The coronavirus pandemic has often brought out the very best in people and society – but it has also brought criminals out of the shadows to prey on our pockets.
To help you stay safe, check out the common type of scams and tips to protect yourself below:
Fake ‘test and trace’ scams
The Government has launched its NHS Test and Trace service, which aims to give advice to people who may have been in contact with someone who then tests positive for coronavirus.
The NHS says that official Test and Trace texts will come from the NHS, and calls will come from 0300 0135000. Contact tracers will ask for your full name, date of birth and postcode, and will offer you advice if you have come into contact with somebody who has coronavirus symptoms.
They will not:
- Ask for bank details or payments
- Ask for details of any other accounts, such as social media
- Ask you to set up a password or PIN number over the phone
- Ask you to call a premium rate number, such as those starting 09 or 087
- Ask you to download anything or access a non-NHS or Government site
If it’s genuine, you’ll be asked to sign in to the NHS Test and Trace contact tracing website. Those who do not have internet access or who don’t complete the online process will be contacted by phone.
Text message scams
Mobile text messaging scams tend to include a link to a fake, but very convincing, website designed to trick you into submitting personal information such as bank details, a password or a credit card number.
Fake texts claiming to be from ‘the Government’
Banking industry body UK Finance and communications regulator Ofcom are warning of scam texts from criminals claiming to be from official Government sources, issuing you a fake ‘relief’ pay-out or a fine for leaving your home. Neither of these are genuine, so ignore and delete them. Don’t be tempted to click links.
Action Fraud has warned about the most common scams it is seeing via email, known as ‘phishing’ scams. Again, these are often very convincing – so be on your guard and question anything that seems too good to be true.
To make policing these scams even easier, the National Cyber Security Centre (part of GCHQ) has set up a Suspicious Email Reporting Service. All you have to do is forward dodgy emails to email@example.com. If you have a hunch it might be a scam, report it and help them to act quickly.
Fake requests for payment to access Covid-19 info
These claim to be from research organisations affiliated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organisation. They may say they can provide the recipient with a list of coronavirus-infected people in their area. In order to access this information, you’ll be told to click on a link, which leads to a malicious website, and you’ll be asked to make a payment or ‘donation’ in cash or Bitcoin.
Fraudsters sending investment and trading ‘advice’
These encourage you to take advantage of the coronavirus downturn by making new investments that are in fact not genuine and can result in huge financial losses.
Fake ‘HMRC’ tax refunds or demands for tax payment
These emails direct you to a fake website that collects your personal and financial details, often displaying the HMRC or Gov.uk logo (so they can seem very legit). They’ve also been reported to offer council tax refunds.
Fake ‘TV licence’ bills and other subscriptions
There are recent examples of emails claiming to be about unpaid bills, Netflix subscriptions, Amazon Prime accounts or TV licences. Action Fraud says it’s had over 200 reports of one version of a TV licensing scam, which claims that the recipient’s direct debit has failed and that they need to pay to avoid prosecution. Recipients are told that they are eligible for a “COVID-19 Personalised Offer” of six months free. The messages contain links to genuine-looking websites that are designed to steal personal and financial information. If you aren’t sure if an email you’ve received about your TV licence is genuine, do not click links in the email. Instead, independently get in touch with TV Licensing through the official website.
Online shopping scams
Action Fraud says the majority of reports it’s received are related to online shopping scams, where people have ordered protective face masks, hand sanitiser and other products, which never arrived.
Potentially unsafe products for sale online
Even if something ordered does arrive, National Trading Standards warns products can often be dangerous and unsafe. The simplest thing to do is to only buy what you really need from credible retailers who have a presence in the UK.
Popular ‘lockdown items’ for sale that don’t exist
While many of us have been at home, on furlough or working from home, the search for popular ‘lockdown items’ has led to more shocking scams. According to Action Fraud, more than £16m has been lost to online shopping scams during lockdown. Many have paid for something that doesn’t exist, or never arrives.
Criminals offering to do shopping for elderly people
These scammers are targeting some of the most vulnerable in society, claiming they’ll go shopping on the victim’s behalf. The thieves simply take money and never return.
Doorstep and driveway cleaning services
Someone might turn up at your door offering to clean your front doorstep or driveway. They may claim it’s going to kill off bacteria and help prevent the spread of coronavirus, which is not backed up in any way.
Bogus offers of Covid-19 ‘home testing’
The Government and NHS are not testing for coronavirus willy-nilly at people’s front doors – so if someone turns up unexpectedly claiming to be able to test you for the illness, they are not legitimate.
Many of the scams mentioned can also take place over the phone, whether that’s somebody pretending to be from your bank, selling fake items over the phone, or calling from a supposed Government body. Here’s a few others to be aware of…
Fake utility companies
These people say they are calling about your essential bills, in the hope that you’ll fall for it if you think you might be cut off. They might impersonate your energy company, water provider or mortgage lender, for example. If you aren’t expecting a call, and you aren’t sure, hang up and find the real phone number from your actual bill. If you have another phone, it’s always best to call back from a different number – this is because some clever scammers calling landlines stay on the phone while you try to dial and trick you into thinking you’re through to the real company.
Scams targeting small businesses and the self-employed
With more people working remotely, scammers may impersonate well-known companies and offer to repair devices or IT systems. Over the phone, they’ll direct you to a malicious website which gives them access to your computer, so they can steal passwords, logins and valuable information on the hard drive.
Financial services scams
Regulator the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) is warning of several other known scams capitalising on consumers’ short-term financial concerns.
Scammers who ask you to hand over an upfront fee
This is usually between £25 and £450 when applying for a loan or credit you’ll never get. It’s known as loan fee fraud or advance fee fraud.
‘Good cause’ scams
These seek your investment for supposedly good causes, such as the production of hand sanitiser, new drugs to treat coronavirus or the manufacturing of personal protection equipment (PPE).
Using the uncertainty about stock markets, scammers may advise you to invest or transfer existing investments, including your pension. Scam or not, the FCA, the Pensions Regulator and the Money and Pensions Service are urging savers to take their time and visit the Pensions Advisory Service website for free pensions guidance before making any decisions about their retirement savings.
These are scams that copy or mimic a genuine authorised firm, so they can be especially convincing. They may claim to advertise or sell insurance – in particular, life insurance.
Fake help claiming lost money
Scammers may also contact you out of the blue claiming to be from a claims management company, insurance company or your credit card provider. They say they can help you recuperate losses by submitting a claim (eg, for the cost of a holiday or an event, such as a wedding, cancelled due to coronavirus). They will ask you to send them some money or your bank details, which they can then use to steal from you.
Bank money transfers
These come in the form of cold calls, emails, texts or WhatsApp messages stating that your bank is in trouble due to the crisis. They may push you to transfer your money to a new bank with alternative banking details.
Top tips to protect yourself from scams
The best way to prevent scammers from getting their hands on your cash is to know how to protect yourself in the first place. While not all are fail-safes, here are our top tips on how to avoid being scammed:
Question any uninvited approaches
Be extra vigilant when approached by a person or ‘company’ selling something you haven’t requested, signed up to or are expecting. You should be very suspicious of any requests for money upfront.
Don’t click links in emails/texts
Similarly, don’t call the phone numbers listed in the messages. If you’re concerned the message may be genuine, go and independently research the phone number or website of the organisation and ask them yourself.
Check the URL or email address
Look at the website address, or the full email address of the sender. Even if it all looks above board, the address will probably reveal it’s much less official than it first seems.
Look carefully for dodgy spelling and Grammar
Real banks and retailers will spend time crafting any emails they do send, and they’re likely to proof them too – so bad grammar, dodgy spelling and poor punctuation are unlikely. Including a few errors can also be a tactic scammers use to weed out any potential victims who are paying too much attention.
Avoid the rush
Are you being told to act quickly before an offer or product runs out? Or have you been told that your money isn’t safe, and you need to move it to another account? When it comes to your finances, only criminals will panic you – be extremely wary if you are rushed to make a purchase or supposedly ‘protect’ your money.
Pay on credit or debit card
If you’re ordering something online, it’s always best to use websites you (or close friends) already know and trust. Yet if you’re worried about how genuine a seller is, you have extra protections if you pay by credit or debit card. If the item is over £100 and you pay by credit card, you can use your Section 75 legal protection, which effectively means your credit card provider is jointly responsible if something goes wrong. If you paid on debit or prepaid card, or under £100 on a credit card, you can try using your chargeback protections – this is a voluntary agreement from card providers which could also help to get your money back.
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is
Finally, if a product is the cheapest you’ve ever seen, you’re offered free advice or promised fast cash, it’s probably a scam. You should always independently seek proper financial guidance or advice before making changes to your pension or investing large amounts of money.
If you’re worried you’re being scammed and need help, first contact your bank and cancel any recurring payments, then report it to Action Fraud. Contact Citizens Advice Scams Action for more help by phone or online chat.