A man with a brain injury was scammed out of all of his money. He and his mother are calling on social-media companies to protect disabled people from con artists.
Justin Westwood learned to read when he was 40. Everything took him a little longer to learn than most people because of a brain injury he sustained as a baby. Nevertheless, he’s spent his life overcoming challenges and exceeding expectations.
With his newfound reading skills, his world opened up. He was able to run a cash register at TK Maxx (the UK version of TJ Maxx) in south, London. He could text and, like many of us, used social media to create a digital bubble that became a major part of his life.
But that bubble was painfully pierced by scammers.
Westwood had caregivers, which UK councils formally call personal assistants, who spent a few hours a week with him to take him out of his apartment. They also checked his bank accounts to make sure everything is okay. Westwood worked well with them, and they helped him gain independence.
In late July, Westwood’s mother, Mary-Ellen Field, received a text message from one of Westwood’s caregivers, she told Insider.
It read: “Justin texted me this morning saying the following:
I no longer need anymore support Kristy. As I feel my support time should be with someone who really needs it more then I do. You know I can deal with alot myself now. Please understand this ok. On my way to work now. Plus I can do with my time … I wish all the best. Ok I’v made decision ok. I dont want to discuss it ok. Good bye. Please tell your manager for me ok …”
Field said that was the first sign that something was very wrong.
“Then he started asking me for money again, which usually means he’s in trouble,” she told Insider.
Another red flag, she said, was “he didn’t want his brother and his nephew to come around because they would see what had happened.” If they went over, they would see a gaping hole where Westwood’s beloved PlayStation 5 once sat.
Desperate for money, he’d pawned it, but his family didn’t know that yet.
It wasn’t until he started asking for money for his gas bill and constantly coming over for dinner that his mom understood how little money Westwood had.
Westwood told Insider that he got a message on Facebook from someone calling himself “Agent Tyson,” who said he had money from the government for Westwood.
Westwood was confused and surprised but spurred on by a friend who said she’d also received money from this man. He believes she might have been in on the scam, but is not sure.
So he asked what he needed to do to get the money. Tyson told him all he needed to do was pay a delivery fee, and he sent Westwood a picture of a FedEx truck and stacks of cash.
So that’s what he did. Sending money through Apple gift cards (a popular mode of scamming), Westwood’s bank account started to dwindle.
Westwood became entangled in this scam for months. He paid more and more money to “Tyson” under the assumption that he would receive a life-changing sum of money.
“I make my own money, I don’t really like to ask my mum for anything,” he told Insider. “But I gave them all my money.”
He told Insider he didn’t know exactly how much he’d given the scammers, but he knew it was well into the thousands of pounds. He said he didn’t even have enough money to buy himself groceries.
“It’s not very nice, it’s not fair, they seem to be targeting people with disabilities,” he said in a phone call, adding that he’d been sent a video of a girl with Down syndrome talking about how much money the fake agents had given her.
“This hurts people’s feelings and changes their way of life. I’ve had to delete Facebook Messenger completely now, because that’s how they get me. It’s kind of sad because I have relatives in Australia that I want to talk to. And I can’t do it now. It’s too risky,” Westwood said.
“I’ll never get that money back. It makes me feel horrible,” he said, adding that he’s just trying to move forward with his life after three months of not being able to go out or buy himself anything. “I have to start over now.”
And the scammers didn’t stop at draining his bank account — they threatened him too, Westwood said. Other fake agents told him he could be arrested if he didn’t give them money or cooperate with their demands.
“I was scared. They said they’d arrest me for wasting their time,” he told Insider.
Social-media companies need to do more, says Field
Westwood and Field are calling for social-media companies to take a more rigorous approach to online scams.
Warning of the potential impacts if there’s no change to social-media regulations, Field said: “How can I protect him? It’s never-ending. Someone will come up with something smarter next time.”
Also calling for more accountability from these organizations, a spokesperson for Mencap, a UK charity for people with learning disabilities, said social-media companies need to be more accountable for the harm scammers do on their sites.
“We know that being online and using social media can be a great way for people with a learning disability to connect with others and build positive friendships and relationships, which can often be difficult in a society where, sadly, many are not included and can be quite isolated,” the spokesperson said. “However, we also know that many have negative experiences online including abusive messages, scamming, and grooming.”
Mencap also wants to see social-media companies engage with people with learning disabilities, their families, and caregivers to ensure their platforms are accessible and create a zero-tolerance policy for bullying and harassment.
These types of crimes are hard to prosecute. Westwood and his mom went to the police, but that didn’t help them find a resolution.
In a statement sent via email, a spokesperson from the Met Police told Insider: “On Sunday, 18 September police received an allegation of fraud. The victim, a vulnerable man in his 40s, has been scammed online by unknown individuals. There have been no arrests and enquiries into the circumstances were carried out. The suspects could not be identified from the information provided. The case has been closed; this can be reopened should further evidence become available.”
Taking advantage of isolation
Although there’s very little data on the prevalence of online scams targeting disabled people, fraudsters in general often seek out older people and those with disabilities to take advantage of their isolation and loneliness.
“We know that people with a learning disability face a range of online harms such as repeated targeting, financial scamming, harassment, and even threats of violence, often heightening the stigma and discrimination they already face every day,” a Mencap spokesperson wrote in an email.
“People with a learning disability may be more vulnerable to scams as they might not have the capacity to understand the risks involved in speaking to someone online and could be unable to pick up on subtle warning signs,” the email continued.
People with disabilities often want to establish connections and make new friends, which can make scammers more likely to target them. That tactic is sometimes referred to as “mate” crime, the Mencap spokesperson said.
Westwood lost money, his freedom, and much of the confidence he gained over the past few years, his mother said. He’s scared, upset, and angry.
But he’s determined to move forward and get his life — and hopefully his PlayStation — back.