A lonely 87-year-old woman was lured into spending £35,000 with mail-order and prize draw companies because she was desperate for contact with the outside world.
The pensioner used the deliveries as an opportunity to chat to post workers and couriers as they dropped off the goods, which included limited edition products and clothing.
When trading standards officers at Leicestershire County Council were made aware of the “heartbreaking” situation, they found a spare room full of unopened parcels at the woman’s county home.
The woman’s spending means she does not have enough money to pay towards the care she needs.
Once the pensioner began replying to offers she received via junk mail she identified by the senders as “vulnerable”, and was bombarded with information about similar schemes in a process described as “grooming”.
The case is just one of many similar situations the county council team has found itself dealing with.
Caroline North, team leader for scams and doorstep crime, said: “Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. We often come across similar cases and it’s heartbreaking to see.
“It’s frustrating, very sad, and we’re often left feeling angry that there are people out there targeting vulnerable individuals in this way.”
The woman, who lives alone, has not been identified. The council said it was unable to say how its trading standards team became aware of her plight.
Caroline added: “Quite often we see people are sent junk mail which offers them the chance to buy 47 plates for a certain price, which included entry into a prize draw with a jackpot of £250,000.
“The flyers use phrases like ‘guaranteed prize’, and people send off for them thinking they have a chance.
“Some people use the word addiction, but I don’t think that’s quite what this is, it’s more like grooming.
“Companies send out this junk mail to people they know will respond. Once you’ve entered one competition or made one order then it will just keep coming.”
Over the past financial year the council’s Trading Standards Scams Intervention Team has worked with the authority’s adults and communities department to support 200 victims of postal, telephone and doorstep scams. Officers estimated collective losses to victims to be more than £500,000.
Caroline said: “A lot of the time, victims haven’t told their friends or family that they are a victim of a scam.
“Anyone can look out for the signs, which include, lots of junk mail, lots of parcels being delivered, people hiding purchases or mail.
“It could be that a postman recognises the signs or a delivery driver, or ask your mum and dad, grandma and granddad about how much post they receive and the sort of stuff it is they are being sent.
“It’s something that anyone can be a victim of, so it’s important to look out for others.”
The executive director of Age UK Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland has warned elderly people against responding to junk mail or ordering from catalogues and mail-order firms.
He said that the discovery by council officers is not the first and sadly won’t be the last of its kind.
He said: “This is a really sad case but unfortunately this isn’t the first time we’ve heard of this sort of thing.
“Lots of elderly people have no family or friends and a lot of the time, because of ill health or poor mobility they don’t get chance to get out and see people regularly.
“Our advice to elderly people is to avoid buying from catalogues and mail order companies unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
Talking about the reasons some elderly people respond to such mail, Mr Donovan said: “Loneliness is the biggest killer of old people, it can be debilitating, lead to depression, drinking and lots of other issues and often people will not admit to feeling lonely.
“Some people have no contact with others for days or weeks, add that to problems such as ill health and it becomes a lot for people to deal with.
“If you are an old person and are feeling lonely then call us. We have a number of schemes that could help and we can point you in the direction of other charities that can assist too.”
He added: “We realise that people are increasingly living further away from older relatives and that they may not have time to visit as often as they would like but in those instances we’d just ask people to pick up the phone.
“Call for a quick chat, you may be the only person that your parent or grandparent will have any contact within a day.
“By and large people don’t recognise that a family member or friend is struggling, it’s easy for them to say they’re ok.
“They don’t want to be a burden so don’t tell people they are experiencing feelings of loneliness.”
Contact Age UK Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland on 0116 2992233.
The Silver Line is the only free confidential helpline providing information, friendship and advice to older people, open 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Call 0800 470 8090.