Scammers are using the desperation and confusion caused by the coronavirus pandemic to steal hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Nervous and vulnerable individuals are prime targets for those who would unscrupulously steal money. Many have become susceptible in these uncertain times.
The National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, which coordinates the police response to fraud, said that since the beginning of February it had received reports of 104 cases where fraudsters had taken advantage of the outbreak, with losses totalling almost £1m.
It warned the public to be vigilant, particularly online. That warning was followed by further alerts from police chiefs and the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), the City watchdog.
Meanwhile, the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) warned about door-to-door salesmen selling fake testing kits and apps which will infest phones.
Here are some of the most common scams.
This type of fraud is common already, but scammers have adapted their tactics amid the outbreak.
The Telegraph has seen one example of an email purporting to be from the Government, saying a tax refund has been made available in partnership with the NHS to help deal with the outbreak. This is not true and is an attempt to harvest personal information which can then be used to access money.
According to Action Fraud, the scams reporting centre, one known tactic is emails that claim to come from official organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) which offer fake health advice or claim to be able to provide a list of infected people in your area.
Anyone who clicks on the link is taken to a malicious website or asked to make a payment in Bitcoin.
Speaking last week, Detective Superintendent Estelle Mathieson, of Greater Manchester Police, said: “There is currently a lot of publicity surrounding coronavirus and it has come to our attention that fraudsters are using what is a time of uncertainty for many and exploiting innocent people out of their hard-earned money.
“It is likely that nationally, scams of this type will rise as the virus situation continues.”
Fake goods and services
Another scam that is on the rise is companies advertising goods or services which turn out not to be real after the money has been handed over.
Action Fraud said roughly half of its coronavirus cases related to fake face masks, while Tony Neate of anti-fraud group Get Safe Online said he had even seen cases of fake coronavirus cures and treatments.
In one incident reported to police, a member of the public spent £15,000 on face masks which never arrived.
The City of London Police said members of the public should research online sellers if they do not already know and trust them, perhaps by asking a friend or family member for advice. Most shoppers who use a credit card should be protected by existing law.
Other examples have been scammers offering cheap flights to capitalise on the confusion around travel arrangements.
The CTSI said households should refuse to open the door to anyone claiming to be a health professional and selling at-home testing kits which will tell you if you have coronavirus.
The institute said such scams had been reported in various parts of the country.
Katherine Hart, of the CTSI, said: “There are unfortunately people who are willing to take advantage of those who are most vulnerable even at this unprecedented time when we should all be pulling together.
“Those who have been advised to avoid social contact as part of the measures to help stop the spread of the virus are particularly at risk of being taken in by these cold callers. Our message is not to open the door to anyone you don’t know or anyone calling ‘out of the blue’.”
Mobile phone apps
The CTSI also warned about apps downloaded from unofficial websites which seek to steal your money or information in a number of ways.
The apps promise updates and advice on the pandemic, but instead install a type of malicious programme called “ransomware” onto your phone. This particular programme is called “CovidLock” and will cause your phone to freeze and block you from using it until a fee is paid to the scammers.
The CTSI said: “Phone users are advised to only download apps directly from the Apple Store, or Android Play Store as these are safety checked by the platforms.”
Other old favourites
Other examples of fraud which have been reported include a new twist on the romance scam, whereby a fraudsters trick someone into believing they are in a relationship with someone they met online.
In reality, the person is an invention of the scammer. Usually they will ask for payments to fund their lifestyle or travel to meet the person. In the coronavirus iteration, the money is needed to fund a test or hospital treatment.
Another is where fraudsters selling fake items have claimed they cannot deliver them because of the outbreak, in a bid to buy themselves time.
More information about avoiding becoming a victim of a scam is available on Action Fraud’s website.