Accounting dilemmas: 1 Vulnerable clients

What should you do when you suspect an elderly client is falling victim to a scam? In his first in a series of five articles 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 £1.9 million 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 hung 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 are asking 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 ought to 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.

In Summary

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.

For more ethical accounting dilemmas:

Adam Williamson is AAT's Head of Professional Standards.

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