At a time when savers have more flexibility than ever over their pensions, it is inevitable that scurrilous criminals hellbent on stealing people’s retirement pots are circling.
These are not petty thieves, but sophisticated fraudsters using clever tactics to appear legitimate but who have just one aim – to rip people off and run.
Victims of scams often don’t know they have been targeted until it is too late; too late for them to pull out of a dodgy deal and possibly too late for regulators and enforcement agencies to claw back lost money despite our best efforts.
I have heard many heart-wrenching accounts of the impact of scams; from people losing their life savings, to others who tragically have taken their own lives. This has to stop.
I firmly believe we can and will beat scammers, but it must be a joint effort. It is right that regulators, government and other agencies are held to account on the action we take to prevent scams and punish offenders.
We are 100% committed to taking firm action to hit scammers where it hurts – in their pockets.
These are not hollow words. In the UK we’ve already used production orders to force solicitors and banks to give us information to support fraud and money-laundering investigations. We’ve also gone to court to have the assets of suspects frozen to prevent them spending money that we believe they have stolen from savers.
Our aim is to secure a conviction, confiscate the criminals’ assets and give them back to pension scheme members. It doesn’t matter where the criminals’ assets are – we will go after them.
We’ve worked with police forces, specialist anti-crime units, the Serious Fraud Office, the National Crime Agency and other agencies, like the Insolvency Service, to investigate organised crime gangs. We’ve executed search warrants to search businesses and the homes of suspects and have prosecuted those who have obstructed our investigations.
Earlier this year we secured our first immediate custodial sentence against a pension scheme trustee who stole more than £280,000 from the scheme. He won’t be the last.
We accept we can do more, but we are fighting back.
It’s simply not good enough to point the finger at savers who are lulled into ‘too good to be true’ deals and say you should have been more careful. That is not the only solution.
However, I am clear that the biggest weapon we have in this battle is the power of awareness and vigilance. We need to empower more people to protect themselves.
Of course, savers must have access to quality and impartial advice from advisers who have their best interest at heart, and our partner regulator the Financial Conduct Authority and the government are working hard to deliver better transparency around costs and charges for example. The ban on pension cold calling was a vital move.
But ultimately, savers targeted by scammers are their own best defence. They can stop scammers dead in their tracks by simply hanging up the phone, deleting an email or shutting the front door when a few simple warning signs flash up.
Our latest public awareness campaign with the FCA to raise awareness of pension scams is achieving real impact by highlighting the risks. It is shocking that five million people in the UK are at risk of being scammed, and that victims of pension fraud reported in 2018 that they had lost an average of £82,000.
Our message to savers is simple. Scammers are out there and they know where to look, so get to know the danger signs. Walk away if you are unsure and visit the ScamSmart website for top tips and guidance.
Together we can consign these criminals to history and protect the retirement pots that people are working so hard to build and enjoy.
By Charles Counsell