2nd July 2020

COVID-19: Moment of crisis

The COVID-19 crisis has brought the scammers out in force as they seek to exploit the situation. But trading standards has been fighting back.


By Helen Nugent
Freelance writer for JTS
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At this moment in time it seems to be that all the different scams are happening at once
Whenever anything new or emerging happens, there is very quickly a response from highly mobile professional criminals who will move in
People are using the coronavirus to instil fear and panic to make people make decisions that they potentially wouldn’t have made
When you get scammed you get into what’s called a hot state. During the coronavirus we’re all potentially in that hot state all of the time

In these days of lockdown, social distancing and self-isolation, stories of acts of kindness are common. As the world faces a new reality, individuals and their wider communities have come together to help the most vulnerable in society as well as the keyworkers putting their lives on the line on a daily basis. It’s a silver lining in an otherwise grey sky.

But good, compassionate people aren’t the only ones out in force. True to form, fraudsters and unscrupulous tradespeople have adapted quickly to the coronavirus pandemic with a rash of new scams designed around the virus to prey on people’s fears and part them from their money.
“It’s old scams reinvented,” says Katherine Hart, CTSI Lead Officer for Doorstep Crime. “It’s scaremongering and trying to exploit the current crisis, and very much targeted at people who are socially isolating. Normally with these scams you find them spaced out over the year but at this moment in time it seems to be that all the different scams are happening at once.”

The avalanche of scams began in early March, starting with dubious offers of hand sanitisers followed by face masks. More recently there have been examples of fake tax rebates, false TV Licensing renewals and Netflix-branded emails as well as texts purporting to levy fines for supposedly breaking lockdown rules.

It’s especially worrying that, according to Trend Micro, a cybersecurity and defence company, the UK is the most heavily targeted nation for coronavirus-related email deceptions.
Hart says: “There are two different types of scams. There are the physical doorstep ones with the knock on the door to sell the testing kits, do testing or the disinfecting of drives. But you have a lot of the ones that are more secretive, the ones that are texted, emailed or called. Those ones are more difficult to control.”

Hardly a day seems to go by without a new COVID-related scam infecting our inboxes. Towards the end of April, the National Crime Agency (NCA) reported that it had taken down more than 2,000 scams including online shops selling fraudulent coronavirus-related items, malware distribution hubs, and phishing sites pretending to share tips on avoiding the disease as well as searching for personal information such as passwords and card details.

The NCA has also removed advance-fee frauds where big sums of money are promised in exchange for a set-up payment. Meanwhile, GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre is asking members of the public to report suspicious emails via a new reporting service.

Opportunity knocks

Criminals exploit national and international crises. The fact they are using COVID-19 as a hook to commit fraud comes as little surprise – and the scale and sophistication of their activities will only increase. Tim Day, CTSI Lead Officer for Doorstep Crime, says: “Whenever anything new or emerging happens, there is very quickly a response from highly mobile professional criminals who will move in. For COVID-19, the way that’s manifested is your old-school cold-calling. So we’ve seen instances of this around the country.

“Quite apart from any broad offences and any crime prevention messages, this is of course currently a very big public health issue because they’re going door to door at a time when we’re being asked to keep to social distancing. There are so many angles that they can try to exploit now, it’s not just the health issue, it’s also the economic impact of the restrictions which effectively gives such a wide platform to the psychological techniques that can be employed.”

As for the internet, Day says that “the fraudsters are getting more and more sophisticated and using what we call ‘legitimate guise’ techniques, so things like websites look very professional on the face of it but there’s nothing behind them… it is quite easy to be taken in if you don’t know what you’re looking for or just have a cursory glance.”

Fraudsters are no respecters of health emergencies, particularly if they sense vulnerability. Elderly people are particularly at risk from the doorstep criminals who are literally in touching distance of their victims. As Day says, this is a recycling of the “whole playing on visceral fear to try and get people to make an immediate decision”.

A builder who claims they can lay driveways with an antibacterial layer which protects the household from COVID-19 may seem ridiculous with the benefit of hindsight but these despicable individuals can be extremely convincing.

Locked down

Whereas trading standards would usually be on the ground to deal with doorstep crime, the lockdown means that in many cases this isn’t possible. But there is still work to be done, as Hart explains.  “For us, it’s very much intelligence gathering, trying to work with partners who are out and about such as the police, but also trying to collate as much information for when this is all over as we can only go with the evidence that we’ve got.

“The advice is as it always is – do not engage with a trader at your door. If you need work done, get your three quotes. But at this present moment in time we’re saying that, if it’s not urgent, don’t do it. Only have somebody round if it’s an emergency.”

While doorstep scammers tend to be transient and therefore difficult to find after the fact, telephone, text and online fraudsters present an entirely different – and sometimes intractable – problem. Louise Baxter, Head of the National Trading Standards (NTS) Scams Team, says: “When you get scammed you get into what’s called a hot state. People will phone you and they’ll try to make you panic or make a decision quickly and put that adverse pressure on you. During the coronavirus we’re all potentially in that hot state all of the time, because of our heightened levels of anxiety, fear, worry and uncertainty. So to get someone into that hot state or to push them down that road is far easier.”

Put simply, fraudsters are clever marketers. “Quite often the scammers will be charming and befriend and groom people because it’s worth their while to invest a bit of time and effort because they’re going to get a lot of money out of people,” says Baxter. “It’s people using the coronavirus to instil fear and panic to make people make decisions that they potentially wouldn’t have made historically because of the situation that we’re in.”

However, Baxter believes that there are reasons for hope. “From a positive perspective, you are seeing more people taking an interest in scams because they’re prevalent and they’re in people’s homes. And actually social isolation and loneliness are more at the forefront so people are more aware. It’s driving up awareness of scams and people’s desire to want to protect those people.”

United against scams

In the meantime, the NTS Scams Team is working hard to combat the criminals. At present there are two major campaigns running: Friends Against Scams and Business Against Scams. The strapline for the former is ‘Wash your hands of coronavirus scams!’ and focuses on protecting and preventing people from becoming victims of scams.

As well as warning consumers to be wary of various bogus initiatives including people offering or selling virus testing kits (they are only offered by the NHS), it urges members of the public not to assume that everyone is genuine. In addition, it urges against trusting people who claim to be healthcare workers or those offering miracle cures or vaccines.

Business Against Scams targets companies and their employees with information on how to spot and stop fraudulent activity. Trading standards is concerned that in a time of remote working, businesses are more susceptible to scams as employees are working from home and therefore less likely to talk to people as they would in an office environment. Things to look out for include messages from a senior executive asking for private business information or a payment, requests to make urgent money transfers, new remote access demands, and calls claiming to offer tech support for a home IT network.