Loneliness and the risk of fraudulent mail
It was the number of letters which her aunt was receiving that first made Penny Eggebrecht suspicious.
That and the fact her aunt was getting through a chequebook almost every week sending money in response.
The letters were from overseas lottery companies offering cash prizes but requesting payments each time.
It was a scam but her 91-year-old aunt was in denial and getting her to stop replying was proving impossible.
"Having talked to her myself and realising I wasn't getting through to her I tried to involve other people that I felt she might listen to - her solicitor, GP and friends. But they really weren't getting anywhere either," Ms Eggebrecht says.
She thinks her aunt was spending £500 each month. It was more than the monthly income from her pension so she was dipping into her savings.
"I became quite stressed about it," she says. "She was using up so much money she could end up out on the street because she does not own her home so all her money could just disappear."
Experts say that loneliness is a key factor among fraud victims.
Although Ms Eggebrecht's aunt had the support of her niece, neighbours and friends, she was still quite lonely.
She honestly thought she was going to win, and that the letters were sent to her from people who were her friends.
This story - as shocking as it is - is not uncommon among vulnerable people.
Action Fraud - the UK's national fraud and internet crime reporting centre - recorded 230,630 fraud offences in England and Wales in the year to the end of March, a 9% increase on the same period the previous year.
Delegates at the Trading Standards Institute's national conference - the people who try to tackle this issue - were told that the sheer scale of fraud against vulnerable adults has reached such a point that almost everyone knows of someone who has been conned.
It is widely acknowledged that most frauds go unreported for all sorts of reasons, sometimes because people feel embarrassed about being conned, sometimes because they do not realise it has happened.
Banks can help identify victims and have become more proactive at doing so. It means customers who try to withdraw or transfer unusually large amounts of money at their local branch can expect to be asked questions by the cashier.
"We will not stop the customer taking the money", says Mark Douglas, Natwest Bank's regional director for Wales. "We will delay the customer doing that if we think we need to make further investigations.
"Once you sit down and you explain that, just in Wales, we are getting 10 referrals a day and we have recently protected more than £80,000 of customers' money, I think they understand it."
Ways to protect yourself against scams
- Do not respond to mail that looks as though it may be a scam, as more letters will be sent to your address.
- Talk about it to someone you trust, such as a friend or family member, about scam mail.
- Contact the Mailing Preference Service to have your name taken off direct mailing lists in the UK, although this will not cover mail that is unaddressed or from overseas.
- Never give out financial information over the phone, even if the caller claims to be from your bank. Be wary of anyone asking for personal information such as your passport details.
- If you are suspicious, you can always ring the company or bank they claim to be from. Make sure you find the number yourself - maybe from a letter, statement or the phone book - and not use number provided by the caller. Use a different phone if you can, or wait five to 10 minutes after the cold call if using the same phone, just in case they waited on the line.
Source: Age UK
With scam mail, almost every victim sends a cheque. The banks are able to monitor how many cheque books are being issued to customers and can raise the alert.
"We have one particular bank which has identified two scam mail victims to us proactively," says Ruth Andrews, head of investigations and safeguarding at North Yorkshire Trading Standards.
"They have been able to say that a customer is ordering a chequebook once a week or every fortnight and they have realised something is wrong. The attitude from the banks has changed considerably in the last two or three years.
"It does vary between different banks and building societies but they have all got a level of protection in place now for vulnerable customers."
Meanwhile, the government is looking to set up a new National Fraud Taskforce but the plans are at a very early stage so it is not yet clear how it might help.
'Organised crime group'
For Penny Eggebrecht's aunt it took the arrival of an extraordinary parcel in the post for her to start recognising she was dealing with criminals.
The parcel contained £20,000 in £20 notes with instructions for her to take it to a travel agent and convert it into vouchers. It is thought the vouchers would have been sent abroad and converted back into local currency. She was told she would be paid a fee for her trouble.
"The travel agent was rather concerned this old lady had gone in with £20,000 in cash so they rang the police," says Katrina Nelson-Bury, a trading standards officer who is working on the case.
"The police advised her they believed she had been subject to an organised crime group and she was potentially money laundering. I think that was the moment she realised something wasn't quite right and that really she was a victim herself."
Ms Eggebrecht now has her aunt's mail redirected to her so the scams can be sifted out. A call blocker has been fitted to her aunt's phone so only genuine calls get through. Trading standards officers are also working with charities that provide befriending services.
"Of the victims that I have dealt with, loneliness is one of the key factors," says Ruth Andrews, of North Yorkshire Trading Standards.
"If we haven't addressed that person's loneliness then they are just as likely to open the door to another doorstep crime offender or answer the phone to an investment fraudster or reply to scam mail."