Hard-hitting investigations. Brian Hollywood reports on how vulnerable pensioners are being conned out of their savings.
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It was daylight robbery, caught on security camera. The victim, a
pensioner, was on the where her money was been stolen. Have you
ever seen a crime as brazen as this? The answer is no, 30 years
with Nationwide and this is a very unique. This elderly woman became a
victim of so-called friends who visited her every day. These people
were opportunistic thieves. It was clear the intention was to take her
money. They were going to leave her penniless. The it is something
people do not like to think is happening and there are more people
who are vulnerable. This couple, Seamus and Colleen McPolin, pleaded
guilty to stealing almost �100,000 from Mel Irvine, aged 85, who
suffered from dementia. In police interviews, Seamus said he did
nothing wrong. She is not a victim of a crime there is no crime. She
Seamus and Colleen McPolin nearly got away with it. They almost
succeeded in stealing the entire life savings of a vulnerable
pension. How did they come so close to making off with the money? What
tripped them up and what about the rest of the cash that police say is
unaccounted for? The missing money It was a simple crime, but it
raised complex questions about how we treat vulnerable older people.
To the outside world, Seamus and Colleen McPolin did not seem like
calculating criminals. They appeared a kind couple, willing to
visit an elderly woman and keep an eye on her. How often was Seamus
here and what was his relationship to her? He arrived every morning. I
used to work in Newry and I would leave around 8am and he would be in
the Front Street, arriving in his taxi. A newspaper, a pint of milk.
To give to her? As any good son would do. Mel Irvine did not have a
son and had few friends. She was known to be generous. We moved in
11 years ago. Mel came with a house-warming present to welcome us
to the estate. She was a nice, granny sort of neighbour. She is
remembered fondly by another neighbour. In her heyday, always
well dressed. Absolutely and totally devoted to her cats. She
lived for those cats. I think they were her life. When Mel Irvine was
born in 1925, Warrenpoint was a sleepy town. As a young woman, she
moved England and got married. But her home town retained a special
place in her heart. She persuaded her husband Arthur to leave London
and retire to Warrenpoint. After his death, neighbours noticed she
was going downhill. One day, she called to neighbours and claimed a
stranger broke into her home and was hiding upstairs. She was
nervous and agitated. We searched the house downstairs. We could not
get into some of the rooms, she had locks on every door. Walking around
with a big key, opening up everyone. I said there is nobody in a house.
She said they were up in the attic, very nervous. Very afraid. We asked
how they would get up into the attic. We asked to the person was.
She named the name. She said he had a tunnel. A tunnel into the attic.
She locked herself into the bedroom and the police had to kick the door
in, which was upsetting for everybody, not least Mel. We were
upset for have. The it was clear something was wrong? Absolutely.
This would be going back five years. Before there McPolins Came on the
scene. I thought they were doing her a good turn. I thought they
were kind to her, but I did not know they were taking their money.
Clearly she had neighbours concerned for her welfare, so how
could it happen that she was comm from an -- out of her money? P Paul
did not want to get involved, -- people. If they go to the police
and they arrive, and there would be inquiries. Sadly, we have moved to
a place where people live in isolation. We tend to mind our own
business. We as neighbours feel as if we have let her down. She used
to come out to talk to us and we were her friends. And for them to
be rubbing her in plain sight of us and for us to do nothing about it,
mainly because we did not know about it, maybe we could have done
more ourselves. It is hard to know. When you think that somebody is
looking after her, and they were doing the right thing... Mel is now
being care, but her house is unchanged since the day she left
last year. Her family said she was trusting and vulnerable, who had
pride. They say they are shocked and appalled that anybody would
take advantage of her. The pensioner lived modestly. She was
not a big spender. By the time she was 85, she had �120,000 in her
building society. One of the luxury she allowed herself was to take
taxes. She began to rely on one driver, Seamus McPolin. Seamus
McPolin was a driver in the town for 15 years and would have known
Mel and her late husband in that time. Whenever her illness became
apparent, both Colleen and Seamus McPolin recognised it as an
opportunity to steal money. Spotlight has access to the police
interview tapes. In his interviews, Seamus painted a picture of a close
Mel did not keep in touch with her extended family. After her husband
died, she often spent Christmas Day alone and her life was solitary.
She did not seem to mind. The couple had known her since the late
1990s and claimed to be attached to her. I think Seamus and Colleen
McPolin became close to her in the sense that they became regular
visitors to her home. I could not and would not say she formed at
anything approaching an attachment to them. In the absence of anyone
else, the couple became indispensable to Mel and took her
shopping and to the hairdressers and arranged the jobs to be done
around the house. Colleen McPolin did not work which meant she could
spend plenty of time with the pensioner. He did you think that
Coleen was? And we thought she was the carrot. No other reason she
should call as regularly as she did? -- Colleen. They set about
taking her money. This CCTV shows them queuing up to take money. Mel
asks for a cheque for �50,000 made out in the name of Seamus McPolin.
It takes minutes. The cheque represented a big slice of her life
savings. They thought they had got away with what was in effect
daylight robbery. But the couple were not aware that the branch
manager was on to them. She had known Mel for years and knew how
she usually came in a loan and never took out large sums of money.
The area manager said that his branch managers are trained to spot
suspicious activity, especially with older customers. My manager
made a phone call to misses and she answered. Before she could talk,
another lady took over the telephone and described what there
cheque was made payable to and what it was for. We thought that Mrs
Irvine had never talked about this and it compounded our suspicions.
The explanation was that Mel was planning an extension to the House,
a house that was too big for her. It was clearly his story the couple
had concocted. And that was borne out in the story. They were
rehearsed in what they would stay - - sake. That next day, the police
paid a visit to the house. The front door was opened by Colleen
McPolin. Mel's mental state had gone into such a decline she could
not make a complaint. The police found an elderly woman who was
confused. She did not know she had a building society account, or that
it once contained her life savings. In her handbag -- Colleen's hand
back they found the cheque and arrested her. Her husband was
arrested later that day. Mel was not aware of what she was doing and
did not seem to be aware of the transactions she was carrying out.
Last month, the couple pleaded guilty to stealing from Mrs Irvine.
But cases of this nature rarely make it to court. They are
difficult to prove because they rely on the testimony of a usually
confused victim. Researchers estimate in Northern Ireland are
older people with dementia were swindled out of well over �2
What we know about is the tip of the iceberg. A lot is going on that
is not reported or not taken any further. If the building society
manager hadn't raised any concerns, the theft of �50,000 would have
gone unchallenged. Mel had no-one else keepingan eye on her financial
interests. In his police interviews, Seamus tried to convince
investigators that he was only Seamus said he never intended to
keep the money, that the �50,000 would just sit in his bank account
until Mel needed it. The police were totally unconvinced. These
people are opportunistic thieves. It was their intention to take all
of her money. They were going to clean her out entirely? Leave her
penniless. This was the second advice thait week that Mel and the
McPolins' had made to the building society to withdraw thousands of
pounds of her money. This is Seamus McPolin with Mel. He tells the
cashie that Mel has lost her ATM card and needed a new one. Staff
became suspicious as she usually only used her bank book to withdraw
money over the counter. No. No. She didn't use the ATM machine.
didn't use the ATM machine herself at all? Not to our knowledge. We
tried to show her how. She may have used it internally here, but, you
know, it wouldn't have been a regular feature. Seamus also gets
Mel to transfer �5,000 from her savings account to her current
account. When staff advise Mel that she will be losing interest, Seamus
insists, claiming that she needs �5,000 for household bills.
Spotlight has learnt that there had already been substantial amounts of
money disappearing from Mel's current account throughout 2008. In
the month of May �1,450 was taken out. In June a further �1,600 and
in August �1,400. Police are convinced the McPolins were
draining this current account. wasn't a lady who was spending
large amounts of cash that we could see. I would suspect that that
money was going traigt to the -- straight to the McPolins. Women
over 81 years of age Are the most common victims of financial abuse.
In that sense, they had found the ideal candidate in Mel Irvine in
her mid-80's, childless, widowed, increasingly isolated befriending
her and gaining her confidence was the first step along the road to
stealing her entire life savings? It sounds like grooming? Grooming
is exactly how we would describe this. They took over Mel's life.
They moved in, they ensured she was dressed. She looked respectable.
Her house was tidy. Her courtans were open. Her gardens were well
kept. They were with her every time she went out through the door.
the outside world, Mel had two good friends, but the reality was very
different. Most of the case that is we would come across actually
happen within families. It's quite a sinister almost. God love her,
she wasn't aware of the money going. They betrayed her trust and that is
every bit as much to blame as to taking her money. To get a
prosecution, the police had to prove that Mel was incapable of
looking after her finances and that they had exploited this. In his
police interviews, Seamus played However, when officers questioned
Colleen, she contradicted her husband. Over the three swer
interviews she gave police, she changed her opinion on whether Mel
They claimed to be her children, but did they treat her like a
mother? If these people were the children that Mel never had, you
would expect your children to take care of you. These people ought to
have brought this condition to the attention of medical professionals
who could have helped her. They didn't do that. Anywhere else in
the UK, the McPolins' could have been prosecuted for failing to
bring Mel's condition to the attention of the authorities. Not
in Northern Ireland, there is no specific duty to inform. When the
McPolins' didn't act, Spotlight has learnt there had been attempts to
examine what might have been happening to her mind. At one stage
she was assessed by a psychiatrist after a friend reported concerns to
Mel's doctor. She found to be suffering from considerable
confusion and forgetfulness, but she refused to undergo a CT scan
and didn't attend the hospital appointments that had been made for
her. The essence of the problem is, how can someone in the midst of
mental decline be expected to make major decision abouts how and if
they should be treated? It's a question between protecting them
and yet allowing them to make progress. Allowing someone fo have
privacy and live in their own home and were text them from people who
will want to undermine them in society. I think, I do believe it's
a bigger problem than we appreciate at the moment. We are getting a
much older population coming on who will have more money than perhaps
they did years ago. By the time Mel was medically assessed, in the
day's after the McPolins' arrest, her confusion and dementia were so
advanced that she lacked any ability to manage her finances. Her
bank accounts were frozen and her solicitor was given official
control control of her affairs. Mel was also given round-the-clock
support so that she could continue to live at home. Stephen Compton
never treated Mel, but he has seen a psychiatric report on her, which
charted a steady deterioration in her mind as a result of Alzheimer's.
She can't do simple arithmetic. You would expect someone of that
generation to be able to count money easily. She can't handle or
even identify money. Anyone who would ask someone with these
problems to write a cheque, I think, really, you would have to query the
motive for it -- query the motive for it. As a woman with dementia,
Mel would not have known that the McPolin's attention wasn't genuine.
Mel, from the people that we have spoken, to was a very as tuet lady.
There is no way that they could have taken advantage of her had she
not been ill. I think people with dementia have vulnerabilites about
the fact that they do get confused very easily. They may forget what
is happening because memory is affected on most cases of dementia.
So it does make it easier to dupe somebody. Last year, almost one
person in eight with dementia here was conned out of money or property.
By its nature deception is an insidious crime that can be hard to
spot and often goes unreported. Financial abuse in particular is
really a silent epidemic in the UK. We see all sorts of evidence like
this about people hiding people from the authorities in order to
take money from them or get their house signed over. Stephen Compton
is frustrated by the level of support and protection that people
with dementia get here. He believes there has been failure to put
proper legislation in place in NI. Do you think the law as it stands
in Northern Ireland currently protects people as vulnerable as
Mel? There is more sanction on people who abuse animals than there
is on people who abuse older people. It's time that was changed. We need
capacity legislation, now. Local MLA Jim Wells concedes there is
inadequate protection here for those who don't have the capacity
to look after themselves, but warns it will be some time before such
legislation will be introduced. the absence of legislation there is
not a lot that can be done. We are working on it. Really you are
talking at least three years before this issue is resolved. His party
colleague, Nigel Dodds, is trying to bring in extra protection for
the elderly in the House of Commons. His Bill raises awareness of all
types of elder abuse, but it is at an early stage. The police
investigation also uncovered that ten months before their arrest,
Colleen McPolin had taken Mel into the Nationwide and had withdrawn a
cheque for �46,000 Seamus McPolin's name. Why hadn't Mel's bank
questioned that withdrawal? Why did you give the cheque for �46,000?
The lady signed for. It we checked with her several times. You do what
you are instructed. That was the first occasion. You do what you're
instructed. The McPolins' took Mel's money and told no-one about
it. They used to pay off their �26,000 mortgage and to ren nait
their conservatory. On that occasion they claimed the money was
a generous gift from Mel, a gift they managed to keep secret until
their arrest ten months later. When questioned, Seamus couldn't see the
harm in concealing the gift: Do you think it could have been a gift
from Mel? No. Under no circumstances would I believe that.
It was very clear to us that Mel was incapable of making those sorts
of decisions. We asked Seamus and Colleen to take part in this
programme and to clarify where Mel's missing ATM money went. They
declined. When I spoke to Mrs McPolin at her home she insisted
that Mel is still mentally alert even though the elderly woman is
now in care and has been deemed incapable of looking after herself.
When they eventually pleaded guilty to theft, the McPolin's re-
mortgaged their house to pay back the �46,000 to Mel. The judge took
this into account and they avoided jail, receiving a suspended
sentence of three years. Have you ever seen a crime as brazen as
this? The answer is no. This is very, very unique. Some of Mel's
neighbours and a local MLA believe the sentence should have been
harsher to deter others? You would of given them prison sentences?
definitely. What is the difference of them robbing a bank? You don't
see many bank robbers getting off free. If it was my mother, I
wouldn't be happy.. The community are absolutely appalled, outraged
at the level of the suspended sentence. People think it's
inadequate. They paid back the money. They admitted their guilt.
Surely, they have suffered enough? They had no intention of owning up.
If it wasn't for the vidge lens of a Nationwide official this crime
wouldn't of been detect and they would of got away with �90,000.
bank accounts were frozen and her solicitor was given official right
of her affairs. It's a proper and balanced decision. Mel can never
get back the chance to slow down the progress of her illness. The
police suggest that the polyethelene were sheltering her
from public view, keeping her away from medics and naebs neighbours.
If they had done something about her condition, could she have been
helped? That is quite possible. She could of had treatment which could
have prevented her getting worse. Her condition and situation could
have been improved on. Those who witness Mel's decline are relieved
that she is now being looked after by professionals with her best
interests at heart. It's sad. She lived there for so long There is
one saving grace from all of this, she is now in a secure home. She's
being fed. She has a roof over her head. She is getting her medication.
To the best of my knowledge, she's doing well. For that I'm glad.
the absence of meaningful legislation at Stormont, people
Brian Hollywood reports on how vulnerable pensioners in Northern Ireland are being conned out of their savings.