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Online Scams and COVID-19.

16th April 2020

About scams

Scams are when criminals use lies and deceit to fool you into parting with your cash. You usually get nothing in return and lose your money.

Scamming is widespread in Northern Ireland. Scams target people of all ages, backgrounds and income levels. Older, vulnerable people are particularly susceptible as well as those who are very trusting and easily persuaded to take a risk. A third of scam victims fall for a second scam within 12 months.  Scams can cause significant financial consequences, as well as lost confidence.

Scams and COVID-19

Scams related to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic have escalated in recent weeks with criminals trying a variety of different tactics through texts, emails and phone calls to defraud members of the public by exploiting fears and anxieties as people self-isolate.

The UK’s national reporting centre for fraud and cybercrime, Action Fraud has received thousands of reports about Coronavirus (COVID-19) themed scams including cold calls and phishing emails. Criminals are preying on people isolated from their family and friends to trick them into revealing sensitive personal and financial information. One of the recent scam emails pretends to come from HM Government asking for donations to the help the NHS treat people affected by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Action Fraud has warned the public to be on their guard and that any money sent will end up in the hands of criminals, not the NHS.

Common COVID-19 scams identified include:

Telephone scams

  • As more people self-isolate at home there is an increasing risk that telephone, text and WhatsApp  scams will also rise, including criminals claiming to be your bank, mortgage lender or utility company.  One of our clients was contacted by telephone from someone claiming to be from the NIHE, offering to do their shopping.  The client contacted their Outreach worker at WAVE Trauma Centre for advice, and it was discovered that this was a scam.

Doorstep crime

  • Criminals targeting older people on their doorstep and offering to do their shopping. Thieves take the money and do not return.
  • Doorstep cleansing services that offer to clean drives and doorways to kill bacteria and help prevent the spread of the virus.
  • Suspicious callers are said to have been knocking on doors of elderly and vulnerable residents in various parts of the UK, saying that they are health officials doing door-to-door testing. Katherine Hart, CTSI Joint Lead Officer for Doorstep Crime, said: “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’. Stay safe by only speaking to people you know and trust.”

Online scams

  • Email scams that trick people into opening malicious attachments, which put people at risk of identity theft with personal information, passwords, contacts and bank details at risk. Some of these emails have lured people to click on attachments by offering information about people in the local area who are affected by coronavirus.
  • Fake online resources – such as false Coronavirus Maps – that deliver malware such as AZORult Trojan, an information stealing program which can infiltrate a variety of sensitive data. A prominent example that has deployed malware is ‘corona-virus-map[dot]com’.
  • Action Fraud have received numerous reports  of a scam email purporting to be from HM Government asking for donations to the NHS during the COVID-19 outbreak.  This is a fake email and your money will only end up in the hands of a criminal.  The NHS will never ask you to send money directly to a bank account. If you would like to donate to the NHS you can do so via their official channels or your local HealthTrust.

Refund scams

  • Companies offering fake holiday refunds for individuals who have been forced to cancel their trips. People seeking refunds should also be wary of fake websites set up to claim holiday refunds

Counterfeit goods

  • Fake sanitisers, face masks and Covid19 swabbing kits sold online and door-to-door. These products can often be dangerous and unsafe. There are reports of some potentially harmful hand sanitiser containing Glutaral (or glutaraldehyde), which was banned for human use in 2014.

Donation scams

  • There have been reports of thieves extorting money from consumers by claiming they are collecting donations for a COVID-19 ‘vaccine’.

Loan sharks

Illegal money lenders are expected to prey on people’s financial hardship, lending money before charging extortionate interest rates and fees.

Preventing scams

There are a few general tips to protect yourself from becoming a victim of a scam.

Never give out personal information in person, on phone or online unless you are 100% sure that it is bona fide. This can be used to steal your identity and access accounts.  An example is something as simple as a game which is on Facebook at the minute asking for first pet, where born, first job etc.  All common for people to use as passwords.

Avoid being added to mailing lists which scammers sometimes get hold of.

Don’t let anyone put you under pressure to ‘act quickly’ to sign anything you are unsure of.

Remember if you are not sure of something, you can always ask seek independent advice.

Reporting a scam

If you’ve been scammed or suspect that someone is attempting to scam you or someone you know, you should always report it. Don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed.

How to report a scam

If you or someone else is in immediate danger or risk of harm, phone 999 immediately.

You should report fraud, scams and related cybercrime directly to Action Fraud unless you are requesting a call for service from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

If you report a scam, it gives important information to the authorities that can be used to warn other people.

Request a call for service from the PSNI

You can request a call for service report to the PSNI by phoning 101 or 999 in an emergency

You should ask for a call for service when any of these apply:

  • a fraud is being committed or recently occurred (within 24 hours)
  • you know the suspect and they live in Northern Ireland
  • the victim is perceived to be vulnerable, through age, mental or physical impairment, or in need of care and support
  • you believe it’s important to report the incident to police so they can secure and preserve evidence or prevent loss  (such as CCTV  and recovering large amounts of money transferred from bank accounts before the criminal can remove it)
Action Fraud

Action Fraud is the UK’s national fraud and internet crime reporting unit.  They offer a central point of contact for information about fraud and financially motivated internet crime.  If you’ve been scammed, ripped off or conned, there is something you can do about it.  Report fraud to Action Fraud and receive a police crime reference number.

Action Fraud is not an emergency service – dial 999 if you are in immediate danger.

You can report a fraud online at https://www.actionfraud.police.uk/

Or Tel Action Fraud 0300 123 2040

If you receive a scam email message or a computer virus, but you haven’t lost any money you can report it for information purposes, to Action Fraud.

Consumerline

After reporting the matter to the PSNI or Action Fraud, you can also report the scam to Consumerline.

Scams which are reported to Consumerline may be passed on to the Northern Ireland Trading Standards Service who will gather the details to send on to the National Scams Team.

You can also call The Consumer Council for Northern Ireland their Consumerline on 0300 123 6260  or email your complaint/ enquiry to consumerline@economy-ni.gov.uk.

Useful websites:  https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/reporting-scam

Further information

https://www.actionfraud.police.uk/alert/coronavirus-related-fraud-reports-increase-by-400-in-march