London, United Kingdom – While the coronavirus crisis has brought many Britons together, as people help neighbours with their shopping and applaud out of their windows in support of carers, the confusion and panic around the pandemic has also provided an opportunity for the unscrupulous.
A whole array of scams have emerged, taking advantage of the fear of the disease, the government’s social distancing rules, and the new state of disconnection in which people find themselves.
“Every day seems to have a new scam,” said Katherine Hart, lead officer of doorstep crime at the Chartered Trading Standards Institute. Most, she said, are old tricks with a new spin. Scammers are selling fake face masks and hand sanitiser online and door-to-door, as well as offering fake coronavirus testing.
Texts, claiming to be from the government, have demanded fines for leaving the house too often in a day.
“We would like to inform you that you have been recorded as leaving your home on 3 occasions yesterday,” reads one such text. “A fine of £35 has been added to your gov.uk account. It then provides a seemingly official gov.uk link – where the target’s card details are stolen.
Most scams are online. Coronavirus-related phishing scams have been reported at four times the rate of other coronavirus scams, according to Action Fraud, the police’s fraud and cybercrime reporting centre. Many are emails with fake links that either harvest the user’s data or download malware.
There has been an increase in attacks targeting businesses too, said Louise Baxter, head of the National Trading Standards’ scams team. Emails pretending to relate to the government’s new grant scheme for businesses have stolen money or downloaded ransomware.
Even staff from the National Health Service (NHS) have been targeted with emails claiming to sell a wide variety of antiviral compounds. “Bigger the quantity, better the price,” one claims.
As of Tuesday, reported losses – stolen from ordinary people and businesses in coronavirus scams – had reached 2,015,634 pounds sterling ($2.54m), according to Action Fraud.
In the two and a half months since the first COVID-19 case was reported in the United Kingdom, there have been more than 93,000 cases and the number of dead has passed 12,000 – and those official statistics are now thought to have undercounted by thousands. The government’s initial reticence to impose movement and business restrictions, and subsequent changes in position, have left many confused and uncertain over how to approach personal safety and what they are allowed to do.
“People just want to figure out what’s fact or not,” said Baxter. While many are trying to get a handle on the confusing and often contradicting information on how to keep safe, scammers take advantage of people feeling anxious and overwhelmed by information at this time.”
Baxter draws a parallel with panic buying. “You think, oh I’ll just do it,” she said. Some doorstep scams offer a service to disinfect driveways, for example, and in a time of crisis, people are less likely to be sceptical. Instead of looking into whether the service is effective or necessary, they are more likely to simply agree.
This too goes for scams that look seemingly unrelated to coronavirus. Emails and texts about tax returns or messages from services the target uses regularly, all take advantage of the confusion and distraction of coronavirus.
People become bored, so they click on more things. Take five minutes before you click on anything.
“We could not authorize your payment for the next billing, we’ve cancelled your membership,” reads one email, looking convincingly like it is from Netflix, now a vital source of entertainment for many stuck at home. “Obviously we’d love to have you back,” it continues, before providing a link that takes your credit card details.
The isolation many are feeling, confined to their homes, means they are impatient or unwilling to verify the legitimacy of such messages. “People become bored,” said Hart. “So they click on more things. Take five minutes before you click on anything.”
Equally, those that are feeling deprived of social interactions are more likely to trust people over the phone or on their doorstep. More than half of people over the age of 65 think they have been targeted by scammers, according to an Age UK survey. People of this demographic are increasingly living alone, according to the Office for National Statistics, and a scam caller trying to sell something may be the only social interaction they have, said Baxter.
The vast majority of scams go unreported. Baxter said that the number of reports could account for as little as five percent of the true number. “People feel embarrassed,” she said. They are self-conscious about falling for a trick.”
“There’s a stereotype that only the vulnerable fall for it,” said Hart. “[Victims] don’t want to waste people’s time and resources.” If someone falls for a scam about streaming TV, it can feel minor in the context of a global pandemic. Yet it is this sense of self-consciousness that the scammers play into – and investigative teams are finding it increasingly challenging to follow up on reports since the current government restrictions mean that they can no longer visit people in person.
Hart said the UK was seeing a higher rate of scams than other countries. “I think it has to do with our trusting nature,” she said. “We like to be polite.”
But coronavirus scams are emerging around the world. Fake vaccinations have been seen in the United States, overpriced protective gear has been sold in Italy, and emails appearing to be from World Health Organization email accounts have been requesting donations.
“It’s a situation we’ve never been in before,” said Baxter. “While it’s bringing out the best in people, it’s also bringing out the worst in people. Everybody has their part to play.”