Since early March, the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) has witnessed an avalanche of scams drop on UK consumers. These scams cover the full gamut of delivery methods, from doorstep to the telephone, to social media, text and email, and all themed around the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
This unprecedented health emergency has led to a never before seen surge in scam activity. CTSI and its partners in the consumer protection landscape are sharing intelligence about these scams, some of which are new, and others, variations on old tricks.
Coronavirus scams have hit the UK particularly hard. According to research by Trend Micro, a multinational cybersecurity and defence company, the UK is the most heavily targeted nation for COVID-19 Coronavirus-related email spam. 20.8% of global malicious Coronavirus spam is sent to UK-based email addresses, the research revealed. France came second at 11.5%, while the United States came in third with 8.2% of all spam emails received.
CTSI initially received reports of doorstep criminals pretending to be healthcare professionals offering bogus coronavirus testing services. The ruse is a means to gain access to elderly peoples’ homes during a time of heightened vulnerability. These are among the most dangerous types of activity as these put the criminals within touching distance of potential victims. There are other types of doorstep scams related to this, including builders who claim that they can lay driveways with an antibacterial layer which protects the household from COVID-19.
On the text, email and telephone front, CTSI received evidence of fraudulent messages claiming to be from HMRC. The message offers a fake tax rebate supposedly from the government as a helping hand during the pandemic. It includes a link to a page where it instructs the recipient to input their credit card details.
This month, HMRC advised the public that all of these messages and phone calls are fake, with the government department advising the public that it will, “never text, email or phone to ask for bank details, PIN or passwords.” Connected to this, UK Finance announced that a special police unit had made multiple arrests connected to the HMRC payment scam in London, Leicestershire and Dorset. Police seized several mobile phones and over 20 SIM cards used to send out texts that included links to bogus HMRC sites offering financial support and refunds to assist recipients during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Scammers are sending phoney fines to people via texts for supposedly breaking lockdown rules. The message, which claims to be from the government, informs the recipient that their phone location settings report that they had left the house on too many occasions. The text instructs the recipient to tap a link where they may pay the fake fine.
There are also fraudulent texts and emails cloaked in corporate branding. One claims to be offering money off shopping vouchers to aid during lockdown from big-name supermarkets. At the same time, another is a fake Netflix-branded email which asks the recipient to update their payment details. Every single one of these scams has the same goal – getting the target to go to a web address and put in their credit card information.
On social media, several “COVID-19 quizzes” have popped up, supposedly asking users to test their coronavirus knowledge. The quizzes claim to test public awareness about the coronavirus pandemic; however, most of the questions are unrelated to it.
Many of the questions are about personal data, such as maiden names, family information, pets and contact details, including email addresses and telephone numbers. The quizzes bear all the hallmarks of a data harvesting operation, which could lead to financial fraud and identity theft.
CTSI Lead Officer, Katherine Hart, said: ‘I am continually astounded at the scale of new scam activity in the UK since the pandemic hit. Never have I seen such a gigantic surge in activity targeting UK consumers.
‘CTSI and our partners in the UK consumer protection landscape have been working hard to educate and warn the public about these emerging threats, and we are confident that it is making a difference.
‘We have seen so much heroism and good nature displayed during these testing times; however, we are reminded that there are always those ready to pounce upon others’ misery.
‘The public must remain extra vigilant at this unprecedented time, and remain extremely cautious. If we all take five minutes to think and remember that anything which sounds too good to be true, probably is, then we can minimise the impact of this criminal activity on the public.’