Chris Lees, Research Officer, Money and Mental Health
How the government can protect people with mental health problems from online scams
9 December 2020
Today we have launched Caught in the web, a new report looking at online scams and mental health. Online scams are a growing problem that cost people billions each year – and with nearly two million UK adults having fallen victim to an online scam in the first six months after lockdown began — there is an urgent need to address the harm they cause. Our research shows how having a mental health problem can make someone more vulnerable to an online scam, as well as exploring the harms that can result from scams, and what can be done to help reduce harm.
We found that people with mental health problems are three times more likely than the rest of the population to have fallen victim to an online scam. This increased risk means that a majority (61%) of online scam victims have also experienced a mental health problem.
“[My mental health problem] was a huge contributing factor, I would have realised it was a scam if I was in a normal state of mind” Expert by experience
We worked with our Research Community to explore people’s experiences and understand what drives this increased risk. We identified three common symptoms of mental health problems that can put someone at greater risk of being a victim of an online scam.
Firstly, mental health problems can make it harder to process information and make informed choices when unwell, this can make it more difficult to judge what is and isn’t a scam.
“In my experience, ‘depression logic’ isn’t the same as ‘healthy logic’. It’s partly like your brain doesn’t have the processing power to take everything in and make sense of it all.“ Expert by experience
Secondly, increased impulsivity is a common symptom which can lead to people acting quickly when they see an advert for a product that is actually a scam. Scammers often use time pressures, such as saying there is only an hour to respond, to get people to act instantly which can make it particularly hard for those who struggle to control impulses when unwell.
“I wasn’t thinking carefully and responded impulsively in a way that is out of character for me when I am well.” Expert by experience
Finally, many people experience low energy levels and find it difficult to concentrate for long periods of time when unwell. This can make it challenging to muster the energy to make sure that something is or isn’t a scam.
“When my mental health is not so good, I feel tired, my response signals are slower & I miss things without realising.” Expert by experience
All of these common symptoms make it harder for people to stay safe online when unwell.
The impact of an online scam
Online scams can have wide-ranging negative impacts on victim’s lives. Online scams can be financially crippling and drive people into problem debt – even small losses can be devastating for people with mental health problems who are more likely to be living on a low income. Beyond finances, online scams can have a traumatic impact on people’s mental health – 40% of all online scam victims have felt stressed as a result of an online scam. Many victims feel embarrassed and ashamed, often blaming themselves, which can have a lasting impact on their confidence using the internet.
“Very stressful and made me feel stupid for falling for the scam as I think I’m stupid anyway this made me have terrible negative thoughts about myself and so annoyed” Expert by experience
We also found that simply being exposed to an online scam can lead to people worrying about being a victim and becoming preoccupied with staying safe. This can lead to people reducing the amount of time they spend online and not being able to take full advantage of the internet.
More to be done
Our research highlighted that people are being exposed to scams in online spaces such as social media platforms and online marketplaces. While many of these online services take steps to prevent and remove scams on their sites, scams are still getting through. There is currently no formal regulation to stop online scams and we are calling for a legal responsibility on online services to take greater action to prevent scams from appearing on their platforms.
However, no one party has the power to deal with the problem and action is also needed in other areas. We’ve also made recommendations to help raise awareness of scams among people with mental health problems and to make it easier for people to report an online scam.
To find out more about our research and recommendations, read Caught in the Web here.