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Coronavirus fraud is on the rise. Practice caution to protect yourself and your pocketbook

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Criminals are profiting from the chaos of coronavirus lockdown. According to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, £800,000 has been lost to coronavirus related scams since February. As shoppers shift from in-store purchasing to online, we are spending more leisure time on the internet and at home, making us more susceptible to tricks and scams. Confusion and easy access are prime conditions for cybercriminals and fraudsters who operate both online and offline.

To protect yourself, practice caution. Double check sources, pay attention to your gut feeling, spend the extra time to verify, and never give financial details over the phone, social media, email or SMS. Below are some examples of fraud we’ve heard of recently, along with examples and pointers to help you spot and deal with it.

Online and Website Fraud

For the foreseeable future, we’re all meant to be staying inside for as much as 23 hours of the day (except for essential workers). That means our habits have moved largely online, and scammers know this. Online fraud usually results in either unintentionally sending money to fraudulent places, having your card details or bank account information stolen, or accidentally exposing yourself to malware, allowing criminals to take control of your device, record keystrokes and access personal and financial data.

Watch out for this:

  • Online marketplaces selling goods like face masks and hand sanitisers that don’t exist
  • Fake calls for charitable donations to help with Covid-19 relief efforts
  • Online and social media advertisements with too-good-to-be-true claims or offers – in other words, clickbait

Tips to protect yourself:

  • Check around the internet for reviews or other traces of authenticity before purchasing from companies you have never heard of before. When in doubt, don’t buy from that source. Try to find the same product from a company you know is reputable
  • Be wary of websites, emails and online advertisement offering unbelievably good deals.  Go with your gut and do not share or reply with your personal or financial details
  • Avoid online payment via bank transfers. Use cards wherever possible – they give you higher safety measures against fraudulent payments – or use third-party payment services like PayPal

Phishing Emails

A phishing scam is an email from a fraudulent source asking you to click a link or open an attachment. New email scams contain the words ‘coronavirus’ and ‘covid-19’, pretending to be from the government, World Health Organisation, and other serious places telling people they are entitled to benefit money or a tax refund or claiming to provide a list of people infected with coronavirus in your area.

Watch out for this:

  • Any and all unsolicited emails
  • Emails asking you to click on a link or download an attachment to get to the real information
  • Spelling mistakes, unknown sender, strange email layout, odd phrasing and word choice, and emails with no body just links are all clues that you’ve been sent a fake email

Tips to protect yourself:

  • If you see an email with a suspicious subject line, don’t open it. Report it as spam
  • Be suspicious of all emails sent by an unknown or unrecognised sender, especially if you weren’t expecting them or didn’t request to be contacted by email
  • Do not click on any suspicious links or attachments and never respond with personal or financial details

Bank Scams

Criminals are using the coronavirus context to contact bank customers offering fake assistance and information on coronavirus. It is not industry practice for financial organisations like banks and HMRC to ask for personal, password, bank or account information over the phone or by email. If you are contacted by someone asking for this information, do not provide it.

Watch out for this:

  • Calls, emails or SMS asking for sensitive information like passwords or account details
  • Unauthorised charges or transfers from your bank account

Tips to protect yourself:

  • Put the phone down if you receive a call you find suspicious
  • If you see unusual activity in your bank account, contact your bank immediately to block your card and stop further charges
  • Stay on top of your accounts. Check them regularly to ensure that the only ingoing and outgoing payments are ones you have authorised
  • Report potential bank scams to HMRC immediately
  • Familiarise yourself with the latest scam attempts so you can more easily spot a fake email, phone call, SMS or website

HMRC Covid-19 Scams

Taxpayers have been targeted by a variety of HMRC coronavirus scams telling them – among other things – that they can claim a refund to help protect themselves from coronavirus or that they owe a £250 fine for leaving the house more than once. Both of these claims are fake and should be reported immediately.

What to watch out for:

  • Emails or SMS containing links that redirect to a fake HMRC logo-bearing website
  • Emails or calls from someone claiming to be from HMRC saying that you are owed a tax refund and asking you to click on a link or to give information such as your name, credit card or bank details
  • Messages encouraging you to share personal and financial details

Tips to protect yourself:

  • Do not respond to any communication you feel isn’t genuine or is asking for sensitive information. Instead, contact HMRC via published and official channels
  • Do not click on any links in any related message. This is not how HMRC would advise you of a potential tax refund
  • Report scams to the HMRC right away

Investment and Pension Fraud

With the downturn in money markets, it is natural to worry about pensions and savings. However, criminals are taking advantage of this investment anxiety to carry out largely the same types of banking scams used to gain access to card details and bank accounts.

What to watch out for:

  • Like with bank fraud, watch out for emails, calls and SMS from people claiming to have information about your pension or investment accounts and needing your personal details to help you
  • Be very wary of all electronic communication asking you to click a link, open an attachment, or visit a website in order to gain information or help with your pension

Tips to protect yourself:

  • Do not respond or reply. Instead, contact your pension provider yourself and verify the authenticity of the communication
  • Check with the FCA register for further information authenticating the person and/or firm who contacted you
  • Contact your pension provider yourself to check the validity of any suspicious message received