For the unscrupulous, having a country such as Britain on lockdown presents a not-to-be-missed opportunity to con some money out of an unsuspecting public.
And new figures from Action Fraud show just how quickly crooks pounced during the early stages of the outbreak.
From February 1 – when Covid-19 was still something we only saw on television happening in China – to March 18, Action Fraud received 105 reports from victims of coronavirus-related frauds, with losses totalling almost £970,000.
Since then the number of attempted frauds is believed to have soared, with millions of people stuck at home viewed as easy prey for those desperate to make a quick buck, even if it does mean breaking the law.
The majority of the reports relate to online shopping scams, where people have ordered items such as face masks and hand sanitiser that never arrive.
Action Fraud has also received hundreds of reports over coronavirus-themed phishing emails, which attempt to trick recipients into opening malicious attachments or revealing sensitive personal and financial information.
A spokeswoman for Action Fraud in the West Midlands said: “We have seen a number of different scams circulating relating to Covid-19. Criminals are also using government branding to try to trick people, including using HMRC branding to make spurious offers of financial support through unsolicited emails, phone calls and text messages. This situation is likely to continue, with criminals looking to take advantage of further consequences of the pandemic, such as exploiting people’s financial concerns to ask for upfront fees on bogus loans, offering high-return investment scams, or targeting pensions.”
A number of other types of fraud have been reported, such as ticket fraud, where people are offered tickets for sports events or concerts that have been cancelled due to Covid-19. The tickets never arrive.
There have also been instances of frauds involving online dating and fake charities. Meanwhile one particular scam has been described by consumer rights magazine Which? as “a new low” in fraud, having asked parents of children eligible for free school meals for their bank details, so that their child could still receive meals during school closures.
It prompted Which? to warn that the coronavirus crisis had “unfortunately created the perfect breeding ground for scams”.
Research by internet security company Sophos found that the volume of coronavirus email scams nearly tripled over the past week, with almost three per cent of all global spam now estimated to be Covid-19 related.
Attackers are increasingly playing on people’s fears by impersonating the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations, the firm said.
Chester Wisniewski, the principal research scientist at Sophos, said: “Cybercriminals are wasting no time in shifting their dirty, tried-and-true attack campaigns towards advantageous lures that prey on mounting virus fears.
“Criminals often dip a toe in the water when there is a new or sensational topic in the news.”
He said one of the spam campaigns that Sophos had tracked featured an email which appeared to come from the WHO, with the words “health advice” in the attachment.
But on closer inspection it became evident that the email matched a previous spam campaign from a known criminal, he added.
Action Fraud today raised particular concerns over so-called ‘mandate fraud’, where people are contacted and encouraged to change financial details by someone purporting to be from an organisation they hold an account with.
This is often a bank or building society, but can also be a magazine subscription, a group you are a member of or a business supplier.
There is also an expectation that fraudsters may capitalise on slow networks and IT problems caused by so many people being stuck at home, to commit computer software service fraud.
Be wary of cold calls or unsolicited emails offering help with devices or to fix a problem, Action Fraud says.
The advice for responding to requests for personal details such as bank account information, by email or over the phone, is clear – ignore them.
Anyone with concerns can visit action fraud.police.uk/ to report a misleading website, email or phone number.