Scammers are continually finding more inventive ways of obtaining our personal information and are more convincing than ever, when reassuring us that they are contacting us from trusted, reputable sources. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, consumeradvice.scot has seen the number of reports of scams increase, demonstrating not only the more complex methods employed by scammers, but also the increasing vigilance of consumers in spotting and reporting scams.
These reports have ranged from issues with deliveries and difficulties in contacting suppliers for purchases made online, to cold calls from telephone numbers claiming to be official government departments, such as the Department of Work and Pensions and HMRC.
Scammers have been using this time of crisis to prey on the insecurities and essential needs of consumers, many of whom are already in precarious financial positions due to reductions in income or job losses.
Reductions in Household Income
The Office of National Statistics (ONS) estimated that by April of this year, National Income had fallen by 20%. These figures are likely to be on the conservative side, with the current situation bleaker due to the negative impacts on employment and finances that lockdown, business closures and subsequent restrictions imposed on reopening establishments have had.
Graham Hunter is a manager of a high street restaurant, which is part of a large retail chain and had to make almost all his workforce redundant at the start of lockdown.
“It was heart-breaking, having to let go of so many people, with young families, mortgages and bills to pay. The decision from our head office to close the venue was difficult for everyone, especially having worked so closely with all the staff for so long. It inevitably meant money worries for people already on a low income. There was a married couple working in the restaurant and the realisation that they would have an immediate stop to all of their income left them understandably distraught.”
With so many people being hit so hard, opportunistic individuals have taken this opportunity to contact citizens and advise of non-existent tax rebates that are due, bogus offers of financial assistance, and to highlight issues in collecting payment from credit and debit cards for various services as a means of obtaining information.
Contacts received by consumeradvice.scot have highlighted attempts to target people with offers of financial assistance in the form of government grants and hardship payments for those already struggling.
In these situations, scammers often request personal information, including bank details. Some of these details may not seem to be overly revealing on the surface, but these scammers can work with others to gain additional information over time, which can be used to access other personal accounts and information, and defraud already struggling families of their dwindling finances.
This extraction of information over time from various sources is known as ‘Spear Phishing’, and can result in other accounts being accessed, using the small pieces of personal data that have been gathered to perpetuate other fraudulent activities.
Email Scams – Existing Subscriptions
‘Spear fishing’ campaigns can also have the appearance of familiar brands. Most of us will have received an email at some point from a supposed reputable source, such as Netflix or Amazon, advising that our payment has failed, and directing you (via a link) to a site that looks legitimate. Very often, these sites are convincing clones, with the intention of obtaining your username and password when you enter them.
On the surface, you may question what information your online streaming accounts could possibly offer to a would-be scammer. By obtaining your username and password, scammers can access your accounts and gather additional information that could be used as a way of accessing other details and legitimise themselves to their targets in future fraudulent activities.
In addition to these common scams, consumers contacting consumeradvice.scot have seen similar scam emails from TV Licensing, the DVLA, and internet and utility service providers.
Scammers also continue to utilise more traditional methods of contacting consumers, including over the telephone and by cold calling at their homes.
Consumers contacting consumeradvice.scot continue to report cold calls from numbers claiming to be from reputable sources.
Ms Mundy contacted consumeradvice.scot after receiving a call from a scammer claiming to be from Amazon. The scammer seemed legitimate and requested information from Ms Munday to rectify a problem with her account.
“I got a call claiming to be from the Amazon fraud department, advising that my account had been hacked. They said that an iPhone had been ordered using my account. He asked for my mobile account details to get the money back. I was on the phone for four-and-a-half hours. The money went to a place in Africa. I have details on my phone showing a receipt from World Remit and TransferWise. They are still calling me back. I have contacted my bank and the Police. The bank advised that they cannot help.”
Ms Mundy lost over £2,000 because of the scam. She contacted her bank who refused to refund this, as it appeared that she had authorised the transactions. The bank then escalated this to a second-tier fraud team for further investigation, who advised that if unsuccessful after this stage of investigation, Ms Mundy would be required to escalate this to the Financial Services Ombudsman.
Ms Mundy has received multiple calls since the scam took place from similar callers, to the point she had to install a call screen / blocker.
Ms Mundy highlighted that the caller was convincing, and the transaction seemed legitimate at the time.
“He was so convincing, to the point that I stayed on the phone for so long talking to him. I only realised that something was wrong when I told him at the end of the call that I would call Amazon to check on the progress of the situation and he told me not to do this. It was at this point I contacted the bank and discovered money had been transferred out of my account.”
Scammers can endear themselves, to the point that we place our trust in what they are saying. This trust can be built over the telephone, but saying no to these people when they are on our doorstep can be even more difficult.
Scammers can also target consumers face-to-face, in their own homes. In the most recent Scam Share Bulletin, from Trading Standards Scotland (available HERE), various doorstep scams have been highlighted throughout lockdown. These include scammers posing as staff from energy suppliers, and traders claiming to offer repairs or maintenance work on property, with the work not being completed, or overcharging consumers.
These scammers often charge exorbitant prices to the most vulnerable members of our communities, with amounts being paid and the work not being completed to the required standard (or at all). Very often in these circumstances, it is only after the scammer has got away with the funds that the issues are highlighted.
consumeradvice.scot work with partner organisations such as Trading Standards Scotland and local authority Trading Standards teams to report and track these scammers and bring them to justice. It is with the help of Scottish Citizens, and the intelligence that they supply, that we can do this.
Test and Protect Scams
Ms Bennet contacted consumeradvice.scot to report a call that her son received, claiming to be from the Test and Protect Service. This was from an anonymous caller.
“My son received the call on Monday, from someone claiming to be from the Test and Protect Service. They advised that his mother had purchased a test online, and that she had sent off a sample of his hair for testing, and the results were positive for COVID-19. He hung up on the caller and called me straight away.”
Ms Bennet highlighted that the caller requested personal information from her son, including the address and postcode.
She highlighted her concerns that others may have been panicked by the delivery of news that they had contracted a potentially life-threatening virus, when in fact this information was false. The fact that the caller described a process of testing that does not exist also rang warning bells.
More information on Test and Protect scams can be found in our article HERE.
Preying on the fear and uncertainty of people in the current climate is how scammers can gather information with the intention of defrauding people of their already limited resources. By staying aware of the types of scams that are being carried out, consumers can arm themselves in preparation for the multitude of situations that may arise.
consumeradvice.scot have put together our top tips for ensuring that we keep the scammers out of our accounts, off of our telephone lines and doorsteps, and away from our finances.
- Avoid confirming details with cold contacts – Calls and emails from reputable sources should never request financial information or personal details. You should avoid giving this information unless you are sure it is to the right people.
- If unsure, call them back – A genuine caller will not mind you requesting to call them back on the official number for the company or organisation that they claim to be calling from. You can find contact information on any official documentation you have received from them previously.
- Avoid clicking on links in emails – If you receive an email claiming to be from a legitimate source, go to the official website by entering the address into your web browser. Links received in scam emails can often direct you to ‘cloned’ sites.
- Report cases to consumeradvice.scot – By reporting issues as they happen, and by providing information on the source of the potential scam, you can help us to stop other, more vulnerable people falling foul of the scammers. We can pass this information on to the relevant parties to investigate.
- Remember that scammers can fool anyone – It is not your fault if something goes wrong. Scammers can be convincing. By being vigilant and checking the source of requests and contact, you can reduce the risk of being scammed. Report any instances to consumeradvice.scot and help others in the process.
If you believe that you have been targeted by a scam, or have information for Trading Standards on any potential scams, you can contact consumeradvice.scot on 0808 164 6000. We are open 9am-5pm, Monday-Friday. You can follow us on social media – Twitter: @advicedotscot and Facebook at www.facebook.com/advice.scot, Instagram: @advice.scot, or get ahead by visiting our knowledge centre at www.consumeradvice.scot