Don’t let the Grinch steal your Christmas

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Fraudsters preying on people’s financial and health fears have been responsible for a sharp increase in scams during the Covid-19 crisis.

Someone close to me has recently fallen foul of a sophisticated banking scam. I am being vague to spare their blushes, but in fact it is easy to see how the scammers put pressure on this person, forcing them into action when ordinarily they might have been more circumspect.

Over £11m is estimated to have been lost to coronavirus-related scams, and this number continues to rise. These scams come in various guises, with the financial regulators warning people to be on their guard, as these criminals are becoming more technically sophisticated.

A range of techniques

One familiar trick is to send out fake emails or SMS messages over mobile phones, purporting to be from a trusted body, such as HMRC, a local council, TV licensing authorities or even the NHS. These messages may claim you are due a rebate or refund. In some cases people have been told they qualify for “Covid relief funds”.

Of course, no refunds or rebates are available. In most cases these messages contain links to cleverly faked websites, designed to harvest personal and financial information. They are a variant on many existing phishing email scams, where you may receive a fraudulent email purporting to be from a high street bank, utility provider or even a tech company, like Amazon, Apple or Netflix.

In the case of the person I know they were even more brazen and suggested their security had already been compromised. This then led to the need to follow a link to reset passwords and security data. Obviously, all that happens here is that you give this information directly to the scammers, which in this case were then used to empty the victims bank account.

Covid-19 scams

Fraudsters are also preying on people’s current health concerns, with an increased number of phishing emails claiming the recipient has been in contact with someone diagnosed with Covid-19.

Again, these often contain links to websites where personal data can be stolen. In other cases, people have been asked to pay for Covid tests or other health products, such as face masks and hand sanitisers. These products never materialise, and the fraudster pockets the payment.

Spotting scams

Growing sophistication means spotting these scams isn’t always easy, but spelling and grammar mistakes, plus unfamiliar links are telltale signs. If you are in any doubt, ignore or block the message, contact the named organisation directly and never disclose personal information such as bank details, PINs or passwords to any unsolicited contact. HMRC and banks will never ask you to share personal information in this way.

Check your credit records

Much fraud is aimed at making false applications for loans and credit cards, with evidence that some of these cloned identities have been used to apply for government Covid support loans.

However vigilant you are, personal data can be compromised in a number of ways, so it’s worth monitoring your credit record. This should give you early warning of attempts to apply for credit in your name. You can obtain a copy of your file for free by contacting one of the three major credit references in the UK: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion (previously Callcredit).

This will give a snapshot of your current financial situation, including details of all the companies you have credit arrangements with. These agencies all offer paid-for services giving unlimited online access to your account, plus an alert system giving instant notification of any changes.

If in any doubt, caution is the best option.

Let’s be vigilant to stop these scammers in their tracks!

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