It’s sickening to think that fraudsters would use the current crisis to trick people into handing over their money, but recent weeks have seen a raft of new scams emerge designed to do exactly that.
These scams are often highly sophisticated, and with many of us feeling vulnerable and stressed due to the pandemic, growing numbers of people are falling for them. Since February 2020 this year, the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau has identified 21 reports of fraud where Coronavirus was mentioned, with victim losses totaling over £800k. Separate figures from Action Fraud, the UK’s national reporting centre for fraud and scams, show that as of 12 June, 2,378 victims have lost almost £7.1m to coronavirus-related fraud.
Here’s our rundown of some of the scams currently doing the rounds, and what you can do about them.
Scam text message promising cash
One scam text message currently doing the rounds claims to be from Gov.uk and says it is issuing a payment for hundreds of pounds to all UK residents “as part of its promise to battle COVID 19.” It then asks you to tap a link so that you can claim the payment. To do this, you must enter your banking details, which are then used to steal money from you. Another pretends to be from HMRC offering a tax refund to help those affected by the coronavirus outbreak, and invites recipients to click on a link to access the rebate. Once you’ve done this and entered your details, money is taken from your account.
What you can do: Never click on any link, even if it looks authentic, or give out your bank details if requested by an email or text message. Instead, contact the organisation involved directly and see whether they have contacted you. You can report suspected phishing or spam texts to your mobile network provider by forwarding them to 7726. Make sure you’ve installed the latest software and app updates to protect your devices from the latest threats too. Find out how to do this here.
Many people are desperate to boost their incomes because they’ve lost work due to the coronavirus and might be tempted by the promise of generous returns from supposedly lucrative investments. The golden rule with investing is that if it looks too good to be true, it almost certainly is, so steer clear of anyone promising you’ll be able to get rich quick. If you’re considering investing in anything, always take your time to verify and validate the investment and remember that legitimate organisations won’t push you into making a decision – the financial services regulator doesn’t allow them to.
What you can do: Check the FCA Register to see if the company you’re dealing with is regulated. If not, they may be on the FCA’s Warning List of companies offering investment opportunities which are a scam. If the company is on this list, or you suspect they are trying to scam you, you should report it to Action Fraud either online or by calling 0300 123 2040.
Scammers pretending to be from Amazon
We have seen a very recent rise in fake automated phone calls purporting to be from Amazon saying your Amazon Prime subscription is due to expire, and payment will be automatically taken from your account. The recorded message then asks you to press one to cancel or two to speak to customer services. The call then goes through to an individual who ‘requires’ your personal details to access your account and will use this information to take money from your account. There are a number of variations on this scam being reported, including for example an automated fake call from Amazon saying your £500 Iphone is being shipped, please press one to cancel or two to speak to customer services.
What you can do: If you receive an automated voice recording pretending to be from Amazon, simply hang up.
Online events scam
Large numbers of businesses are running free online events during lockdown, such as music festivals or art gallery tours. Fraudsters often pose as event organisers on social media, posting links to the event. When you click on the link, you are asked to submit personal details, along with your credit or debit card information to secure your place – even though the real event is actually free.
What you can do: If you know an event is free, don’t under any circumstances hand over your payment details. Do a search online and try and locate the official site for the event. If it is a paid event, check the contact details carefully – there should be a full postal address and telephone number shown.
Hot tub fraud
Sales of hot tubs have rocketed since lockdown began, with people looking for ways to entertain themselves at home.
Many companies selling hot tubs have sold out, prompting buyers to turn to eBay or Gumtree to try to find one. However, sometimes these listings turn out to be fake and once the money is handed over, the hot tub never arrives.
What you should do: You should only buy from trusted sellers, so make sure you read reviews carefully and do plenty of research before handing over any cash. You should also pay by credit card, as this should offer you protection from your card company if the goods never arrive. Always follow the security advice on the site you are buying from too – this will usually advise against making bank transfers directly to a seller.
Fraudsters advertise pets online, asking for a deposit to secure one. Often, more funds are then requested to cover vaccinations and insurance, but once the money is handed over, the fraudster is never heard from again. According to Action Fraud, 669 people lost a combined total of £282,686 in March and April, after putting down deposits for pets.
What you can do: If you want to buy a pet, try and make sure it is from a trusted breeder who has been recommended by friends or family, or a reputable pet shop. Ask to see the animal via video call and if you are handing over a deposit in advance, make sure you pay either by credit card or Paypal.
Fake emails purporting to be from Tesco say the supermarket is offering free vouchers to shoppers during the coronavirus outbreak. When you click on the link in the email to claim the vouchers, you’re taken to a genuine-looking, but fraudulent phishing website that is designed to steal login credentials as well as your personal and financial information.
What you can do: Don’t click on the links or attachments in emails which look suspicious and always check with the company involved that it’s a genuine offer. If something seems too good to be true, i.e. free vouchers, it often is – so be on guard.
Research organisation scam
Some fraudsters are sending out emails which are supposedly from research organisation’s affiliated with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The emails tell the recipients that they can access a list of coronavirus-infected people in their area. To receive this information, they are instructed to click on a link which either leads to a malicious website, or requests a Bitcoin payment.
What you can do: Never open or click links in emails purporting to be from health research organisations. If you want to know what a particular organisation is saying about Coronavirus, delete the email and search for the official organisational website via your usual search engine.
Payment holiday scam
You get a call or text message from someone pretending to be from your bank offering you a mortgage payment holiday or telling you that you don’t have to pay any interest on your credit card for the next few months. To confirm that you’re eligible, they will ask for your banking details so that they can steal from you.
What you can do: Banks will never ask you for your PIN number or your online banking passwords, nor will they ask you to email or text your banking details, so hang up immediately if someone asks you for this information.
If you want to check whether it really is your bank contacting you, end the call and telephone your bank from another phone number, as sometimes scammers will stay on the line, so that when you redial what you think is your bank, they reconnect with you. Remember that if you do need a mortgage payment holiday, the onus is on you to request one, rather than on your bank to call you and ask if you need one.
Lender loan scam
Many people are worried about making ends meet during these difficult times, with lender loan fraudsters taking advantage of this by offering “fast loans” regardless of your credit history.
They’ll ask you to fill in an application, which will be approved and you’ll then be asked to pay an upfront fee before the loan amount can be released. They then take the payment but never provide you with the loan.
What you can do: Always be wary of unsolicited approaches about loans and don’t click on links offering them. It’s also highly unusual to be asked to make a payment to a lender, before you’ve been given a loan. If you’re considering taking out a loan from a company you’ve never heard of, check the FCA Register to check the company you’re dealing with is regulated and stay well clear if it’s not.
Fake coronavirus tests
Some scammers are selling fake coronavirus tests, either online, or they pose as healthcare officials who turn up on your doorstep. The tests can be expensive and are fake, so won’t tell you whether you have the virus.
Katherine Hart, Chartered Trading Standards Institute Joint Lead Officer for Doorstep Crime, said: “Those who have been advised to avoid social contact as part of the measures to help stop the spread of the virus are particularly at risk of being taken in by these cold callers.”
What you can do: Don’t open the door to people you don’t know, or speak to anyone who calls you out of the blue. Stay safe by only talking to those you know and trust. You can check if you have coronavirus symptoms via the NHS 111 website or by calling 111.
Help with your shopping scam
Some criminals are knocking on people’s doors promising to deliver essential shopping. They ask for money up-front but never return.
What you can do: If you need help with your shopping, ask neighbours, family or friends, or your local community support group for help rather than accepting offers from strangers. You can request help from your community via your local council. Find contact details for your local council here.
Fines for going out
You receive a text supposedly from the police or government telling you that you’ve been fined because you’ve been spotted leaving your home more than once in a day in the period before lockdown measures were eased.. The amounts involved are sometimes small, but scammers use them so they can get hold of your payment details and take much larger sums from your account.
What you can do: Ignore any text you receive saying that you have been issued with a fine for leaving the house during the lockdown and report it to your mobile network provider by forwarding the text to 7726. The police will not send you a text message asking you to pay a fine in this way.
Extortion email scams
Some types of scam are particularly threatening. For example, you might receive an email which claims to know everything about your life – some even show a correct version of one of the online passwords you use in the email. It will then ask for a large sum of money which it asks you to pay. The sender says that unless the payment is made within 24 hours, members of your family will be infected with the coronavirus, or that they will disclose your information to others.
Sadly, due to a large number of data breaches over the years it is quite easy for fraudsters to find a correct password associated with your email address. They will use this limited information to trick you into thinking they have access to additional information. They then use this information to blackmail you.
What you can do: If you receive one of these emails, don’t respond and don’t send any money across. Get in touch with Action Fraud or call 0300 123 2040 to report the message. If they have managed to include a correct password in the email then make sure you change passwords for all your accounts as soon as possible.
Sextortion phishing scams
Action Fraud says that so far this month, it has received 9,473 reports of a sextortion phishing scam, with victims sent an email demanding a payment in Bitcoin to prevent videos of the victim, on their computer visiting adult websites, being shared.
Pauline Smith, head of Action Fraud said: “The messages can look particularly convincing because they often include the recipient’s genuine password. The criminals sending these emails are ruthless, unscrupulous individuals who don’t care about the impact of their actions on victims. They seek to exploit people’s emotions – shaming and scaring the recipient enough, that they make a payment. If you receive an email that threatens you, your family, or your property in any way, and asks you to make a Bitcoin payment, don’t take the bait.”
By including a potentially correct, or old password in the email, this can heighten feelings of fear and anxiety by making you feel like the scammers have your data. In reality, passwords can get stolen by scammers through one of the many data breaches that are announced regularly (this is why it’s important to regularly change your passwords). The scammers will most likely have acquired your password from one of these past data breaches rather than due to the sextortion claims they are making.
What you can do: If you receive one of these emails, report it to [email protected] and then delete it immediately. If you’ve made a Bitcoin payment already, report it to your local police force on 101.
Fake health advice
Numerous messages and emails have been doing the rounds telling people how they can work out whether they’ve got the virus. Many of them claim to be from a friend or family member working in the NHS.
Although these aren’t designed to get cash from you, they can be a dangerous way of spreading misinformation. For example, some claim that if you can hold your breath for 10 seconds, you don’t have coronavirus, or that drinking hot drinks kills the virus. Neither of these claims is true.
What you can do: Ignore Whatsapp messages or emails claiming they can help you diagnose coronavirus. You can check if you have coronavirus symptoms via the NHS 111 website. Do not go to a GP, pharmacy or hospital if you think you have the virus. Instead, you can find out when and where to get help here.
Fraudsters are sending emails and text messages asking recipients to make donations to the NHS.
The NHS will never contact you and ask you to send them money, or to make a payment to them using Bitcoin. If you would like to donate to the NHS you can do so via their official channels or your local NHS Trust.
What you can do: Never click on the links or attachments in suspicious emails or respond to messages which ask for your personal or financial details.
Fake emails about TV licence cancellations
Banks are currently warning customers not to respond to fake emails about TV licence cancellations. A number of people have reported theft from their account after engaging with phishing emails or text messages. In these messages, criminals are pretending to be from the TV Licensing Authority and are encouraging recipients to click a link. Upon clicking this link, they will be able to retrieve your phone number and the name of your bank. They will then call you, pretending to be from your bank’s fraud team and persuade you to move money into a safe account or give away your card reader codes.
There are many other emails and texts like this circulating, for example, those promising you online shopping vouchers if you click a link.
What you can do: Remember that banks will never tell you to move money into a safe account or reveal your card reader codes. You should never give your personal data or card details to anyone or click any links in texts or emails until you are sure that it’s a genuine request. It’s always best to contact your bank directly if you are worried about any requests that may have received from them.
Online shopping scams
Demand for items such as hand sanitiser, protective face masks and plastic gloves has soared in recent weeks, so fraudsters have taken advantage of this by setting up scam shopping sites where you can supposedly buy these items. Once you’ve paid for the items online, they never arrive, and you cannot get your money back.
What you can do: Avoid shopping on websites you’ve never heard of. When you are shopping online use a credit card if you have one, as most major credit card providers insure online purchases, which means if they don’t turn up, you can claim a refund from your credit card provider. Find out more about shopping online safely here.
Early access to your pension
Scammers will contact you offering you a ‘loan’, ‘savings advance’ or ‘cashback’ from your pension to help you if you’ve lost your income due to coronavirus. They will usually tell you you that you’re free to access your retirement savings before the age of 55, but if you do this, you’ll not only have to pay a hefty tax charge, at least 55% but sometimes as much as 70% of your pension pot, but you’ll also have fees taken from your pension for the transfer, which can be 20% or more of your pension savings.
What you can do: Remember that 55 is the earliest age you can take your pension benefits. If you have a regulated financial adviser, speak with them in the first instance if you need help with your pension or are wondering if you should access your retirement savings. If you don’t have an adviser, the government-supported Pensions Advisory Service provides free independent and impartial information and guidance. If you’re aged 50 or over, you can also speak with Pension Wise on the phone, another government supported resource who offer free and impartial guidance about your pension options.
Who to contact if you’re a victim of fraud
Contact your bank immediately if you think you’ve fallen for a scam.
If you have been defrauded or experienced cyber-crime you must report it to Action Fraud either online or by calling 0300 123 2040.
You should also report what’s happened to the Financial Conduct Authority either online or by telephoning 0800 111 6768.
Help with the emotional impact of fraud
Falling victim to fraud can have a huge emotional impact as well as being financially crippling. Victims often feel embarrassed and don’t want to tell people what’s happened, even though they are not to blame.
If you need to talk to someone about how you’re feeling, contact Victim Support either online or via their support line on 0808 1689111, or Think Jessica, a charity committed to protecting older people from fraud and scams. You can also contact The Samaritans at any time of the day or night on 116 123.
If a scam has left you struggling financially, contact Citizens Advice to help you find a way forward. You can speak to an adviser through its national phone service Adviceline, on 03444 111 444, which is available from 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday.
Have you been targeted by any of these scams, or are you aware of any other coronavirus-related scams doing the rounds? You can get in touch via [email protected] or share them on the Rest Less Community forum.