Mary Higgins’s life changed the moment the phone rang one afternoon in November. The caller claimed to be from the Metropolitan police fraud department and told her that her bank cards had been compromised.
In an elaborate scam, involving two days of phone calls from fake officials, the 78-year-old was persuaded that she was helping police with a money-laundering sting in which her bank was complicit and agreed to transfer £10,000 from her Santander account to “safe” havens.
It was not just her savings that were taken from her: she also lost her confidence, trust and self-respect. Santander eventually refunded her losses but, four months on, Higgins still panics if an unknown caller rings. Her sleep is affected and she is haunted by shame that she was taken in.
“I was psychologically groomed to act entirely out of character over more than five hours on the phone,” she says. “It sounds crazy but these people make you crazy. They even convinced me to lie to the bank about why I was making the transfers, which now makes me ashamed and appalled.”
Scams that trick victims into making payments to fraudulent accounts increased by 22% last year as criminals took advantage of lockdown. Figures from the UK Finance trade association show £479m was stolen through a process called authorised push payment fraud (APP fraud). But the psychological costs are hidden.
“Falling victim to a fraud can have devastating consequences on victims, and not just financially,” says Pauline Smith, the head of Action Fraud, a cybercrime reporting centre. “It can affect people’s mental health, confidence, and relationships with family and friends. In reality, any one of us can fall victim to a fraud and it’s nothing to feel self-conscious about.”
Modern scams are sophisticated operations, often involving telephone numbers spoofed to replicate banks’ customer service lines and texts that mimic security protocols. Victims include people of all ages and backgrounds, yet many are so consumed by guilt that they are too embarrassed to tell relatives that they have been left penniless.
Gianna Ricci, a young Italian, was left unable to pay the deposit on her new room rental after scammers posing as investigators from the National Crime Agency stole her £4,700 savings. She has been reimbursed by her bank but immediately after the fraud she said: “I lost all the money I’d saved during my two years working in London and I can’t face going home to Italy and telling my family, who think that I am safe here with a good job and a home.”
When Oscar Newman, a 26-year-old medic, called his bank Monzo after losing more than £4,000 to APP fraud, he says he was told to report his ordeal on live chat. “The app was littered with emojis and platitudes clearly not designed to reflect the gravity of the situation facing customers that have lost large sums of money,” he says. “I was overwhelmed with shame at being taken in, tired, scared and very, very broke, and I felt I was waiting for the bank to pass judgment on how silly I was.”
A voluntary code, the contingent reimbursement model, commits banks that have signed up to compensate customers who are not found to have been unduly negligent with their account details. Last year, 40% of funds stolen through APP fraud were refunded but the interrogation of customers as banks establish what happened can feel like victim-blaming and compound their sense of shame.
Higgins battled for a refund for three months after her initial claim was rejected and the dismissive attitude of staff reinforced her sense of guilt. “I was made to feel like the criminal not the victim,” she says. “The bank implied that in making the transfer and misleading them about the reason I was being wilfully deceitful while in a rational state of mind. This totally ignores the psychological trap I was caught in.”
Santander says it trains staff to be empathic and to spot customers who have been groomed. “We have a great deal of sympathy for all those who fall victim to scams,” a spokesperson says. “We have already reimbursed the customer and apologised for the length of time this has taken. The feedback will help inform the ongoing training that our teams undertake.”
Monzo, which refunded Newman, told the Guardian that customers could report fraud by phone if they wish. “Empathy is at the heart of our customer support,” a spokesperson says. “It’s something we hire for and put a strong emphasis on in our training programmes and we point customers to specialist help when needed.”
The campaign group Fairer Finance is calling for bank staff to treat defrauded customers with the sensitivity required for abuse victims, whether or not they are found to have been negligent.
“Being a victim of a scam is incredibly traumatic,” says its managing director, James Daley. “Even if the bank ultimately decides that it is not liable for the loss, its staff should still be required to treat victims with sensitivity. Indeed, it’s all the more important that banks act sensitively when they do not believe they have a responsibility to reimburse the customer.”
New guidance published by the regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority, warns that inflexible customer services can increase the stress and confusion of customers and states that bank staff must be trained to identify vulnerable customers and to support them appropriately. It also expects staff to point customers to third-party agencies, including Mind and Victim Support, for more help.
What those agencies cannot provide is the knowledge that the fraudsters are unlikely to be brought to book, which can prolong the emotional fallout for victims.
In the 12 months to February, only 8% of complaints to Action Fraud were referred to police forces for investigation, compared with 11.5% in 2018-19. Action Fraud blames limited resources and competing demands. “As the national policing lead for fraud, our resources are focused on the reports most likely to present an investigative opportunity for forces, and those that present the most threat and harm to the victims concerned,” a spokesperson says.
In most cases, the victims are the only ones who face judgment as their bank decides whether they were culpably negligent. The fraudsters are left free to target others, and Higgins lives in fear that the criminals who conned her will strike again.
“They know where I live, that I’m 78, and live alone,” she says. “I worry that my phone and computer might be hacked. As a normally intelligent, balanced and trusting person, this experience has left me with irrational reflex responses of suspicion and, on occasion, terror.”
*Names have been changed.