FIFTEEN hundred elderly victims have been scammed out of more than £15 million in Sussex in the last two years.

The shocking figures have been compiled by a groundbreaking Sussex Police unit created to identify and reduce telephone and internet fraud against elderly and vulnerable residents.

Its work has now been praised by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) and is recommended as best practice for forces nationwide.

PC Bernadette Lawrie, a former neighbourhood policing officer who became the country’s first police financial abuse safeguarding officer when she set up Operation Signature, has told The Argus that despite her scheme’s success, more needs to be done to stop a crime she calls “despicable”.

“It’s not just the money,” she said, “it’s the hundreds of letters and maybe 20 phone calls a day, people being woken up in the middle of the night – it causes terrible anxiety and really has an effect on people’s health.”

One problem facing the force is that victims – who can be duped into believing they are in line for a big lottery prize, an insurance payout, or even a love affair – are not aware they are being targeted by fraudsters.

In some cases victims are too embarrassed to come forward and elderly victims can be reluctant to take steps which might mitigate their vulnerability, such as changing their phone number.

So Sussex Police is now publicising Operation Signature which focuses on informing potential victims and their families how to notice a scam.

Signature also involves in-person training for all police call handlers, so any call which might be evidence of a vulnerable person falling victim to phone or internet fraud is flagged as a priority.

Such calls will be dealt with according to guidelines created by the Signature team and police will visit the person at home.

More than £20,000 is also being spent installing call-screening devices in victims’ homes to prevent repeat offending.

PC Lawrie said the money, some of which has come directly from the office of police and crime commissioner Katy Bourne, was an excellent investment since the £100 automated devices had been proven to stop scammers in their tracks and removed the need for repeated visits from the police.

The scheme started in 2010 following a visit to a 94-year-old man who had sent more than £100,000 to telephone scammers. The force began to treat the voluntary transfer of money by elderly and vulnerable victims as fraud.

PC Lawrie said: “Initially it was a question of changing the language, and stopping victim blaming. We’ve drawn parallels with domestic violence. If you haven’t got a willing supportive victim you haven’t got a case – but if someone has dementia and can’t pick someone out of a line-up or an elderly victim doesn’t want to go to court, that shouldn’t be a reason not to stop it.”

In April the NPCC praised Signature’s work and said: “The NPCC has agreed that forces must have agreed processes for identifying vulnerable victims of fraud within force control rooms and a model for safeguarding to reduce repeat victimisation.”


IN 2010, Police Constable Bernadette Lawrie was eight years into her career with Sussex Police, working as a neighbouring policing officer.

This April, her relentless work to set up the country’s first police system to improve how vulnerable elderly people are protected from telephone and mail fraud was adopted as best practice by the National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC), and more and more forces nationwide are following suit.

For PC Lawrie, it all started with a visit to a 94-year-old in Rustington.

She said: “Tom had been subject to so many scam mails and phonecalls and that highlighted to me the despicable nature of this type of criminal activity and the lack of support and recognition available for victims and their families.

“He had sent in excess of £100,000 since 2007 in response to scam mail regarding lottery wins, to criminal gangs abroad, via Money-gram and Western Union.

“He was making his money transfers through local village post offices and was being bombarded with masses of letters and intimidating telephone calls to his home from criminals demanding money, fraudulently.”

When post office staff told police of their concerns over Tom’s behaviour, police visited his home and found piles of letters and papers. He was receiving up to a dozen phone calls a day from scammers purporting to be his friends and associates.

They told elaborate tales of where his intended winnings were being held and the fees required to release the funds. They told him to keep the dealings secret from his family. They were threatening and intimidating.

Before his death in 2011, Tom told police: “I felt like I was on a good thing and I wasn’t.

“If you go in for a scheme and if you play for it, then if you’ve won you expect them to pay you, but these people then always had somebody else that they sent it to and they in fact pulled all the stunts under the sun to stop them sending the cheque and they would keep on asking more people to pay them money.”

At the scheme’s peak he received more than 150 letters per week and responded to up to half.

His son called the fraudsters “parasites” and said: “I think it’s very sad to see somebody who is actually taken in on such a large scale by something that is such a transparent fraud.”

PC Lawrie began efforts to create a better way of identifying victims and prevent them being subject to repeat offenders.

In 2013, her efforts received an unexpected boost when the Metropolitan Police seized a scammers’ list at Heathrow.

Working through the list of 1,537 Sussex names and addresses, PC Lawrie and her team were able to speak to 900 people who had not either moved or died, of whom 386 were found to be victims.

The majority were aged between 80 and 90 and in total they had lost more than £2 million.

Ninety two victims had sent over £1,000 and 22 had sent over £10,000.

One person had been scammed out of nearly a third of a million pounds.

In 2014, Operation Signature was born. PC Lawrie drew up a flowchart system and training programme, beginning with police call handlers, to identify and visit victims. Partner agencies including Meals On Wheels were co-opted to help identify those at risk.

After research discovered that nine in ten elderly users of money transfer services were using them because they had become victims of fraudsters, the firms began cooperating with police to freeze victims’ accounts and share recipients’ details so more victims can be identified and educated.

But for PC Lawrie, the breakthrough has been national police recognition.

“When it was just a Sussex process, no other force was doing anything,” she said.

Now after the NPCC has advised the rollout of her system, potentially thousands of victims will be saved millions of pounds of losses – as well as the humiliation and distress of being plagued by conscienceless criminals who prey on the old and vulnerable.


Operation Signature is educating potential victims as well as police officers to identify fraud.

It makes the following recommendations for anyone who believes themselves to be at risk: 

  • Check people are who they say they are. If you are not sure, don’t answer the door or discuss financial matters by phone
  • Never send or give money to anyone you don’t know or trust
  • Remember to protect your identity – don’t share your personal information with unexpected callers
  • Beware of email and computer scams. Treat all emails from unknown senders with suspicion and never click on links within them
  • Never share your PIN number with anyone and do not enter your PIN into a telephone
  • If in doubt, phone a relative friend or someone you know personally.

And for friends and relatives of those who may be vulnerable it advises to look out for:

  • Large quantities of mail or emails
  • Sending money to unusual destinations
  • Secretive behaviour over finances or new contracts
  • Frequent phone calls or texts l Getting multiple chequebooks by post.

If you are someone you know is vulnerable or has been a victim of fraud or scams, call Sussex Police on 101 or visit