The latest National Trading Standards (NTS) Consumer Harm Report has highlighted the COVID-19 emergency as an opportunity for criminals to target the public – and warns that the problem is likely to get worse as the crisis continues.
Across a range of COVID-related issues, including testing kits, government support packages and even access to future treatments, fraudsters are exploiting the situation and adapting their methods as the crisis develops.
Lord Toby Harris, Chair of National Trading Standards, said: “During the pandemic we have seen criminals trade fake PPE and hand sanitisers, and prey on vulnerable people at home. As the coronavirus pandemic develops, so too will the type of fraud, and our intelligence shows that criminals are evolving their behaviour again to rip off consumers.
“There is naturally significant interest in the development of a COVID-19 health product and I urge consumers to be mindful that con artists and tricksters will try to exploit the situation for their own criminal ends.
“The trading standards community will work with the resources available to tackle the fake treatment websites and scams as they emerge, and I call on consumers to be extra vigilant – not only for yourselves but for friends, families, neighbours and others in our communities.”
In addition to the problems that arose during the early days of the pandemic, such as the fraudulent sale of substandard PPE, hand sanitiser and testing kits, the report suggests that emerging threats to consumers and businesses are likely to include a rise in online fraud and counterfeit goods as people avoid the high street and embrace internet shopping; more scams geared around government support initiatives; and a spate of websites and social media accounts offering ‘miracle cures’ and making false claims about the virus.
Other areas of concern include virtual home viewings that misrepresent properties for sale or to let, and fake refund websites which offer refunds for cancelled holidays or other events which have been disrupted because of the crisis.
The report says that while criminals exploiting the vulnerable is not new, the problem is likely to get worse as more people experience loneliness and isolation while social distancing.
CTSI Chief Executive, Leon Livermore, said: “I am appalled and shocked to see the lengths criminals went to to defraud the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. UK consumer protection has however risen to the challenge, and I applaud the excellent work of National Trading Standards over the past year.
“Statistics, showing that £173m worth of dangerous goods were removed from supply chains, highlight the vital role that consumer protection plays. I am proud that consumer protection authorities, and in particular National Trading Standards, have risen to the occasion during a period of unprecedented crisis.
“Although the vast majority of British businesses have behaved admirably, sadly a few have attempted to use the situation to their advantage and engage in price gouging.
“CTSI is pleased to support and amplify the excellent work undertaken by NTS and encourage the public to join their excellent Friends Against Scams scheme.”
Small Business Minister Paul Scully commented: “Scams and profiteering schemes are despicable at any time, but particularly so if they seek to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic. Scammers are master opportunists, and it is shocking to see the new ways in which they are targeting vulnerable people.”
To read the NTS Consumer Harm Report 2020, click here.