In the world of e-commerce crime and online scams, it seems that nothing is off limits. While millions of people have died and millions more have had their lives ruined, fraudsters have viewed the global pandemic as an opportunity to deceive and to profit.
As our way of life has changed fundamentally – and perhaps irrevocably – the criminals have adapted to take advantage of people while they’re at their most vulnerable. The methods are myriad, from fake texts purporting to be from delivery companies and PayPal forgeries, to supermarket scams and counterfeit COVID testing kits. There have also been National Insurance number deceptions and banking scams sent via text messages.
Consider recent statistics from Citizens Advice. Since March 2020, its online scams page has recorded more than 800,000 views – an increase of 158% on the year before. Meanwhile, during the early stages of lockdown, its one-to-one online and phone advice services were averaging around 3,000 scam cases each month. Since September 2020, this has rocketed to 10,000 per month.
Tracking consumer behaviour
Jon Walters, Consumer Service Delivery Manager at Citizens Advice, says: “These scams cover all manner of things, from fake investments and sham health products to dating fraud and bogus dog breeders. We’ve also seen scams directly relating to the pandemic – non-existent PPE, fake lockdown fines and scam vaccines. It’s clear that opportunists are taking advantage of the public’s current concerns regarding their health, wellbeing and finances.”
As Citizens Advice found, as habits have altered over the past year, so the scammers have responded to that shift. Trading standards officers have also witnessed this trend, as Katherine Hart, CTSI Lead Officer for doorstep crime, explains.
“We are all ordering more and more things online and we are likely to share a bit more of our personal details than we ever would before. And this is how the scammers are operating. They are aware of the changes in consumer behaviour.”
She adds: “As far as fake platform scams are concerned, I think it’s because people are homeworking that you don’t have the same networks as you had. So you might be in the office, something came through, and you’d be speaking to somebody about it. You’d be chatting and I think you’d be more aware of the potential of a scam. Whereas now we’re all in our little bubbles, or have been in our little bubbles, with lockdown loneliness, boredom and everything else. We then fall into the more susceptible group and we’re all at risk.”
As has long been the case, it’s almost impossible to keep up with the ever-evolving nature of e-commerce criminal activity. In the last few months alone, trading standards has received all manner of evidence relating to dubious practices, including texts mimicking PayPal messages informing the recipient that someone has logged onto their account. The recipient is then asked to tap a link to a bogus website with the ultimate aim of gaining access to their legitimate PayPal account.
Then there are the phoney Asda and Morrisons delivery texts where scammers claim that ‘your Asda order is out for delivery’ with a link supposedly allowing the recipient to track the van driver’s progress. In truth, the fraudsters are
after an individual’s personal details. Similar scams include those impersonating genuine delivery companies and the Royal Mail.
There’s even been a postal scam using fraudulent CTSI information. In this instance, the letters were clad in CTSI branding and informed the recipient that insurance scammers had been caught, meaning that the individual should fill out a ‘creditors debt form’ as part of a so-called compensation scheme. Needless to say, completing the form put the finances of the respondent at risk.
It’s easy to fall victim to these targeted scams in a world where many people are expecting deliveries of groceries and other goods. As Hart says: “It’s exploiting our weaknesses and exploiting this problem that we’re all facing.”
As travel restrictions begin to ease, various enforcers, including trading standards and Action Fraud, are urging the public to remain vigilant about holiday fraud. The lifting of lockdown also means that fraudsters are poised to target the public with ticketing and health insurance scams. Trading Standards Scotland (TSS) has recently issued a warning on holiday scams following a large number of consumer issues with bookings reported in 2020, including false accommodation listings on social media and made-up reviews on travel websites. Last year, holidaymakers were left in tears after paying hundreds of pounds in cash for caravan breaks advertised on social media which turned out to be fake.
But that’s not the only area of concern for the future. “The new scams at the moment are very much the delivery scams,” says Hart. “We’ve still got HMRC scams and we’ve still got vaccination scams, whether that’s buying testing kits or buying vaccination-type certificates, it’s always around the themes of what the Government is putting out. I suspect the next thing will be about vaccination passports.
“The scammers exploit the current crisis and the fact that we don’t actually know an awful lot about it.”
David MacKenzie, CTSI Joint Lead Officer for E-commerce, agrees that when our behaviour changes, so does the action taken by scammers. He believes that the pandemic has accelerated a change in our buying and selling habits. “It’s almost like a tipping point acceleration where what would have probably taken three to five years has happened in one year. Everybody is buying more online.”
He continues: “Mostly, it increases people’s opportunity for choice, and it’s allowed people to sell things that they probably wouldn’t have been able to sell in the past. But the bad elements come with it and it’s our job to try and identify them and to try and tackle them.”
The rise in popularity of online marketplaces during COVID – the likes of eBay and peer-to-peer platforms – and the embracing of the collaborative economy (initiatives such as Airbnb and Uber) has led to a rise in issues for enforcers. Walters at Citizens Advice says that the service dealt with nearly 20,000 cases relating to online marketplaces over the past year, compared to 12,000 the year before.
There’s no doubt that trading standards and Citizens Advice are carrying out their duties under particularly difficult circumstances, as is the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) which says it is taking action to ensure that people are not misled on digital platforms.
A CMA spokesperson says: “It is vital that consumers are protected online, as well as offline. To help boost consumer trust and transparency, we’ve launched investigations to tackle the posting and trading of fake and misleading online reviews on many digital platforms, and we’ve also clamped down on influencers posting undisclosed social media endorsements.
“We will continue to use the full range of our powers to promote effective competition in digital markets and deliver for the benefit of consumers, businesses and the economy.”
Better than a cure
MacKenzie says that a big part of enforcement activity is related to prevention – that means the public taking steps to protect themselves.
“I would always cite three things: prevention, disruption and enforcement. And that’s absolutely the case with this. In fact, probably prevention is the most important one.
“These people – the scammers – are based overseas or we don’t know who they are. And there’s so many of them and there’s so few of us now. The enforcement end of things is still there, we still do it, but it’s mostly about prevention. So it has to be about getting the message out to consumers and small businesses.”
MacKenzie believes that there is a crucial misconception when it comes to the criminals and what they are doing.
“The vast majority of e-crime, like the vast majority of all crime, is low-tech. It’s about bombarding people with texts and emails, and trying to get the recipients to let their guard down and click on the links they contain. They send these electronic messages to millions of people in the hope that they’ll get a few thousand bites to take it to the next stage so they can get people’s details.
“Therefore, fairly simple and straightforward good practices are actually quite effective. We’re not talking about super-duper Russian and Chinese cyberhackers, we’re talking about some poor soul somewhere in the world uploading data as instructed by their criminal bosses in a repetitive, quite predictable and reasonably easy to spot manner.”
However, it’s important not to overload consumers with e-crime and scam warnings. Yes, there are new fraudulent activities every day but bombarding people with preventative steps could do more harm than good.
“We have to be really selective and careful with what we proactively put out,” says MacKenzie. “Getting that balance right between people being tired of it and keeping the message out there is key.”
Nevertheless, there are crucial things that buyers and sellers need to know, he says. While services and goods offered by the collaborative economy can provide useful opportunities for people, it’s hard when things go wrong.
“There’s a cliff face when someone goes from being a private seller to being a business seller, and the legal position changes enormously. There are all kinds of safety obligations and the buyer has all sorts of consumer rights. And the problem is that there isn’t a clear definition of what a consumer seller is and what a business seller is. This has been a challenge for us since I started in the job 30 years ago.
“If it’s a private seller and the goods are faulty, there’s no protection, there’s no breach of contract there. Whereas if it’s a business there’s a whole list of things that it has to comply with.”
At the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS), officials say that keeping people safe is the Government’s top priority, and it is the seller’s responsibility to meet product safety law before putting any product on sale.
Graham Russell, OPSS Chief Executive, says: “OPSS support the work of trading standards teams dealing with unsafe products including through support to testing budgets. And, with trading standards, we are actively identifying products that pose a serious risk but are available online and we ensure online platforms remove unsafe products from sale.
“As use of online platforms has risen, with the proportion of online sales rising by 47% in the first six months of the pandemic, we work with Primary Authorities to engage with the platforms and reinforce the primacy of public safety.
“As an example, OPSS carried out an investigation into pool immersion heaters, particularly those sold through online platforms, because of the risks from burning or electrocution. The dangers were heightened last summer as the pandemic meant many families stayed at home.”
He continues: “The Call for Evidence issued by OPSS in March will consider the growth of online shopping and the important implications this raises for product safety and standards. It will explore how the UK responds quickly to emerging threats and opportunities for product safety, including digital technologies and new ways of supplying products.”
At the coalface
In the meantime, how hard is it for trading standards to root out the wrongdoers?
“From an enforcement point of view, it’s very difficult because a lot of the time people won’t pass these details on, and particularly people who are victims of scams,” says Hart. “They are too embarrassed. I can understand that. So what we try and encourage people to do is the anonymous reporting, and report it to Action Fraud or at the Government sites that have been set up for these things. And you can report nuisance calls to Ofcom.”
As for prosecutions, Hart says that it’s “incredibly difficult”.
“This is why, as enforcement agencies, we have to work together and it’s very much about the prevention side of things. We’ve also got to look at the enablers, the people who are facilitating it to a certain extent, whether that’s the telephone providers or the internet providers. There’s a lot of work that we need to get ourselves involved with to try and stop these enablers facilitating the scammers.”
Of course, the pandemic hasn’t made things any easier for trading standards when it comes to enforcement. As MacKenzie says: “To a large extent, it’s demonstrated that a lot can be done from remote working. But it’s not perfect. We’ve not found a way to replicate the in-person collaboration. However clever we are at doing things remotely, and we are doing things like taking statements from witnesses on Zoom and Teams, there is definitely a loss there. We cannot do everything like this.”
In MacKenzie’s local area of the Highlands, trading standards is dealing with what they call hoax location scams. Put simply, these are e-crimes that use fictitious Highland addresses that may damage the region’s reputation as a place to visit or do business. With a relatively small population spread across a large geographical area, scammers take advantage of these characteristics by trying to hide their true location or by misleadingly associating themselves with reputable Highland commerce.
“It’s a total scam, a total fraud. They choose an address in a remote part of the country, so we get this a lot in the Highlands.”
MacKenzie believes that trading standards needs specific content take-down powers. “It might be a whole website, it might be an account on a website, or it might just be a product advert. At the moment, we’ll find a problem and we’ll try and get an intermediary to take some sort of action to disrupt it [such as the host of the website or a social media platform].
“Getting intermediaries to have a positive influence on this is really important as there are far too many people selling things for us to reach them all. Our resources are so small compared to this enormous internet, e-commerce world and if we can work with other enforcers, then we really need to be doing that.