Beware 'HMRC' phone scams – surge in calls telling victims they owe taxman £1,000s
Fraudsters are increasingly carrying out sophisticated phone scams which can involve them threatening victims with immediate arrest if they don't pay £1,000s on the spot – and bogus calls in some cases appear to come from HMRC's telephone number. If you receive an urgent demand to pay tax over the phone, beware.
HM Revenue & Customs revealed earlier this month that it received more than 60,000 reports of scam calls in the six months leading up to January 2019 – an increase of 360% compared to the previous six months.
And one particularly alarming scam sees fraudsters ring and tell the victim that they will be arrested for tax fraud, unless they instantly hand over payment details and pay a fee – sometimes in excess of £4,000.
Those who've been contacted by scammers have described the calls as "very convincing". MoneySavingExpert.com founder Martin Lewis tweeted about the issue after a distressed victim told him they'd lost £4,000:
But HMRC says it will never call you up out of the blue and tell you that you owe money, and will only ever call asking for payment on a debt that you are already aware of. See below for what to watch out for and what to do if you receive a scam call.
For full help on how to stay safe, see our 30+ Ways to Stop Scams.
How does the 'HMRC' phone scam work?
This isn't a new issue – we've long warned about this kind of scam call, and fraudsters pretending to be from HMRC use many different tactics to extort money from innocent people. But HMRC says it's seen a sharp rise in bogus calls over the past six months, and one scam that's being widely reported at the moment involves scammers ringing you and telling you that you're suspected of tax fraud and are about to be arrested.
MoneySavers have told us that the fraudster will then ask their victim to confirm details, such as their name and postcode, before telling them how much they 'owe'. If challenged, fraudsters then begin to give elaborate threats, for example claiming that they are dispatching police officers to arrest you within minutes, or that they will freeze your passport – neither of which, of course, they can do.
Victims are then pressured into giving their card details, which enable the scammers to take money from their account.
To make matters worse, calls often come from a number which appears similar to an HMRC one, and in some cases victims have said scammers have 'cloned' an HMRC number so that HMRC's actual number appears on the screen. This is known as 'number spoofing' and is something Action Fraud – the UK's national reporting centre for fraud – has previously warned about.
'They said I should expect a police raid in 30 minutes'
Jon Downs, from Staffordshire, is one of those to receive a call from the 'HMRC' scammers. He told us: "They started by asking me to confirm my name, address and I think it was my national insurance number. Not sure if I gave them these details or not, but then they said they had tried to contact me before and why had it taken me so long to return their call.
"They went on to say that they carry out audits on people's tax and that mine showed fraudulent activities. They stated that according to their audit I owed £4,783, or a similar number, and they then went on to say that I must now listen, and not interrupt, whilst they read out a legal statement. Again the tone was very official, professional and very abrupt.
"Following this they then stated that from that point my assets, passport and other such items had been frozen. They stated that they had now triggered the police response and I should expect a raid within the next 30 minutes for tax fraud, and that I would be arrested and taken into custody whilst a full investigation took place.
"I then asked what I could do to avoid this, and they said 'probably nothing', but did I 'have a proposal?' This was the first time I started to think it may be a con. They then stated I could make a payment immediately and they could look to stop all further action. However, as I was sure I had not done anything wrong, I stated I would try my chances in court first. They pushed hard again, stating I would end up with a criminal record.
"By now I was panicked, but still stood by the principle I had done nothing wrong. I said I will wait for the police to arrive and put down the phone."
After hanging up, Jon contacted the police about the issue, and they explained to him that it was likely a scam, as they knew nothing about the situation.
How to protect yourself from scam calls
HMRC has issued the following guidance to people to stop them getting caught out:
1. Recognise the signs. Genuine organisations like banks and HMRC will never contact you out of the blue to ask for your PIN, password or bank details.
2. Stay safe. Don't give out private information, reply to text messages, download attachments or click on links in emails you weren't expecting.
3. Take action. Forward suspicious emails and details of calls claiming to be from HMRC to firstname.lastname@example.org and texts to 60599, or contact Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040 if you suffer financial loss.
If you think you've received a bogus HMRC call, email or text, you can check it against the examples shown in this HMRC guide. The Gov.uk website also has more info on how to avoid and report scams and recognise genuine HMRC contact, and we've more help in our 30+ Ways to Stop Scams guide.
If you do lose money to one of these scams, it may be possible to get money back from your bank. New rules mean that when someone has been tricked into making a payment themselves, they may be able to get cash back.
What does HMRC say?
A HMRC spokesperson said: "We will only ever call you asking for payment on a debt that you are already aware of, either having received a letter about it, or after you've told us you owe some tax, for example through a self-assessment return.
"We work relentlessly to close scams down and make people aware of them. HMRC has a trusted brand which can be abused by fraudsters to trick people trying to fulfil their legal obligations. We have invested heavily in protecting taxpayers against scams and anyone who suffers financial loss as a result of one should inform Action Fraud."