UK domestic abuse survivors targeted by scammers charging for help and advice | Domestic violence

Opportunists are targeting victims of domestic abuse by lying about their professional experience and charging them for legal and emotional help.

Capitalising on the vulnerability of victims and the lack of government-funded support available, they pretend to be qualified counsellors, domestic abuse “consultants” or specialist lawyers, while advertising fees that they claim are lower than standard rates.

Mel, who is still being abused by her ex-partner, was contacted by a woman she did not know after she “liked” a post from a legitimate charity on social media.

“I thought she was reaching out to help me, but then after I opened up about the abuse, she started asking for money,” Mel said. “She kept asking me to book a session, putting me under pressure, constantly messaging, messaging, messaging. It made me feel anxious inside.”

In exchanges seen by the Observer, the woman sent Mel an average of one message every 20 minutes, requesting she book two sessions for £250, without a response. “However, if you want me to be on call for you,” she said, “it will be a four-figure fee.”

“I’ve already been to so many organisations asking for help,” Mel said. “They are either limited by budget or to a specific area I don’t live in. I wouldn’t be so desperate if I already had someone to talk to.”

One website advertises online training courses for victims to get “ready” for the family courts for up to £250 with the help of a “BACP-registered therapist”– which refers to the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy – who also claims to be “CPD accredited”, a qualification for people running certified continuing professional development courses approved by the CPD Register.

But both the BACP and the CPD registers confirmed to the Observer that the therapist is not on either of their lists and neither is the online course advertised. The images of previous clients on the website, paired with reviews of the course, are all photos lifted from stock footage on the internet.

Charlene Simba, founder of domestic abuse charity GraceSimba Community Village, said that many of the women she works with have been financially exploited by opportunists. “They are just scammers who are taking advantage of vulnerable women,” she said. “The failings of the family courts and established domestic abuse services are creating a loophole for these so-called ‘consultants’, who say they are cheaper than solicitors.

“They say they know the system well, giving the impression that they can make judges understand the experience of abuse and trauma. But they don’t follow through on their promises.”

While some of these pseudo-professionals connect with victims by finding and contacting them directly, as in Mel’s case, others meet vulnerable women through established communities such as religious groups and spot the opportunity for financial exploitation.

Some also simply advertise their services online and wait for people to search the internet for alternatives to the professional help they cannot afford when dealing with the family courts.

In all these cases, those offering legal or emotional help are often not transparent about the fees they charge. Many victims, like Mel, have already spoken openly about the abuse before the individual starts asking for money, so they feel obliged or afraid that the support will suddenly stop.

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Multiple websites seen by the Observer advertising domestic abuse services from unqualified providers do not even display their fees, with one victim saying she was charged extra for something she thought was part of the service.

Simba, 36, who is herself a survivor of domestic abuse, said she was asked to pay for “coaching” sessions by two different women she met through her church. After building a relationship with her, both women started asking for money to help her in one way or another.

In an invoice seen by the Observer, one of the women charged Simba £1,500 for 90 days of coaching on a “one-to-one course from toxic to healthy” and then continued to charge her £500 a month to talk about “building a good foundation for relationships” and “breaking destructive cycles” so that she could end the abuse herself.

“In the end, she just retraumatised me,” Simba said. “She has no training to deal with victims of trauma. She just left me feeling anxious and overwhelmed.”

Simba is trying to stop this type of exploitation through her charity, which matches victims with professionals who can help them for free so that they will not be forced to turn to unqualified individuals.

“We are supposed to help and protect vulnerable people,” she said, “not take money from them.”

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