Cyber criminals are using the internet to home in on such vulnerable individuals or those with health conditions to take advantage of them in some way.
Mate crime is the befriending or targeting of vulnerable people such as the disabled, those with learning difficulties or mental health conditions with the aim of exploiting them.
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Dr Tim Owen, director of the University of Central Lancashire’s Cybercrime Research Unit, says: “Often, the disabled are seen as more vulnerable and lonely.
“Some of them don’t have the capacity to work and may be stuck in the house all day which gives cyber criminals more capacity to target them.
“These people are stereotypically targeted for companionship and the fraudster builds up their trust before exploiting them.
“There are social networking sites specifically for people with disabilities or aimed at people with certain health conditions and some fraudsters join these sites and pretend to be part of that community.
“The victims can be targeted for different kinds of cyber crime such as fraud, identity theft, grooming and sexual perversion.”
Some conmen prey on people with rare conditions or those who are desperately searching for a cure for their illness.
These people are offered “miracle cures” in the form of tablets, creams and patches.
One person who knows only too well about these kind of tactics is Jessica Marshall, senior lecturer in social science and course leader for public services at the University of Central Lancashire.
Jessica has a rare condition, trigeminal neuralgia, which results in sudden severe facial pain which she was diagnosed with about a year ago.
She explains: “It is an excruciatingly painful condition for those that live with it. For me, on a day-to-day basis, it means pain in my lower mouth, jaw and right cheek.
“Then when I have a severe attack, it is like electrical twinges which feel like a lightning bolt going off in my head.
“It is different for different people, but for me it means regular attacks which I cannot predict.”
As Jessica’s condition is rare – only affecting around 10 in 100,000 people – she found online support groups a huge help.
She says: “I found these online support groups crucial and it has been helpful hearing about other people’s experiences and medications.
“I have made what I consider to be very good friends on these groups.”
However, Jessica realised that even support groups can get infiltrated by scammers.
She explains: “There was an individual on a social networking site I am a member of who was purporting to have a cure for the condition based on vitamins.
“Alongside conventional medication, I take vitamins to support my condition but they are certainly not a ‘cure’.
“Fortunately members were very derisive of this information and knew this was basically a scam.
“I personally am fully informed about fraud and scams online but to see it happening in black and white on a site that I belonged to really hit home.
“I had conversed with the individual who supposedly had a miracle cure on several previous occasions about our shared experiences of having trigeminal neuralgia.
“While we know there are scammers online, this kind of incident makes you even more aware of the pitfalls of social media and for a short period of time I avoided social networking sites. I have a great deal of empathy for people who are the victims of this kind of scam and it hurts me to think of their experience when they realise the so-called ‘miracle cure’ does not actually work.”
Jessica decided to use her own negative experience to drive her work for the University of Central Lancashire’s cyber crime research unit.
She says: “I have found that the majority of people on these sites are genuine and the support that members provide each other is invaluable.
“When I was first diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia, I knew very little about the condition and people on the sites have been extremely informative and supportive.
“Purporting to have a ‘miracle cure’ is a particularly cruel scam as the the targets can be emotionally vulnerable people – in some cases they may have an incurable medical condition.
“The so called cure could have a negative reaction with people’s medication, they may actually stop taking medication that is supporting their condition, they lose money and potentially their trust in an individual and worst of all the so-called ‘cure’ does not work.
“I would never judge someone for buying into a miracle cure because the nature of this scam is to give people false hope which is cruel.
“If you have been the victim of such a scam, I would recommend you report it to Action Fraud.”
If you have been a victim of cyber fraud, or someone has attempted to defraud you online, contact Action Fraud on 0330 123 2040 or learn more at www.actionfraud.police.uk