Impersonation scam reports surge as criminals exploit Covid-19 crisis

Reports of impersonation scams have surged by 84% as criminal gangs have exploited the Covid-19 crisis to commit fraud, according to a trade association.

Nearly 15,000 impersonation scam cases were reported by UK Finance members between January and June 2020, an 84% increase compared with the first half of 2019.

Among these, more than 8,220 cases involved criminals impersonating the police or a bank, a 94% year-on-year upswing.

UK Finance also said the increase in impersonation scams appears to be partly driven by criminals pretending to offer grants related to Covid-19, or offering fake refunds for cancelled flights.

They may also be taking advantage of people working from home, by pretending to be from IT departments, for example, so they can remotely access victims’ computers.

Criminals may convince victims to make payments to them by pretending to be from trusted organisations such as the police, a bank, a utility company, or a government department.

In total, £58million was lost to impersonation scams between January to June 2020, up 3% on the previous year.

Within this, £36.7m was lost to bank and police impersonation scams and £21.2m was lost to scams impersonating other trusted organisations.

Impersonation scams often start 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 text messages or emails claiming a victim must settle a fine, pay overdue tax or return a refund that was given by mistake.

Criminals will tend to research their targets first, using information gathered from other scams, social media and data breaches, in order to make their approach sound genuine.

They will also often try to rush or panic their potential victims into making a payment, for example by claiming their money is at risk or their account will be blocked unless they act.

Katy Worobec, managing director of economic crime at UK Finance, said: “Criminal gangs are ruthlessly exploiting this pandemic to commit fraud, so it’s vital we all work together to beat them.

“We are urging the public to remain vigilant against these vile scams and remember that criminals are experts 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.

“Always take a moment to stop and think if you receive a request to make a payment from someone claiming to be from an organisation you trust.

“Instead, contact the company or organisation directly using a known email or phone number, like the one on their official website.”

The Banking Protocol scheme allows bank branch staff to alert police to suspected scams. The finance industry is also working with the mobile phone industry to block scam text messages, including those exploiting the Covid-19 crisis.

And the Take Five to Stop Fraud campaign urges people to pause to think before parting with their cash or personal information.

Customers can report suspected scam texts to their mobile network provider by forwarding them to 7726, and forward any suspicious emails to report@phishing.gov.uk, the National Cyber Security Centre’s email reporting service.

Paul Davis, retail fraud director, Lloyds Bank, said: “Fraudsters are always coming up with new and even more convincing stories to trick people into handing over cash and they’re waiting to disappear the second they get their hands on it.

“It’s crucial for people to remember that their bank or other organisations will never contact them and ask them to transfer money, even if it looks like the right number calling. If they are asked to do this, it’s definitely a scam.

“The best thing to do to stop scams from happening in the first place is hang up immediately and contact your bank using the number on the back of the card, ideally on a different device for example a family, friend or neighbour’s phone.

“This is because fraudsters may pretend to hang up and then keep the phone line open.”

Here are some warning signs of an impersonation scam, according to UK Finance

  1. 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
  2. You are asked to act immediately, sometimes with the claim that your money is at risk or your account will be blocked if you do not
  3. The caller asks you to transfer money to another account for “safe-keeping”
  4. The sender’s email address is different from that of the genuine sender

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