Merseyside Police is urging the public to be aware of criminals exploiting COVID-19 to target their victims after figures released this week from UK Finance – the collective voice for the banking and finance industry, revealed a sharp rise in impersonation scams in the first half of this year.
Impersonation scams occur when the victim is persuaded to make a payment to a criminal claiming to be from a trusted organisation. This could include the police, a bank, a utility company, or a government department.
There were almost 15,000 impersonation scam cases reported nationwide by UK Finance members between January and June this year, an increase of 84 per cent compared to the same period last year. Losses during this time amounted to £58 million, an increase of three per cent on last year.
Detective Chief Inspector Andrew Milligan of the Cyber Crime Unit said: “Criminal gangs are ruthlessly exploiting this pandemic to commit fraud, but the public can help us put these criminals on the back foot. We urge you to be vigilant and take a moment to stop and think if you receive a request over the phone or e-mail to make a payment from someone claiming to be from a trusted organisation. If you are in any doubt, contact the company or organisation directly using an email or phone number from their official website.
“Remember that criminals can be skilful at impersonating people, organisations and the police. Fraudsters will spend hours researching their victims, but they only need you to let your guard down for a minute.”
Scams involving an offender impersonating a bank or the police often begin with a phone call or text message claiming there has been fraud on the victim’s account. The customer is then convinced that to protect their money they must transfer it to a ‘safe account’ which actually belongs to the fraudster.
Other common scams involve fraudsters sending emails or text messages pretending to be from government departments and offering grants related to COVID-19, or claiming a victim must settle a fine, pay overdue tax or return a refund that was given by mistake.
Detective Chief Inspector Terry Davies of the Economic Crime Team explained: “Two scams that are prevalent in Merseyside involve criminals calling an intended victim and impersonating either the HMRC or Amazon.
“Fraudsters will attempt to have money transferred to them either by pretending to put the victim’s call through to the courts to pay an outstanding HMRC tax bill or in the case of the Amazon scam, they’ll ask the victim to purchase a high-value gift card and dupe them into reading the gift card number over the phone.
“Whilst these two scams do not use a pretence relating to COVID-19, since the onset of the pandemic, we are seeing criminals adapting the scams to exploit the crisis.”
Examples of pandemic-related scams include people claiming to be from an airline or travel agency, offering refunds for flights or holidays that have been cancelled due to the pandemic. Additionally, fraudsters are also exploiting the growing numbers of people working remotely, by posing as IT departments or software providers, and claiming that payments are needed to fix problems with people’s internet connection or broadband, or asking for remote access to the victim’s computer.
Detective Chief Inspector Terry Davies said: “Whether the victim loses £100 or their life savings, the impact on people’s lives can be devastating. Worse still, these unscrupulous people often target the elderly using tactics that are persistent and intimidating, inducing such fear that it can take a long time for the victim to trust again.
“Our Financial Abuse Safeguarding Officers work in conjunction with trading standards, local councils, charities and many other partner agencies to provide vital support for vulnerable victims of fraud.
“The officers also go out into the communities to talk to people and inform them about the different frauds that are being carried out, how to spot them and deal with them. They give informal talks and presentations to groups such as the dementia group.
“We would always urge the public to follow the straight-forward advice of the Take Five to Stop Fraud campaign, which helps people spot scams and avoid being a victim of fraud. If you have elderly friends or relatives, please talk to them about it.”
These three simple steps can protect you if you do receive a call or e-mail asking for money or your bank details:
- Stop: Taking a moment to stop and think before parting with your money or information could keep you safe.
- Challenge: Could it be fake? It’s ok to reject, refuse or ignore any requests. Only criminals will try to rush or panic you.
- Protect: Contact your bank immediately if you think you’ve fallen for a scam and report it to Action Fraud.
Suspected scam texts can be reported to mobile network providers by forwarding the message to 7726, and any suspicious emails can be forwarded to email@example.com, the National Cyber Security Centre’s (NCSC) suspicious email reporting service.
Top signs that you are being targeted by an impersonation scam include:
• You receive a call, text, email or social media message out of the blue with an urgent request to make a payment or for your personal or financial information.
• You’re asked to act immediately, sometimes with the claim that ‘your money is at risk’ or ‘your account will be blocked’ if you don’t.
• The caller asks you to transfer money to another account for ‘safe-keeping’
• The sender’s email address is different from that of the genuine sender