Fraudsters pretending to be from HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) are expanding their unscrupulous activities after years of sending out fake emails to now calling unsuspecting consumers – and some are duping victims into paying them in gift cards and vouchers. But there are ways you can fight back against these phoneys.
MoneySavingExpert.com has been made aware of an increase in the number of phone calls made by con men who have stepped away from focusing purely on fake HMRC texts and emails to cheat more people out of cash.
According to Action Fraud, the national fraud and cyber-crime reporting centre, people have been asked to pay bogus debts and taxes using online music store iTunes' gift cards. Scammers ask for the cards' serial numbers to be read to them over the phone, details they then sell on or use to redeem the cards' value.
One victim purchased over 15 iTunes gift card vouchers from high street retailer Argos at £100 each and handed the serial numbers over to fraudsters on the phone after receiving an automated voice message. Another victim handed over gift card voucher codes worth £15,000 after receiving a cold call.
One current phone scam that we've heard about reportedly involves an automated message that starts: "This is Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs. We have been trying to reach you to let you know we are filing a law suit against you."
The message is then said to provide a list of options, such as: "To speak to your case officer, press one".
Action Fraud says hundreds of these types of calls have been made in recent weeks, so it's important to be on your guard and ensure you take steps to stop scammers in their tracks.
Check out our Stop cold callers guide for more on how to stop nuisance calls and mail.
What do these scams involve?
We've been notified of a surge in scammers calling victims in recent weeks. However, it's likely the nature of these cons will change over time.
Last month, Action Fraud began warning people of a new trend to hit the UK where fraudsters contact people claiming to be from HMRC and trick them into paying bogus debts and taxes using iTunes gift cards.
In the hundreds of cases reported to Action Fraud to date, the fraudsters ask for payment in the voucher codes as these can be easily redeemed and sold on. The scammers don't need the actual card to redeem the value and instead get victims to read out the serial code over the phone.
These fraudsters contact victims in three ways:
- Voicemails: Fraudsters are leaving victims automated voicemails saying they owe HMRC unpaid taxes. When victims call back on the number provided, they're told there is a warrant out in their name and if they don't pay, police will arrest them.
- Spoof calls: Scammers are cold-calling victims and convincing them they owe unpaid tax.
- Text messages: Con artists are sending text messages asking victims to urgently call back. When victims do so, they're told there is a case against them for outstanding debt and they must pay immediately.
What should I do if I think I've been called by a fraudster?
If you've received a call from someone claiming to be from HMRC encouraging you to provide bank account or personal details for alleged tax debts, in exchange for 'tax advice' or a refund, you should first attempt to verify the caller's ID.
If you're unable to do that, the best course of action is to hang up. If you believe you've been contacted by a fraudster, you may want to get in touch with HMRC via its official website, while also reporting the incident to Action Fraud.
What if I've received a suspect text or email?
While dodgy phone calls are becoming more commonplace, there remain a number of ways in which scammers pretending to be from HMRC might try to contact you:
By text – It's important to note that HMRC would never notify you about matters such as a tax rebate or a repayment offer via text message. And it wouldn't ask you to hand over personal or financial details in a text.
If you're worried you might have given out confidential info in response to a text you thought was from HMRC, report it the tax authority.
By email – As with text messages, HMRC never uses email as a method of communication to inform you of tax rebates and other business, and would never ask you to provide personal info via email.
For more on how to tell the difference between a genuine HMRC and a phishing (fake) email, visit this Gov.uk webpage.
In the meantime, you should forward any suspicious emails to HMRC.
When do these scammers strike?
Although you could be targeted at any time, scammers tend to use peaks in online activity to carry out increasingly sophisticated frauds to appear genuine.
These peaks include the self-assessment period in January and the tax credit renewals period in July.
Between April 2015 and March 2016, HMRC did the following:
- Blocked eight million malicious emails destined for taxpayers
- Responded to more than 254,000 phishing emails
- Took down nearly 14,000 fraudulent websites
What does HMRC say?
A spokesperson says: "HMRC takes taxpayers' data-security extremely seriously. We are aware that some people have received telephone calls from people claiming to be from HMRC, requesting payment for alleged tax debts, or received text messages and emails promising a tax refund.
"HMRC will never notify you of a tax rebate, offer you repayment, or ask you to disclose personal or financial details by email or by text, and we recommend that if you cannot verify the identity of a caller that you do not speak to them.
"We continue our work with law enforcement agencies around the world to bring down the criminals behind these scams. Last year HMRC closed more than 14,000 fake websites and continues to protect customers by constantly searching for these types of activity."