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Accounting dilemmas: Vulnerable clients

27th Aug 2019
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What should you do when you suspect an elderly client is falling victim to a scam? As part of a series dealing with ethical scenarios, AAT’s head of professional standards Adam Williamson helps to see the wood for the trees.

Accountancy is a high-risk profession, and we need to accept that we need to be alert to bad practice on a daily basis. But sometimes we need to also help others realise when they are in potentially at risk, especially when they are in a particularly vulnerable situation.

Take this example of an elderly client who is failing to recognise the risk in front of them.

The scenario

You have a client in his mid-80s. You suspect that he may be in the initial stages of dementia, but you cannot be sure.

The client has been contacted by a party in Spain. They have advised him that he has won £1.9m in a lottery. The party has asked for payments from the client, which in turn will allow them to facilitate receipt of his winnings.

The client has asked you to pay the monies owed to the party in Spain. Concerned about this, you call Spain with your client in the office. When questioned for details, the person in Spain hangs up.

Despite this, the client is convinced he has won and adamant that you should make payment. What next?

Considerations and actions

It is well established that elderly people are particularly vulnerable to, and targeted by, scam operations purporting to promise them significant financial returns. This example has all the hallmarks of that scenario.

Clearly, you should refuse therefore to make any payments to the Spanish contact. If necessary, you may need to disengage should the clients’ insistence of payment continue.

You are also obliged to warn any subsequent accountant the client engages with when they ask for professional clearance.

But do your duties stop there? Given your suspicions, contacting a family member or even the client’s local GP may be positive steps. In addition, you should consider contacting the Spanish authorities to share the information that you have about this situation, for them to deal with if they deem it necessary.

This example is all about acting with integrity, which means disassociating yourself and the client (if you can) with anything that appears false or misleading. In addition, you are demonstrating your objectivity, by not allowing your client’s desires to override your professional judgement, as well as being unafraid to risk losing a paying client in order to do the right thing.

Finally, you are ensuring you are not bringing your own business, or the wider accounting profession, into disrepute, by allowing a vulnerable client to be scammed.

Replies (3)

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28th Aug 2019 10:10

Always do what is in your client's best interests.

The hallmark of professionalism.

Thanks (2)
By Roland195
28th Aug 2019 16:34

Why would I as an accountant/tax advisor be involved in making payments for clients?

Why would disengaging/disassociating with the client be remotely helpful in this case? Surely washing my hands of it would only disadvantage the client & unless I sold him the winning ticket, can't see how this would bring my or the profession into disrepute.

Contact a family member - Assuming I know any, even with the best of intentions, it sounds dodgy ground for professional conduct.

How would I know who is GP is?

Contact the Spanish Authorities? - How much free time do you think I have?, What do you suppose they will do about it given it is hugely unlikely the scammer has ever even visited Spain?

I would like to think I have a good enough relationship with my clients, many of whom are elderly, that they would heed my advice on this matter in the first place.

Thanks (0)
By LostinSuspense
02nd Sep 2019 13:05

At the end of the day, how far should you go?
Client says make the payment, you say it is a scam and provide evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that it is a scam, client says make the payment.

If you refuse/contact a 3rd party, client could run to the institute and make a complaint which could take months to prove you did not act incorrectly but by then your practice could be in ruins.

How many times have you advised someone of sound mind that they were making a bad decision and they ignored you?

We can only advise or we can refuse to act for the client, we would get into serious trouble (particularly regarding insurance) if we decided to take actions contrary to our clients wishes because we disagreed with them.

What about powers of attorney, should we be acting when we feel the client's representatives are not acting in their best interest, will we actually know the full story?

Thanks (0)