North Yorkshire County Council has established the multi-agency team, which is already building up what it describes as a “challenging” caseload.
The financial abuse investigation unit is being led by the council’s trading standards service and includes North Yorkshire Police and a safeguarding member of the council’s adult services.
It is the first in the UK to deal with vulnerability and financial abuse, and funds from the council’s public health budget have been used to pay for police members of the team as the focus is on supporting the health and well-being of vulnerable people who become the target of scammers.
It aims to protect the vulnerable from a range of financial abuse crimes from scam mail to doorstep crime, investment fraud, courier frauds, romance frauds or financial abuse by family members or carers.
Ruth Andrews, the head of North Yorkshire’s Trading Standards Fraud and Special Investigations Team, is leading the new unit.
She said: “If we don’t tackle the root causes, the loneliness and the isolation, then we are leaving people vulnerable to repeat victimisation. It’s about safeguarding as much as it is about pursuit of the crime.
“The adult at risk may be someone with learning difficulties or mental health problems, and we also know many of these frauds target older people.”
Among the cases the team is investiating is a 91-year-old widow in Hambleton who has lost £200,000 to mail scammers over the last two years. She believes the fraudsters are her friends, and as she is lonely, she does not want the letters to stop.
A second case came to light when a family was sorting out the house of relatives with dementia who had gone into a residential home. They found the house crammed with scam mail products that amounted to losses for the victims of more than £400 per week. They also found begging letters from the husband to the scammers asking for more time to pay and telling them about his wife’s decline in health.
The new team is working with the council’s health and adult services, banks and other financial institutions, as well as the voluntary sector such as Age UK, the Alzheimer’s Society and dementia support groups, to help identify victims and investigate and prosecute offenders.
The council has carried out a number of prosecutions in recent years. Between 2011 and 2014, the authority successfully prosecuted 29 defendants who were jailed for a total of 55 years.
The service also hopes to tackle the loneliness and isolation that often leads people to become repeat victims of doorstep crime and telephone and mail scams. The Yorkshire Post has been campaigning to raise awareness of the issue of loneliness and the serious health effects it can have since February last year.
One of the new unit’s initial major projects relates to scam mail. Based on information seized by the Metropolitan Police in London, the team now has a list of North Yorkshire residents who have answered scam mail and will work with banks and other financial institutions to pinpoint people who might be targeted.