, responding to their demands, posting off replies and waiting in for prizes to arrive. She received 30,000 pieces of scam mail but still would not believe she was a victim. She’d been brainwashed.”
It is very difficult to bring scammers to justice as they are usually based in other countries outside the UK’s legal jurisdiction, so agencies believe prevention and awareness are key to tackling the problem.
Mark Aldridge, of Lancashire Police, said: “ A lot of the initial mail is sent out as a mail shot from a legitimate looking firm – they want to see what they will get back.
“They might get two out of 1,000 back and those two, because they know where they are, are then open to scams because their details will be passed on to other fraudsters.
“Their details will be sold across other criminal groups who will try to rip them off. They start to insidiously build up to sending more money based on the original mail shot.
“Without their knowledge, these victims become encapsulated within a whole field of people who are using whatever means at their disposal to take money off vulnerable people.”
Lee Ormandy, of Lancashire Trading Standards, added: “Scams can have a devastating impact on people’s lives. Stigma or embarrassment can wrongly make victims think they are to blame, and discourage them from reporting these crimes or seeking help.
“Don’t let the scammers con you. Be sceptical, take your time, know who you’re dealing with, protect your personal information and, above all, do not respond to any requests for money that come from someone you don’t know.
“It is all too easy to end up on a so-called suckers list however it’s very difficult get off it. Fraudsters assume if you have been conned by a scam once then you’re more than likely going to fall for another. As a result, a lucrative black market has sprung up dealing in personal information and based around so-called suckers lists.
“People being targeted by scams should remain vigilant and never respond, even replying to say ‘no thanks’ or asking for your name to be removed from their list can mean you’re bombarded with letters, calls or emails. Joining the Mailing and Telephone Preference Services will also make it more difficult for the scammers to reach you.
“Remember, if it seems too good to be true it probably is.”
Anyone who believes they have been a victim of fraud can contact Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040.