New data gathered by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) show how scammers are exploiting the cost-of-living crisis to take advantage of vulnerable people struggling to make ends meet.
The National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) at City of London Police has noted a spike in scams relating to energy and council tax rebates, as well as bogus messages offering ‘cost of living payments’ that mimic genuine government support packages.
They include the promise of energy and council tax rebates or encouraging people to apply for a “cost of living payment”, mimicking genuine government support packages.
Detective Chief Inspector Hayley King, City of London Police, said: “It is shameful that in a time of financial hardship, criminals are targeting members of the public by claiming they are entitled to receiving rebates and refunds.”
In the two weeks to 5 August 2022, more than 1,500 reports of email scams relating to energy rebates were made to the Suspicious Emails Reporting Service (SERS), operated by the National Cyber Security Centre.
The emails fraudulently use the Ofgem logo and have the subject header ‘Claim your bill rebate now’.
According to fraud prevention service Cifas, there is a “real concern due to the rise in living costs, criminals will look to target loan products and deferred credit services.”
Other scams to emerge so far include bogus communications claiming to be from utility providers offering deals on energy bills, or competitions to win fuel vouchers.
The figures also show how scammers have changed their tactics in response to long-term shifts in consumer behaviour caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the rise in online shopping has been accompanied by a nine-fold increase in ‘advance-fee fraud’ – in which victims are asked to make up-front payments for goods ordered online which then do not arrive.
There has been a 57% increase in general consumer and retail fraud since before the pandemic began.
Rates of fraud are up across the board according to the ONS, with a 25% rise on pre-pandemic levels in the year to March 2022. Of those 4.5 million offences, almost two-thirds (61%) were flagged as cyber-related.
Of those who replied to or clicked on a link in a phishing message, more than a third (35%) said they did so for financial or material gain, and 30% to pay an invoice or bill, according to the Telephone-operated Crime Survey of England and Wales (TCSEW).
“Phishing scams continue to pose a significant threat for both individuals and businesses,” said City of London Police Detective Chief Superintendent Oliver Shaw. “I would urge everyone to be vigilant of unexpected messages or calls that ask for your personal or financial information.”
Shift in tactics
As well as email-based phishing messages, SMS text message-based – or ‘smishing’ – scams are also on the rise, as are scams using platforms such as Whatsapp.
The NFIB has seen a spate of Whatsapp scams in which fraudsters have posed as a friend or family member of the recipient – typically their children. Between 3 February and 21 June 2022, 1,235 reports were linked to this scam, with total reported losses exceeding £1.5m.
Such messages typically open with “Hello Mum” or “Hello Dad”, and say the sender is texting from a new mobile number as their phone has been lost or damaged. They then ask for money to purchase a new one or claim that they need money urgently to pay a bill.
Other scams include fake messages from well-known companies offering reward cards or vouchers in exchange for personal information.
Almost a third (32%) of respondents to the TCSEW reported receiving a phishing message via text or instant messaging in the month before being asked. More than half (54%) of those who received phishing messages said the sender had been posing as a delivery company, as fraudsters take advantage of the rise of online shopping and homeworking.
Sandra Peaston, Director of Research and Development at Cifas, said: “Fraudsters are using increasingly sophisticated methods to trick people into parting with their personal and financial information. Checking to make sure the person or organisation is genuine, contacting them via their official website, and using the Check-a-website tool to make sure the site is safe, are all ways to thwart a phishing attempt.”
While the popular perception of scam victims may be that older people are more susceptible, the latest data indicates that those aged between 25 and 34 years or 35 and 44 years were more likely to receive a phishing message (58% and 60% respectively) than other age groups, according to the TCSEW.
Those aged 35 to 44 years are also the most likely to reply to a phishing message or click on a link (4.8%). The rate of response to phishing scams among all age groups stands at 3%, which equates to more than 700,000 people across England and Wales.
Of those who replied or clicked on a link, 11% provided information that could be used by fraudsters, equating to around 80,000 people.
Phishing is less common among older adults, with just over one in four (27.9%) of those aged 75 years and over receiving phishing messages in the previous month.
Those who are most often targeted by phishing attacks also have the most disposable income to lose, are homeowners, or have children to support.
In the financial year 2020 to 21, those aged 35 to 44 years had an average annual disposable income of £42,952. This is 23.3% higher than the youngest age group (18 to 24 years, £34,843) and 50.6% higher than the oldest (85 years and over, £28,516).
The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has published practical advice on how to spot phishing attempts and report suspicious messages.