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Scams leave emotional scars as well as financial ones

by Jemiel Benison, CAS Senior Policy Officer (Financial Health team).

This article was first published in the Herald on 23 June 2021.

It’s that time of year again. Scams Awareness Fortnight is underway. This excellent annual campaign was started about 10 years ago by the Citizens Advice network and other agencies like the police and Trading Standards. It now has the support of both the Scottish and UK governments.  

As this year’s campaign got underway, my mind went back to my first days as a consumer adviser. My senior colleague at the time told me of his own first experience dealing with a scam. I was in the prime of my youth, and I associated scams with films like ‘The Sting’ and ‘How to Steal a Diamond in 4 Easy Lessons’ (there’s an age give-away!) But the tale he told me soon cured me of the idea that there was any romantic side to a scam.  

An elderly couple had taken up a salesman’s offer to install frosted glazing on their internal doors at an amazing discount. They were told the company’s workmen were in the area and could call that day. They only had to pay a 20% deposit to the workmen and the doors would be taken to the workshop and delivered back, beautifully glazed, the next day. The workmen duly arrived, took the money – and the doors - and that was the last the couple saw of them. They spent a week ringing the company and never getting a response. The doors were later traced, piled up amongst many others and damaged beyond repair, in containers at a quayside nearby.

What struck me most about this story was that the couple were not so much concerned with the money and property they’d lost. No, what stung them most was the emotional hurt; the loss of self-esteem, the embarrassment and loss of confidence - and these feelings stayed with that couple for a long time afterwards. That, my colleague told me, was the real damage. It was a lesson I never forgot. 

Later in my career I spent a few years managing the Citizens Advice Bureau in Haddington. So I’ve seen many real-life cases of scams up close. And I’ve found that those emotions in the above example are very typical. 

That sense of embarrassment, and shame. ‘I must be really stupid to have fallen for it’. Tears – often there are tears, and despair. Huge loss of confidence. The mental anguish is very real and can be just as devastating as the financial pain – though of course that is often considerable. Practical help from an empathetic adviser can start the healing process, but it takes time to make any reasonable degree of recovery and restore that self-confidence. For more vulnerable people it may be a longer journey than for others.  

And let me dispel another myth about scams. It’s not just the elderly and vulnerable who are affected by them - as anyone who has turned up at a gig and been denied entry because their tickets were faked can tell you. Scams can come in person, online, by phone or in the post. Over half of the population say they’ve been hit by attempted scams, and they include people from all age groups and backgrounds.  

The good news is that our society is gradually getting better at talking about scams. Our annual campaign, and others like it, have done their work, so people are generally more vigilant than they were 10 years ago. Above all, the stigmas are falling away and people are more willing to talk about scams that have happened to them – which is a good thing. Scammers operate in the dark. The more we can put a spotlight on them, the better.   

The main messages of our campaign are simple: be suspicious; if an offer seems too good to be true it probably is; talk about scams to your friends and family; and if it happens, don’t blame yourself, but do report it. If it’s a scam in progress - for example a bogus tradesman on your premises - call the police. For financial scams, call your bank as soon as possible because redress or transaction recall may be possible. For any other scam that’s already happened, report it! All the key addresses and phone numbers are here.

That point about reporting scams is very important. You may be able to recover or lessen the loss, and it will provide vital intelligence for the police to help them stop the scammers. It can also help with the emotional side, just talking to a sympathetic listener. Let it out, don’t keep it in.   

Do scammers think about the lasting emotional pain they cause? I doubt it. In my experience they are motivated only by greed and their own wants above all else. Some of them might kid themselves that they’re not really criminals because they don’t commit violence. But make no mistake: a scam is a crime. It’s a form of fraud. There may be no physical violence but, as I’ve explained, the emotional assault can be just as devastating.

But always remember that, when it comes to scams, you’re not alone. You can get free, confidential and expert advice from the Citizens Advice network. Our website has various tools, information and links to help you, and of course you can also get that advice directly from your local CAB. Help is only a phone call, email or online search away.

More widely, the fight against scammers will be aided by a new Scottish Government strategy on scams that was launched recently that will focus on prevention, awareness and education, enforcement and streamlining the support for those affected.  

Scams are a blight on modern life. But if we work together, we can beat them.