Covid fraud: £2.5bn stolen as gangs exploit pandemic

Coronavirus: Lynne Owens warns public over online scams

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Gangs have used the lockdowns to prey on the vulnerable, using the virus as cover. Hundreds of thousands have fallen for scams in which criminals claim to be officials offering rapid Covid testing, vaccinations and general help. Others have masqueraded as workers from firms such as Royal Mail, DHL, Hermes and UPS in text scams. During the first 12 months of the pandemic, there were 470,000 instances of fraud, equal to almost 1,300 a day. But the true figure is likely to be significantly higher as many may not report the crimes out of fear of embarrassment.

John Herriman, chief executive of the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, said: “This staggering number is only those cases reported by the public, while no doubt many more instances go unreported.

“Sometimes people will be reluctant to admit they have been a victim because ­somehow they may feel embarrassed, like they should have known better. But there is no shame in talking about it. I myself had my credit card cloned by fraudsters so I am no stranger to being
targeted by scams.

“In the past few months I received a phoney text supposedly from Lloyds Bank and I have received a bogus automated phone call claiming to be from HMRC.” Tens of millions of people have reported ­receiving unsolicited daily text messages from highly reputable companies.

They look and read genuine and often require the receiver to click on a link which demands personal details.

Even the Chartered Trading Standards Institute has been used by fraudsters in a postal scam that mimics the organisation and informs victims they have been exposed to a company under investigation.

The phoney letter, clad in official branding, informs the recipient that insurance scammers have been caught and they should fill in a “creditors debt form” as part of a bogus compensation scheme.

Filling out the form puts the finances of the respondent at risk.

Experts said the brazen nature of fraudsters cashing in on Covid means “everyone needs to be on their guard”.

It comes as an investigation by consumer experts Which? found doorstep scammers are back in business as lockdown restrictions ease.

Their analysis of Action Fraud data revealed an estimated £18.7million was lost to doorstep crime last year alone as fraudsters offer building, gardening or home improvement services and then overcharge or never complete the work.

Con artists also often pose as sales people or charity workers as a means of getting cash.

The number of reports to police for doorstep fraud in April last year was 46 percent lower than the same month in 2019 as sellers were banned during the lockdown.

But by summer last year reports of doorstep scams had returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Which? highlighted the case of William Grayson, 81, who lives alone in Weston-super-Mare, a 40-minute drive from his closest relatives.

He was visited by two volunteers from a “Covid support group” who offered to do shopping and errands for him while he was shielding. He gave the young pair £200 in cash over two visits for food and home essentials but never got his goods.

He said: “Realising these people were out to get me made a dark time even darker for me to be honest.”

Victims have been targeted by people claiming to be from local NHS services offering fast-track testing and vaccines.

NHS services continue to stress all these services are free, and nobody will ever turn up at someone’s home without warning.

Comment by John Herriman 

While most people have tried to help each other at a time of need, there are also a heartless few who have sunk to new depths to profit from the vulnerable.

Since the first lockdown there have been over 470,000 instances of fraud says Action Fraud.

This can happen to anyone. So much surrounds our mobiles and we often work and live at a frenetic pace, but we must recognise not every message or call is urgent.

We should take time to assess and check whether they are genuine or not, especially when not expected.

Fraudsters have shown they will pivot their campaigns to reflect consumer behaviour. The unprecedented rise in online shopping and delivery due to the lockdowns has seen scammers use the branding of major delivery companies such as Royal Mail, DPD and others.

Meanwhile, another scam targets home workers, while fraudsters have not spared supermarket shoppers and the increasing numbers making online payments.

Trading Standards has received reports of people pretending to be Covid marshals to access homes. Another scam mimics the NHS vaccination drive to steal personal information.

It sickens me that there are people capable of doing such deliberately malicious
acts that often impact the most vulnerable.

Consumer protection experts are working around the clock to protect the public from these shameless opportunists.

The public should forward any scam texts to 7726, a free reporting service run by Ofcom. To report scams in general, contact Action Fraud, or if in Scotland, contact Police Scotland.

Together we can work to make our country safer from the threat of scammers.

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