The past year has seen a concerning increase in fraudsters attempting to use the pandemic to scam people out of their money and personal information. Playing on financial concerns, confusion over new lockdown restrictions, and fear over the spread of the virus, these scams impersonate official government bodies in an attempt to trick people into sharing their personal information online.
In just the first half of 2020, UK finance reported almost 15,000 impersonation scam cases – an 84% increase compared to the same period in the last year. A large portion of these scams can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic causing an up-tick in criminals impersonating the police or government organisations for financial gain.
According to internet security company Sophos, more than1880 malicious COVID-19 domains were identified in May 2020 alone, while a total of 36% (1 in 3) of UK citizens are recorded to have received some type of scam communication since the start of the pandemic, according to Citizens Advice.
Here, we’ll take a look at some of the most common scams to be aware of, how to identify a fraudulent email, text, or phone call, and other scams likely to be seen as lockdown restrictions are lifted.
A common scam that has been reported is an email or a text from criminals posing as government departments, offering financial relief grants for those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Recipients of these emails will be asked to click on a link and fill out their personal information, which can include bank details in order to receive the grant. Other similar scams have been reported offering a reduction on council tax, TV license costs, and providing assistance with universal credit payments. All of these emails or text messages will contain links to a fake government website designed to harvest your personal and financial information.
Victims have lost hundreds or even thousands of pounds when being sent fake adverts for coronavirus products such as hand sanitizer and face masks, in which criminals simply take the payment and send nothing out.
The COVID-19 vaccination rollout has understandably left many people anxious to receive news of when it will be their turn to get the jab. This has also led to an increase in scams relating to the vaccination programme, often with the purpose of fooling victims into sharing their personal details or paying for a vaccine.
Fake vaccine scams will often be in the form of a text or telephone call claiming that the recipient can sign up for their COVID-19 vaccination, with a link designed to encourage victims to hand over personal and financial details.
There have been a number of scams attempting to convince people to transfer money for a number of COVID-19 related reasons. Often, these scams will be sent by criminals posing as a bank, utility company, or government organisation, and may take the form of:
In the circumstance of receiving an email or phone call threatening you with fines and legal action, it can be easy to panic and hand over your personal information before considering whether the caller is from a legitimate organisation.
Note that banks and other statutory bodies will never ask you to transfer money over the phone or threaten you with police action by phone, letter or email for not paying a fee.
With a huge increase in people working from home over the last year, there has been a puppy boom across the country. The increased demand for puppies led to a huge increase in the overall price for the more popular breeds – and sadly, this has led to criminals taking advantage of the demand by posing as dog breeders and tricking potential buyers out of their money.
Action Fraud showed that over 6,000 people in the UK fell victim to pet scammers in the first lockdown. These scams would typically involve online adverts from people claiming to have puppies for sale, with victims sent photos and videos of the dog before being asked for a deposit before they pick up their new puppy.
Of course, victims then never heard from the scammers again and it’s highly unlikely the dog they had their heart set on was ever actually for sale (indeed, many of these fake adverts online show the same dog for sale for months).
It is not always easy to instantly spot a scam from a legitimate email or text – after all, the official bodies that many scammers are posing at may be contacting you for perfectly valid reasons.
If you are not sure you can trust the authenticity of a message you have received, here are a few tips on how to identify a fraudulent message and avoid being a victim.
Scams will often have spelling or grammatical errors within the message itself or in the website you are redirected to. This is a good indication that you are not receiving a legitimate message from an official government body.
If you are being threatened with fines and even arrests from a seemingly legitimate source, it can be easy to panic and quickly transfer the requested amount before really considering whether the message you have received is completely accurate.
It is highly unlikely that a legitimate source will demand payment via text or email, and you should carefully investigate the authenticity of any communication requesting your financial information. It’s better to wait a couple of days and contact the relevant authorities directly to check whether you really do owe a fine rather than paying instantly and risk losing your money to a scam.
Many COVID-19 scams look very convincing, but a good way to check if you are being contacted by a legitimate source is to check the website you are being sent to. You can look up the official website that you would be sent to from a legitimate source, and compare it against the link included in the message you have received.
Note that even if the website looks legitimate, it is always best to contact the government body you are supposedly receiving a message from directly (via their official website) to ask if they have contacted you. Never hand over personal information if you are not sure the message you have received is legitimate.
Some scams are designed to download malware onto your computer without your knowledge – often with the purposes of phishing for your personal information such as passwords, bank details etc.
Having a good antivirus software program installed on your device is a sensible precaution to keep you and your computer safe.
Scams will often target the elderly and more vulnerable members of our society who may not be able to identify a fraudulent message and be more likely to hand over personal information to criminals.
If you have a family member or loved one that you know is more likely to fall victim to these types of scams, it’s a good idea to have a discussion with them on what to look out for and perhaps asking that they contact you to check out the authenticity of any COVID-19 related messages before taking any action.
With over 500,000 malicious emails reported between June and September by HMRC, we are likely to see phishing scams increase as the world begins to open back up.
Types of scams we’re likely to encounter include:
A key concern for the government as lockdown restrictions are lifted is helping small businesses get back on their feet. Small business relief funds and grants have been announced as a part of this year’s budget, but business owners should be wary of emails inviting them to apply for grants and loans.
Make sure the email is from a legitimate source before entering any personal or financial information.
To help businesses and individuals who have suffered financial losses throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the government allowed tax and VAT payments to be deferred until a later date.
Phishing scams may increase informing those that deferred these payments that their payment is now due or that they are being fined for late payments. If you receive an email of this nature, make sure you check the official HMRC website for more guidance before giving anyone your bank details.
With the vaccination programme set to continue into the summer, we are likely to continue to see scams inviting people to register and pay administration fees to receive their COVID-19 vaccinations.
In the UK, the COVID-19 vaccine is provided for free by the NHS, and you will be contacted by your GP when it’s your turn to get your vaccine. You will never be asked to pay for your vaccine.
Phishing schemes and scams are always going to be circulating, whether they are related to COVID-19 or something else entirely. What’s more important is that you take the necessary steps to protect yourself and those around you from falling victim to these schemes.
Remember, if you receive an email, text, or phone call asking you for personal information or your banking details, it is always better to do some research into the authenticity of the person or organisation supposedly contacting you. There is a wealth of information on current scams and how to avoid them on the FTC and Citizen’s Advice.