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Prevention is better than cure

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Seven years ago, I set up the Pension Scams Industry Group, with some like-minded senior industry representatives, to combat the rising problem of pension scams. Within the industry, we could see harm being done and I predicted that we would see £1Bn being lost to scams by 2018. Even though it seemed unbelievable to many at the time, unfortunately that milestone was easily passed.

Seven months ago, on behalf of PSIG, I gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Committee Inquiry into Pension Freedoms, focusing on pension scams. I spoke about the need for joined up approaches to preventing pension scams, the need for better reporting of scams to know what’s going on, for better support for victims, including discretion for HMRC to not apply tax penalties in certain pension liberation cases. I also said we all need to agree the definition of a pension scam to avoid the confusion between pension and investment scams.

While we are confused, we focus on the wrong things, which gives scammers greater opportunities.
The Work and Pensions Committee published its first report at the end of March and it is a cracker! Well worth a read. The breadth of topic is impressive and they have missed nothing. They had clearly listened to all the brilliant people who gave input, including scams victims, and came up with an impressive number of recommendations for change, many of them campaigned for by PSIG over the last few years. I immediately felt a great sense of hope.

Scams continually evolve. Scammers are more sophisticated and have more tools at their disposal. We’ve all had to adapt to change recently and scammers are no different. Authorities have changed too - additional checks on new scheme registrations reduced pension liberation scams, but scammers moved on to SIPP and SSAS vehicles. Banning cold calls in 2019 reduced telephone scams, but scammers took to social media instead. They’ve found it the perfect medium, especially during COVID when people are isolated from friends and family and spending so much time on the web. On line adverts promise great deals and make it easy to transact. People trust social media and believe the hype, but it is not well controlled. Adverts in print and on broadcast media have to meet certain standards, but not so much for social media and this is something that needs to change. We’re even confused as to whether or not social media is bound by current financial promotions regulations or if we need new legislation to include them. This is unacceptable.

The WPC called this out and have recommended that paid for adverts on social networks should be controlled as financial promotions and only placed by authorised firms. That would be a good move, but we need to do more. We need to truly recognise that financial fraud these days is a serious on-line harm and we need social networks and search engines to do their bit to help, whether legally obligated or not. I recently spoke to Google about pension and investment scams and they are interested in what they can do. They don’t want to see their users scammed out of their savings. We all need to act.

Of course, we’ve had the words and we need to see actions, but I think that 2021 will make a big difference to scams prevention. We’ve made a good start with the expected regulations to allow positive action on scam signs and the Pensions Regulator’s Scams Pledge. Hundreds of trustees have taken the scams module of the TPR Toolkit and have already pledged to combat scams by carrying out due diligence. PSIG has published version 2.2 of the scams Code, where we expand beyond transfers into recommending stronger action on access to pension funds. We’ve done this because we see dubious companies encouraging members to access their pension to provide the cash for “once in a lifetime investment opportunities”. Our industry forum (PSIF) where we share intelligence on potential scams is growing, giving our members a broader insight into scam activity, information that we share with the authorities, so we all benefit.

PSIG does all this as a voluntary group, with no funding, but perhaps the WPC recommendation for a ring-fenced and properly resourced and funded Project Bloom, possibly renamed as the Pension Scams Centre gives us hope that our work can continue.

If we all use the power we are being given, we will reduce the impact of scams. And perhaps I won’t have to spend another seven years fighting for safer outcomes.

Margaret Snowdon OBE, Chair of PSIG