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Exposed: The scam mail fraud fleecing unknowing elderly Sussex victims out of £2m
10:50am Monday 17th March 2014 in News
PC Bernadette Lawrie with a pile of the correspondence received by just one 87-year old victim in East Sussex, who lost more than £90,000
Elderly and vulnerable Sussex people have been scammed out of £2 million by mail fraudsters - and most don't even realise they've been conned.
Sussex Police has exposed the shocking scale of the fraud, which results in fear, severe financial difficulties and ultimately a decline in both physical and mental health.
Working with the Metropolitan Police and the National Scams Hub (set up by East Sussex Trading Standards), Sussex Police obtained a list of potential victims containing the names and addresses of 1,537 people living in Sussex.
Owing to the age group of the victims, many had already sadly died, or moved.
In Operation Signature, over the past six months local officers have spoken to more than 900 people across the county, who had been named on the seized list.
From the visits they found that over 400 of these elderly vulnerable people had lost a total of more than £2 million.
The majority of the identified victims were between the ages of 80 and 90 and almost all of these had not recognised that they were victims of fraud.
The Operation Signature campaign is now a permanent feature of local policing with leaflets and awareness visits and talks, starting this week.
Signature scam mail awareness posters are appearing on buses across the county, and advice leaflets are being distributed to every home in Sussex with the annual council tax notice.
Chronic victims of scam mail are hounded by numerous criminal organisations - after replying to the first 'tempter' letter, victim's names and addresses are put on a 'target' list - these lists are then sold to other criminals all over the world.
This is a national issue that to date has never been quantified, although it is estimated to be costing UK pensioners billions of pounds per year. It is widely suggested that much of the money sent abroad is being used to fund both drugs and terrorism.
The difference between this and other scams, where victims themselves will report a sum of money missing from their account, is that victims of this type of scam are hidden, often not realising they are a victim, believing instead that the prizes offered are genuine.
That's why the force has been been proactively seeking out these vulnerable members of the community - to protect and prevent them from becoming subject to further financial loss - victims who may not otherwise have been identified without this type of campaign.
PC Bernadette Lawrie said; "It was our recent involvement with a 94 year old local victim that highlighted the despicable nature of this type of criminal activity and the lack of support, advice and recognition currently available for victims and their families.
"He had sent more than £100,000 since 2007 in response to scam mail regarding lottery wins to criminal gangs abroad, making his money transfers through local village Post Offices. He was being bombarded daily with masses of scam mail and telephone calls to his home from criminals demanding money fraudulently."
Sussex Police is the first force in the country to quantify this issue. Victims of scam mail are now recognised as victims of crime and a standardised reporting and recording process has been introduced, providing preventative measures to support and protect victims from further targeting.
When officers identify a vulnerable victim they provide support to families and carers to put into place some simple preventative measures to stop further targeting and financial loss.
Chief Superintendent Wayne Jones said; "This is a mean and heartless crime that targets elderly, vulnerable and often lonely people.
"The scams usually involve the victims receiving letters and sometimes phone calls from overseas claiming that they have either won money and need to send a percentage of the 'winnings' to claim their prize or that they should send money in with competition entries.
"Sometimes the scams include fake charities and the sending out of catalogues offering cheaply made goods, cakes and biscuits at exorbitant prices.
"Many, if not all of the scammers are based overseas and they do share victims' details with the result that people can receive dozens of letters all telling them that they have been 'specially selected'. They have been 'specially selected', but sadly to be a victim of crime.
"The volume of mail they receive can be overwhelming, we have visited victims who are receiving hundreds of scam letters every week.
"We have seen victims who have lost their entire life savings and prefer to send their pension to the scammers rather than buy food and pay for heating. Several of our victims have incurred large debts and their quality of life has been massively affected. Sadly we have even encountered examples where victims suffer anxiety, depression and in one case attempted suicide"
Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner Katy Bourne said; "This campaign to protect the more vulnerable in our society has my full support. I have an elderly mother and would be devastated if she was to fall victim to such a despicable crime. Everyone has a responsibility to look out for those in the community who could be more susceptible to being scammed in this way. If you think that a friend, relative or neighbour may be a victim, please contact the police immediately by calling 101 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. "On Friday 21 March I will be raising this issue with Temporary Chief Constable Giles York at my Performance and Accountability Meeting which is webcast live."
Think Jessica is a website set up by Marilyn Baldwin, the daughter of a scam victim in the North of England, aiming to raise awareness of the dangers of scam mail and to provide support to victims and families, whilst also working towards encouraging the government to create new legislation to protect those chronic victims.
The Little Book of Big Scams also contains further information on this and many other types of scam. You can download and read it here, or visit your local police station to pick up a copy.
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