Opportunistic criminals are using COVID-19 to their advantage, having successfully scammed more than one in 10 Brits out of about £556 ($697) each — collectively costing the nation £3.6bn.
In a survey of 2,000 UK consumers, credit reference agency TransUnion found nearly a quarter (23%) have been targeted by digital fraud between March and May.
When expanding that to consider other types of fraud, 12% have succumbed to an attempt. The two most common methods are via email and over the phone, at 29% each, but the research showed a surprising 12% were carried out in person.
The types of scams Brits have been most affected by include donating money for personal protective equipment, known as PPE (18%), or to companies claiming to offer a cure for the virus (16%), as well as buying goods in short supply — such as toilet roll or hand sanitiser — that never turned up (16%).
Across the nation, those aged 18 to 34 and living in major cities are most likely to fall victim, accounting for two-thirds of those believing a COVID-19 related scam and losing money as a result.
Men are almost twice as likely to be conned with a COVID-19 scam than women, accounting for 62% of victims.
“Unfortunately, it’s common for scammers to exploit our fears during times of turmoil, such as a global pandemic. People can find it particularly difficult to spot fraud in a changing environment where we’re facing new and different situations,” explained John Cannon, managing director of fraud and ID at TransUnion in the UK.
“We’re all dealing with a lot of change and it’s a particularly cruel type of fraudster who attempts to use it to their advantage. It’s essential that people take extra care at this time and remain vigilant to fraudsters and some of their common tactics, such as phishing emails, fake websites and bogus texts.
He added: “At a time when so much community spirit is evident, we must still be cautious of direct approaches from people we don’t know with an offer of help.”
Despite the extent of COVID-19 related fraud, 75% have gone unreported, the findings show.
TransUnion is urging Brits to be scam-savvy and make the most of guidance available, such as the government-backed TakeFive scheme, as well as reporting the criminals by contacting the national reporting centre, Action Fraud.
Kelli Fielding, TransUnion’s managing director of consumer interactive in the UK added: “Given the financial hardship that many are already facing, with three in five UK households negatively impacted, and many of those worrying about paying bills, people simply can’t afford to lose out to the fraudsters.
“The average amount being lost in scams is almost the same as the typical shortage for bills, so it’s easy to see the huge impact that fraud could have on a household — suddenly doubling that shortfall and making it really difficult to manage.
“People need to be super cautious about this to protect themselves.”
Trade union also offered some tips to help reduce the risk of fraud.
How to avoid becoming the victim of a fraud scheme
Avoid clicking links in emails or messages unless you’re sure you know the origin. It’s okay to ignore emails that are unsolicited.
Don’t be rushed — take time to check something out if you’re worried and use your common sense. If the claim seems too good to be true, it probably is. Don’t let your emotions cloud your judgement.
When online, make sure the webpage you are visiting is HTTPS protected or shows a green padlock — both of which can be spotted in the domain bar. This indicates that it’s secure.
Check the reliability of the source — for example, legitimate websites are likely to be typo-free, in good written English and informative.
Try to avoid connecting to public WiFi when shopping online, as it tends to be less secure than personal WiFi connections. Fraudsters can use public WiFi records to download traceable data, like location, device details and shopping habits.
When downloading apps make sure you download them through the Apple App Store or Play Store app. Downloading an app from email could be a phishing attempt.
Don’t share any personal or financial information without checking first and be suspicious if you’re asked for your password or PIN.
Report scams immediately to Action Fraud and contact your bank if you’ve lost money.
Regularly check your credit report to help understand and protect your financial standing through the pandemic. This can also help you monitor for fraudulent activity if someone tries to use your identity in a scam.