By LESLEY GREGORY
You could never accuse scammers of letting a crisis go to waste. If there’s a gap to exploit while people are anxious or distracted, they’ll find it. And COVID is no exception. Coronavirus scams have become a huge menace.
Consumer protection agencies are warning people to watch out for schemes ranging from dodgy hand sanitiser deals to sophisticated financial fraud.
Scam activity often appears after the initial shock of a major event, the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority says. “With that in mind, we are urging consumers to be vigilant for scams that could appear over the coming months.”
Scammers are sophisticated, opportunistic and will try to get personal details or money from victims in many ways, it says.
Scammers are currently impersonating official organisations such as the World Health Organisation, along with government departments and legitimate businesses like travel agents. Fraudsters have made phoney pleas for bitcoin donations to the WHO.
I’ve been targeted too
Personally, I’ve already had three SMS messages from scammers pretending to be government agencies offering help and advice. All I had to do was click on a (dangerous) link. One impersonated my telecommunications provider, asking me to confirm personal details. In an email, I was “invited to view” a PDF of information via a suspicious Dropbox link.
The attempts at “phishing” for my personal information were pretty convincing in delivery and wording, but any request to provide personal data raises a red flag. I know that government agencies and other institutions like banks wouldn’t ask for that sort of information in this insecure way.
The Dropbox attempt was even more of a fail. A glance upwards at the “From” address — a good practice — revealed the sending address to be “firstname.lastname@example.org”. Propbox? Really? And according to the message, Lesley Gregory was inviting me to view this file. I think I would have remembered sharing something with myself.
Look out for these tactics
- Scammers could try to exploit short-term financial concerns, saying they’ll help arrange a loan or credit for an upfront fee. They keep the fee, you’ll never see the loan.
- Others might offer to make a claim for you on something like a cancelled holiday or wedding — in return for your bank details.
- “Good cause” scams seek financial backing for a fake cause, such as distributing sanitiser.
- Cold calls, emails, texts or WhatsApp messages might claim your bank is in trouble due to the coronavirus crisis and urge you to transfer your money to another account (in reality, theirs).
- Clone firms claim to represent an authorised financial service provider, like a life insurance company, to gain credibility, then offer their (non-existent) services.
- Check the sender address on emails
- Don’t open emails from senders you don’t know
- Don’t click on links until you are sure they are genuine
- Go to a website directly through your browser, having researched it, not via an emailed link
- Contact a business directly, having verified their contact details independently, to check whether an approach is genuine
- Search the web for reviews or comments on a business or “opportunity”
- Search the web for current scam alerts
- Reject offers that come out of the blue
- Never proceed if the other party presses for a quick decision
- Be wary of unusual payment methods, such as money orders, gift cards or cryptocurrency
- Be wary of adverts online and on social media
- Never respond with personal details (bank, address, policy or investment details)
In short: be sceptical, and be a detective. Help others by reporting scams to consumer protection agencies, social media platforms or your IT department at work. Tell your family and friends to watch out.
The FCA has information on the latest scams at www.fca.org.uk/scamsmart.
LESLEY GREGORY is an experienced personal finance and consumer journalist. If you’re interested in more of her personal finance tips, here are some more of her most recent articles: