WARNING. 19+ coronavirus scams to watch out for and how to protect yourself
The coronavirus pandemic has often brought out the very best in people and society – but upsettingly, it's also brought criminals and lowlifes out of the shadows to prey on our pockets. Action Fraud has reported that £2 million has already been lost to coronavirus-related scams since early February.
As the UK health crisis looks set to continue, and sadly may get worse, there are horrid criminals looking to exploit financial and health concerns by asking for money for fake services upfront, collecting personal information or bank details, or offering temptingly high returns on made-up investments or pension transfers.
To help you stay safe, we've top tips to protect yourself from scams (lower down this page), but first we've a rundown of some of the most vile and convincing ones to watch out for, including awful scams involving Martin, text message scams, email scams, online shopping scams, door-to-door scams, telephone scams and other financial scams to avoid.
19+ scams to watch out for right now
A quick warning before we run through all the coronavirus-related scams. We've previously warned about criminals using Martin's name and face in online adverts to draw you into 'get rich quick' schemes promising big money, fast (all fake of course).
Sadly, we're seeing a new wave of these upsetting ads, as scammers look to exploit Martin's hard-earned trust at this time, and their tactics have gotten even more insidious.
Ads appearing on genuine websites (including national online newspapers) horrifyingly suggest Martin has died. The shock factor is intended to make you click through to a sophisticated investment scam. DO NOT CLICK ON THE AD, but please help to take them down if you can, by reporting any you see.
And these aren't the only bad ads. We've seen a wave of ads leading to fake 'life insurance' providers, supposedly bearing Martin's endorsement. We've also had reports of emails claiming to be from 'Martin Lewis' which rave about a home-based Bitcoin opportunity. If you see one of these, or any other suspicious email, forward them to email@example.com.
To be clear, neither Martin nor MSE ever take part in advertising – they are all completely fake. So if you see ads like this, just remember Martin's picture on his social media...
Mobile text messaging scams tend to include a link to a fake but very convincing website designed to trick you into submitting personal information such as bank details, a password or a credit card number.
Fake texts claiming to be from 'the Government'
Banking industry body UK Finance and communications regulator Ofcom are warning of scam texts from criminals claiming to be from official Government sources, issuing you a fake 'relief' payout or a fine for leaving your home. Of course, neither of these are genuine, so ignore and delete them. Don't be tempted to click links.
UK Finance says criminals are also using a technique called 'spoofing', which can make a message appear in a chain of texts alongside previous genuine messages from that organisation.
Action Fraud has warned about the most common scams it is seeing via email, known as 'phishing' scams. Again, these are often very convincing – so be on your guard and question anything that seems too good to be true.
To make policing these scams even easier, the National Cyber Security Centre (part of GCHQ) has set up a Suspicious Email Reporting Service. All you have to do is forward dodgy emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have a hunch it might be a scam, report it and help them to act quickly.
Fake requests for payment to access Covid-19 info
These claim to be from research organisations affiliated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). They may say they can provide the recipient with a list of coronavirus-infected people in their area. In order to access this information, you'll be told to click on a link, which leads to a malicious website, and you'll be asked to make a payment or 'donation' in cash or Bitcoin.
Here's an example of these emails:
Fraudulent articles and coronavirus alert services
These include a link to a fake company website where you may be encouraged to subscribe to a daily newsletter. We've also heard of similar fake notification apps – in reality, they're what is known as 'ransomware' – that can infect your phone and block it completely until you agree to pay a specified amount of cash.
Fraudsters sending investment and trading 'advice'
These encourage you to take advantage of the coronavirus downturn by making new investments that are in fact not genuine and can result in huge financial losses – so of course they're to be avoided at all costs.
Fake 'HMRC' tax refunds or demands for tax payment
These emails direct you to a fake website that collects your personal and financial details, often displaying the HMRC or Gov.uk logo (so they can seem very legit). They've also been reported to offer council tax refunds. Similarly, we've seen recent examples of emails – not necessarily relating to coronavirus – claiming to be about unpaid bills, Netflix subscriptions or TV licenses.
Here's some examples of these emails:
Scam 'competitions' and 'free vouchers'
Another common scam – even before the pandemic – is bogus emails offering a 'free voucher' or a fake competition, which usually claim to be from well-known supermarkets and household brands. Disgracefully, they've now started to use the term 'Covid-19' to draw victims in. These scammers say they are giving you the chance to win free shopping with online vouchers, but in reality they want to steal your personal information.
Action Fraud says the majority of reports it's received are related to online shopping scams, where people have ordered protective face masks, hand sanitiser and other products, which never arrived.
Potentially unsafe products for sale online
Even if something ordered does arrive, National Trading Standards warns products can often be dangerous and unsafe. For example, there are reports of potentially harmful hand sanitiser containing glutaral (or glutaraldehyde), which was banned from human use in 2014.
The simplest thing to do is to only buy what you really need from credible retailers who have a presence in the UK.
Criminals offering to do shopping for elderly people
These scammers are sickeningly targeting some of the most vulnerable in society, claiming they'll go shopping on the victim's behalf. The thieves simply take money and never return.
Doorstep and driveway cleaning services
Someone might turn up at your door offering to clean your front doorstep or driveway. They may claim it's going to kill off bacteria and help prevent the spread of coronavirus, which of course is not backed up in any way.
Bogus offers of Covid-19 'home testing'
The Government and NHS are not testing for coronavirus willy-nilly at people's front doors – so if someone turns up unexpectedly claiming to be able to test you for the illness, they are bogus. Don't fall for it.
Many of the scams mentioned in this guide can also take place over the phone, whether that's somebody pretending to be from your bank, selling fake items over the phone, or calling from a supposed government body. But here's a few others to be aware of...
Fake utility companies
These people say they are calling about your essential bills in the hope that you'll fall for it, if you think you might be cut off. They might impersonate your energy company, water provider or mortgage lender, for example. If you aren't expecting a call, and you aren't sure, hang up and find the real phone number from your actual bill. If they are the legitimate company, they won't mind - if they seem to be pressuring you to stay on the line they are almost certainly dodgy.
If you have another phone, it's always best to call back from a different number - this is because some clever scammers calling landlines stay on the phone while you try to dial and trick you into thinking you're through to the real company.
Scams targeting small businesses and the self-employed
National Trading Standards has warned that criminals are targeting small business owners too.
With more people working remotely, they may impersonate well-known companies and offer to repair devices or IT systems. Over the phone, they'll direct you to a malicious website which gives them access to your computer so they can steal passwords, logins and valuable information on the hard drive.
They may also play on the authority of a CEO or senior manager or say they are a regular supplier, asking for urgent payment to a new account.
Regulator the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) is warning of several other known scams capitalising on consumers' short-term financial concerns.
Scammers who ask you to hand over an upfront fee
This is usually between £25 and £450 when applying for a loan or credit you'll never get. It's known as loan fee fraud or advance fee fraud. Also be wary of loan sharks – illegal lenders who often target desperate families.
'Good cause' scams
These seek your investment for supposedly good causes, such as the production of hand sanitiser, new drugs to treat coronavirus or the manufacturing of personal protection equipment (PPE).
Using the uncertainty around stock markets, scammers may advise you to invest or transfer existing investments, including your pension. Scam or not, the FCA, the Pensions Regulator and the Money and Pensions Service are urging savers to take their time and visit the Pensions Advisory Service website for free pensions guidance before making any decisions about their retirement savings.
These are scams that copy or mimic a genuine authorised firm, so they can be especially convincing (be careful). They may claim to advertise or sell insurance – in particular, life insurance.
Fake help claiming lost money
Scammers may also contact you out of the blue claiming to be from a claims management company, insurance company or your credit card provider. They say they can help you recuperate losses by submitting a claim (eg, for the cost of a holiday or an event, such as a wedding, cancelled due to coronavirus). They will ask you to send them some money or your bank details, which they can then use to steal from you.
Bank money transfers
These come in the form of cold calls, emails, texts or WhatsApp messages stating that your bank is in trouble due to the crisis. They may push you to transfer your money to a new bank with alternative banking details.
The best way to prevent scammers from getting their hands on your cash is to know how to protect yourself in the first place. While not all are fail-safes, here are our top tips on how to avoid being scammed:
1. Question any uninvited approaches
Be extra vigilant when approached by a person or 'company' selling something you haven't requested, signed up to or are expecting. You should be very suspicious of any requests for money upfront.
2. Don't click links in emails/texts
Similarly, don't call the phone numbers listed in the messages. If you're concerned the message may be genuine, go and independently research the phone number or website of the organisation and ask them yourself.
3. Check the URL or email address
Look at the website address, or the full email address of the sender. Even if it all looks above board, the address will probably reveal it's much less official than it first seems.
4. Look carefully for dodgy speelling and Grammer
Real banks and retailers will spend time crafting any emails they do send, and they're likely to proof them too – so bad grammar, dodgy spelling and poor punctuation are unlikely. Including a few errors can also be a tactic scammers use to weed out any potential victims who are paying too much attention.
5. Avoid the rush
Are you being told to act quickly before an offer or product runs out? Or have you been told that your money isn't safe and you need to move it to another account? When it comes to your finances, only criminals will panic you – be extremely wary if you are rushed to make a purchase or supposedly 'protect' your money.
6. Pay on credit or debit card
If you're ordering something online, it's always best to use websites you (or close friends) already know and trust. Yet if you're worried about how genuine a seller is, you have extra protections if you pay by credit or debit card. If the item is over £100 and you pay by credit card, you can use your Section 75 legal protection, which effectively means your credit card provider is jointly responsible if something goes wrong.
If you paid on debit or prepaid card, or under £100 on a credit card, you can try using your chargeback protections – this is a voluntary agreement from card providers which could also help to get your money back.
7. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is
Finally, if a product is the cheapest you've ever seen, you're offered free advice or promised fast cash, we're sorry to say it's probably a scam. You should always independently seek proper financial guidance or advice before making changes to your pension or investing large amounts of money.
If you're worried you're being scammed and need help, first contact your bank and cancel any recurring payments, then report it to Action Fraud. Contact Citizens Advice Scams Action for more help by phone or online chat.
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