Conor D’Arcy, Interim Chief Executive, Money and Mental Health

Next steps in the fight against fraud

26 October 2023

  • Fraud is very common, distressing and complex – all of which can make it hard to tackle
  • Our work shows that not only does fraud have a devastating impact on people’s mental health – but that people with existing mental health problems are more likely to be victims
  • The Online Safety Bill is a big step forward in addressing these issues, but regulators have a big job to make tech firms act on their new duties to tackle fraud
  • We also want to see more support for the many people who’ve already been victims of fraud

Recently I spoke at a series of events at Conservative and Labour party conferences about the impact of fraud on people’s mental health, and how this crime can be stopped.

Normally when I speak to people about the work we do at Money and Mental Health, I often have someone in mind – a person whose experience illustrates the problem we’re discussing and shows what needs to change. For example, in conversations about the need for a limit on how frequently creditors can contact someone in debt, I mention Steven*, who shared how distraught he felt after being contacted seven times in seven hours by a debt collection agency.

But when it comes to scams and fraud, I find it hard to pick just one person’s story. That’s in part because it’s unfortunately so common: in polling we did in 2020, one in four people with mental health problems said they’d lost out to an online scam. It’s also because the ways in which we can be affected are so varied. 

Members of our Research Community – a group of 5,000 people with personal experience of mental health problems – have told us about losing money or information online through fake ads, emails from fraudsters impersonating companies, romance scams and more. 

That means that the action needed to tackle fraud and reduce harm is complex too. With one piece of that puzzle – the Online Safety Act – today becoming law, it’s timely to reflect on where we are today in the fight to prevent scams, and what more needs to be done to support people with both the financial and psychological consequences.

The risks facing people with mental health problems

Regardless of our mental health, no one is completely safe from scams. But the overlap of several risk factors plays into people with mental health problems being three times more likely to have been scammed online than the rest of the population. Research Community members often feel that symptoms common to many mental health problems – such as being more impulsive than usual, having trouble processing information or difficulty communicating – contributed to them losing out.

When someone loses their life savings, the effect will obviously be huge. But because people with mental health problems are more likely to be living on a lower income, the loss of £50 or £100 could blow your budget for the month. So often we hear how one-off hits like this can do lasting damage to people’s finances. 

But the mental health impact can be massive too, whether you’ve previously experienced a mental health problem or not. In our research, there’s a recurring theme of people feeling stupid or ashamed, blaming themselves for not spotting the scam or for not looking after their mental health better. Obviously the fault is with the scammers but these feelings are important to acknowledge, because they put people off coming forward for help.

Scams can have wider consequences too. We heard from victims of scam ads who became reluctant to shop online. That can cut you off from deals that can be so valuable if you’re trying to get by on a low income. And if you struggle to leave the house but you’re terrified of using social media because of negative experiences with scams, that can lead to social isolation. Scams damage individuals, families and businesses.

Welcome moves but follow-through needed

That society-wide impact is one reason why the Online Safety Act could be so important. We successfully campaigned as part of a cross-sector coalition to ensure that the Act includes measures to give media platforms and search engines, like Google, Twitter and Facebook, a legal duty to prevent scam adverts from appearing on their services.

If the Act succeeds in putting a meaningful dent in the number of scams that appear online in the first place, particularly on social media platforms, that would reduce the damage that scams do to people’s finances, confidence and mental health.

But Ofcom, as the body taking on the role of being the UK’s online safety regulator, has a massive job on its hands. Getting big tech to put the resources into this to drive a serious decrease in the number of scams that appear online will require hiring teams with the right skills, which won’t necessarily be cheap, collaboration with other regulators and parts of the public sector, and ultimately the will to take action if firms aren’t doing their bit.

More support needed for victims of scams

But beyond that forefront of prevention and regulatory action, there’s much more that could be done to support people who have been scammed. The government published its Fraud Strategy in May of this year. The emphasis it puts on victims and reporting journeys is welcome given some of the negative stories we’ve heard about people’s experience of reporting. There are practical challenges – who do you report to, how long does it take – which matter for the individual affected, but also in helping to stop scams spreading. 

But the way reporting makes you feel is crucial too. Research Community members have shared upsetting experiences, in which they were made to feel silly for coming forward or like it was their fault that they lost out, with little in the way of understanding, support or signposting.

We’re unlikely to reach the point where examples of online scams disappear from our Research Community. But with a concerted push from government, police, banks and tech companies, how common they are and how much damage they do could be reduced, leaving fewer of us trapped in the cycle of money and mental health problems as a result.

*Name has been changed