How conwomen in Preston are targeting older men to fleece them of their pensions and savings

Drug-addicted women are sweet-talking lonely old men into handing over their cash - and even their house keys, according to police cracking down on the problem.

Friday, 4th September 2020, 3:45 pm
Updated Tuesday, 8th September 2020, 2:04 pm

Officers have identified a string of cases across the city, where the tricksters convince their victims to part with pensions and savings to fuel their habits.

Some have even lured vulnerable pensioners into bed, tricking them into thinking they are in a caring relationship as they drain their bank accounts.

One man is understood to have lost £100,000, while another was found sitting in the dark without electricity when police arrived at their home to save him.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

A file image of an elderly person sitting on a chair at home (Picture: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Officers are trying to rescue another from a seven-year ordeal, while other victims have been left relying on food banks so they don’t starve.

And police fear the problem of ‘elderly exploitation’ has spiked during the pandemic, with closed shops forcing the perpetrators into neighbourhoods, where they knock on doors and prey on vulnerable residents.

More than 50 victims are feared to have been identified in recent months.

PC Karen Graham, who is involved in a city-wide crackdown dubbed Operation Wolf, said: “I think it’s despicable to target the most vulnerable people in society and to target them over such a long period of time.

“Most of the public will agree it’s just not right.”

She laid bare the cruel tactics used to groom unsuspecting men into thinking they’ve found a loving – albeit much younger – partner.

“There are different ways they approach them, but generally it’s through begging in the city centre,” PC Graham told the Post.

“They are also known to randomly knock on people’s doors and plead destitution and ask if they borrow money.

“Sometimes they’ll say they’ll come back and pay it, and sometimes they’re just looking for a charitable donation.

“We’ve found that some of them are just approaching people and looking for that opportunity to get a few quid, but then if they think they have identified a vulnerable person they may be able to target more frequently then they’ll take action.

“They’ll say, ‘I’ll pay it back. Where do you live?’ And then they start targeting them over a longer period of time.”

Although the first cases reported to the operation, which started in March, related to the city centre, the problem is more widespread.

The women lie to their victims, saying they desperately need cash to visit their children or pay for gas and electricity.

Once they have garnered that initial sympathy, they worm their way into the men’s lives.

“They exploit the kindness of strangers,” PC Graham said.

“They’re very convincing and they’ve been doing it for a long time.

“They are professionals. They know how to manipulate people to get what they want.

“If people are willing to give their home address out, that shows a bit of vulnerability and a bit of naivety almost.”

Sometimes, the women will pay some of the money back before launching into an impromptu career as their victims’ carers.

They even do their shopping – taking their victims’ bank cards with them.

“They may do that honestly on a couple of occasions to build up that trust and friendship, and then they’ll go from there,” PC Graham said.

“They’ll ask to borrow more money, or use the bank card to just spend on themselves or withdraw money for themselves.”

Others go further.

Often from chaotic backgrounds and living in hostels or sleeping rough, they look for somewhere better to stay and pounce on any opportunity.

PC Graham said: “We’ve found that a lot of them are moving in with their victims if they find someone they think lives on their own and doesn’t have a lot of friends and family looking after them.

“They might ask them, ‘Can I stay here for a couple of nights because it’s not great where I’m staying at the minute?’”

Those suffering from dementia and memory problems are especially easy to swindle by the women, although men have been known to attempt the long-term scam as well.

“Once they’ve set up that relationship and found a place where they think they are safe to continue to do what they’re doing, they might start bringing friends around and they’re typically drug users as well,” PC Graham said.

In the most severe cases, the con artists take over every aspect of the pensioners’ lives.

They take away their phones, leaving them unable to call for help.

They claim they’re looking after their finances by taking away their bank card, leaving them with no money for essentials.

And they move all their own belongings in.

“Sometimes they will even dupe people into thinking they’re in a loving relationship,” PC Graham said.

“They will make that person emotionally dependent on them.

“In some cases, they’re frightened of losing that person or even upsetting them.

“It’s the fear of being alone that is one of the main issues.”

And she added: “A lot of the victims won’t tell us the whole story either because they’re slightly embarrassed if it’s become an intimate, sexual relationship, or because they’re scared of losing someone they’ve got genuine feelings for.

“They don’t want to become isolated and lonely.

“There’s not a one-size-fits-all victim and offender relationship.

“It has been known to have been intimate but that’s a tactic and tool that offenders are using to get what they want.”

One ‘relationship’ currently being investigated dates back to 2013, with several attempts to end it being unsuccessful because the “victim is so under the influence of this person”, PC Graham said.

Proving such relationships are not genuine is difficult, especially when the victims have fallen in love.

They are given support by police and other agencies and, if their eyes are opened, it can lead to prosecutions.

“But in some cases we’re having to use civil legislation to try and protect them and try and deal with the offenders,” PC Graham said.

They work for some, who go on to shun their life of crime, but not for other more persistent offenders, she admitted.

Another difficulty is finding victims in the first place.

Because they’re often isolated, reports tend to be made by housing associations or suspicious neighbours.

PC Graham said: “Unless we can get the victims to understand what’s going on, we don’t tend to get reports from the victims themselves, which is why we’re trying to do a bit of push to make people aware it’s a crime and something we’re looking to tackle.

“Without intervention, if [offenders] think they’ve got a good thing - a pot of money, if you like - they will keep going and keep going until it runs out.

“They don’t seem to have any awareness of the impact and the effect it can have on the victim.

“In the short-term, when you have them knocking on doors or begging in town, victims can feel duped or a bit silly at the fact they’ve been lied to and given money to this person.

“In the long-term, people are having their savings accounts drained and being completely isolated from family and friends.

“They have trust issues and they are frightened to go out.”

In the case of the man found sitting in the dark without electricity, his abuser would arrive at his home in a taxi “a couple of minutes” before his pension was paid into his bank account, PC Graham said.

She said: “She would take his bank card and take him out to the nearest cash-point. She would take his money, and he’d be left without money again for the next couple of weeks.

“It’s very calculated.”

Anne Oliver from Age UK Lancashire said she feared the cases uncovered by police are just the “tip of the iceberg”, with 35,000 isolated elderly people living in the county.

She urged banks to do more to spot signs of elder abuse and said: “I don’t think it’s unusual. I think it’s probably happening more than we realise.

“The fact these people are vulnerable to this type of exploitation is because they’re on their own.

“If they’ve identified this number of people and this length of relationship in Preston alone, if you replicate that across the county and across the country, the statistics are probably frightening.”

Sgt Dan Wood from Preston Police added: “These types of incidents are particularly cruel given they involve extremely vulnerable people and amount to grooming and exploitation for money.

“As the cash is often willingly handed over to people by victims who believe the offenders are their ‘friends’, it makes it very difficult to prove a crime has happened.

“However by taking this multi-agency approach we are able to work with our partners to do what we can to protect these vulnerable members of our society.

“Sometimes, victims feel embarrassed or ashamed about what has happened and don’t want to speak to us about it.

“I want them to know it is not their fault and I would encourage them to please come forward so we can stop this happening to others.

“We will support you.”

TRUST YOUR INSTINCT

1. If something feels off, report it.

2. The typical offender is an addict with either a drugs or drink problem and may look disheveled

3. Be wary of strangers offering to become someone's informal carer

4. Keep an eye out for vulnerable or elderly neighbours receiving unusual visitors who look out of place - they may be a lot younger and calling in the early hours of the morning.

5. Try and watch out for a change in your neighbour's behaviour. For instance, they may become quieter, subdued, or withdrawn

6. And watch for new cash problems, such as people suddenly falling behind with their bills

7. Losing weight could also indicate somebody no longer has money for food and other basics such as gas and electricity

HOW TO REPORT IT

1. Call 101, mentioning 'Operation Wolf'

EXPERT ADVICE

1. Call Age UK on 0300 303 1234

2. Visit www.ageuk.org.uk/lancashire