Recognising the link between loneliness, social isolation and susceptibility to scam involvement

To ensure 5 extra years of healthy, happy, independent life we need to recognise the link between loneliness and scam involvement. This is important because of the potential negative impact on the health and well-being of older vulnerable individuals caused by financial abuse from scams, which may result in increased need for care and support, placing pressure on public services.

The National Centre for Post-Qualifying Social Work and Professional Practice (NCPQSWPP), Bournemouth University, has been working in partnership with key agencies to investigate the impact of financial fraud and scams on vulnerable individuals for over 4 years. The financial exploitation of vulnerable people has emerged as a virtual epidemic in high-income countries and one of the key findings of research conducted by NCPQSWPP is that loneliness and social isolation is a factor in why some older individuals respond to scams. A scam is a ‘trick, a ruse, a swindle, a racket, its nearest synonym is fraud’ (Oxford English Dictionary, 2018).

Increasingly loneliness is being understood as a major social problem and can be ‘a tipping point’ for an individual being referred to adult social care or being seen regularly at GP Surgeries’ (LGA, 2016:2). This is a global challenge identified across a range of different countries and cultures (Chen, Hicks, and While, 2014). Loneliness and social isolation can be experienced at any time across the life course as result of life events which become more common as we get older (Fenge, 2017). Events such as bereavement, illness, cognitive impairment or changes to family circumstances and accommodation can negatively impact on well-being, influencing how an individual interacts with their community leading to loneliness or isolation. Demographic changes also mean that increasing numbers of older people are now living alone and have reduced social contact (Poppi 2016). Research from Age UK (2014) found that over a million older people said they always or often felt lonely, and the Office of National Statistics (2015) report that 3 in 10 of those aged over 80 say they are lonely.

Emotional vulnerability arising from loneliness and social isolation has been linked to scam susceptibility (Olivier et al 2015; National Trading Standards Scams Team 2015) and socially isolated older adults have been described as being ‘highly vulnerable to financial scams and manipulations’ (Lubben et al., 2015, p. 5). For example, an individual may see contact with a scammer as a potential new relationship. Scammers use grooming techniques to encourage intimacy and create ‘friendships’, developing dependency through frequent and reliable correspondence (Button et al 2014; Carter 2017). For other individuals ‘managing’ the correspondence becomes a reliable source of social contact and provides a daily routine of receiving, sorting, reading and replying to the post:  ‘Every morning I’d be there waiting for the post to come. I wasn’t interested in what it was, it was just something coming in to the house, because the house was so empty’ (bereaved research participant (Fenge and Lee 2018 (in press)).

 A single response to a scam contact can rapidly escalate as scammers buy and sell respondents’ details via ‘suckers lists’ (the content of these lists varies but tend to include respondents’ names, contact details, age and type of scam responded to). Social isolation and loneliness also means the individual is less likely to have opportunities to discuss their financial decisions with others which can be an important check on poor or risky transactions (Age UK 2015).

Why the contribution is important

Supporting people to have 5 extra years of good health, independence and happiness means tackling loneliness. It is important to understand how chronic loneliness can undermine emotional and physical well-being, as well as financial well-being. This may enable agencies to develop plans which build on an individual’s social connectedness,  making use of community resources to combat loneliness and susceptibility to financial scams (Fenge and Lee 2018 (in press)).


Individuals involved with scams experience a range of negative emotions which impacts on their health and independence. Feelings of depression and anxiety, anger, withdrawal, shame, loss of confidence and a sense of increased vulnerability to further exploitation are common (Adapted from SCIE, 2011 p11; Witty, 2013; Button et al, 2014; Age UK 2015 and unpublished case studies of scam victims collated by the National Trading Standards Scams Team). Not only does scam involvement impact on the individual and their family but also on wider society due to reduced consumer confidence (Baxter and Wilson 2017). Loss of savings and reduced finances may also result in the individual being unable to meet the future costs of their health and social care needs, placing increased pressure on public services in the future.

Raising awareness about the range, scope and impact of scams is key to enabling older people to live healthy and independent lives. This requires coordinated approaches from organisations including health and social care, law enforcement and the financial sector to engage in activities aimed at informing staff and customers about fraud and scams.  It is important that professionals and agencies who have contact with vulnerable people are scam-aware and there be clear protocols and procedures in place, for example when vulnerable individuals make unusual or large bank transfers or withdrawals (Lichtenberg, 2016; Financial Fraud Action, 2017 cited in Fenge and Lee 2018).

Tackling both financial scams and loneliness requires evidence and advice informed by research. Partnership work with key organisations can provide support and information and is a valuable way of addressing need. Charities such as Age UK offer a range of services that can support people involved in scams as well as lonely individuals. There is future potential in technology being used more effectively as a learning tool through ‘gamification’ and learning games which inform members of the public about the risks posed by financial scams and how best to protect themselves. Technology may also offer ways to create new social connections through Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (AR). For example, this may be developed through immersive exercise programmes or by enhancing opportunities for older people to remain in contact with friends and family through future technologies. However, society needs to remain mindful of how technology, such as care robots, may increase loneliness if it replaces human to human contact.   


Professor Keith Brown, Director of the National Centre for Post-Qualifying Social Work and Professional Practice, Bournemouth University

Professor Lee-Ann Fenge, Professor of Social Care, Bournemouth University

Dr Sally Lee, Lecturer Social Work, Bournemouth University

Specialists within the field of financial abuse from scamming


Age UK 2015. Only the Tip of the Iceberg: Fraud Against Older People, Age UK, London: Available from:


Button, M, McNaughton Nicholls, C, Kerr, J and Owen, R (2014) Online frauds: Learning from victims why they fall for these scams. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology vol. 47, 3: pp. 391-408


Carter, E. 2017. The language of scammers. In L. Fenge, S. L and K. Brown (Eds) Safeguarding Adults: Scamming and Mental Capacity, London: Sage

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Fenge, L. 2017. Loneliness, well-being and scam involvement. In l. Fenge, S. L and K. Brown (Eds) Safeguarding Adults: Scamming and Mental Capacity, London: Sage

Fenge, L. and Lee, S. (in print) Understanding the Risks of Financial Scams as Part of Elder Abuse Prevention, British Journal of Social Work, doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcy037


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Olivier, S, Burls, T, Fenge, L and Brown, K 2015. ‘’Winning and losing”: vulnerability to mass marketing fraud. The Journal of Adult Protection, 17 (6): 360 – 370.


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Projecting Older People Population Information (POPPI) 2016. Living Alone. Available from:

by slee on July 18, 2018 at 04:09PM

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