This week, I received a phishing email from someone claiming to have been affected by COVID-19. It contained an emotive story and the sender wanted me to help them by clicking on a link. It also mentioned them needing to transfer funds to me, which would probably later involve a request that I disclose my bank details to them.
The sender didn’t know my name, the email address was based in the US (though the sender claimed to be in China) and it was sent to a number of recipients at the same time.
Recognising the email as spam – I binned it. Yet, many people are falling victim to new COVID-19 related frauds and scams. Action Fraud have recently reported a 400% increase in reports made to them during March 2020, involving losses to victims of almost £1 million.
Fraud which uses current world events to try to take advantage of people is not uncommon. However, given the concern which COVID-19 is already causing to the most vulnerable in society, it is worrying that scammers are now using COVID-19 to target them.
When people are concerned about protecting their health or are anxious to receive the latest information about COVID-19, they may, understandably be tempted to be less cautious about responding to emails, unsolicited telephone calls, adverts or contact from third parties.
Attorneys, relatives, carers and deputies should therefore be aware of the new types of scams that seem to be emerging.
For example, there have been reports of vulnerable people being scammed as they self-isolate and shop online. Items which may previously have cost very little are now being sold online for grossly inflated prices e.g. hand sanitiser or face masks. It has also been reported that some people have not received ordered goods, without reason.
Action Fraud have also reported people receiving scam emails which wrongly claim to be from HMRC offering tax rebates.
In an emergency situation, information can become a commodity and there are also scams which claim to provide the latest information about COVID-19…for a price.
It is therefore very important that anyone who is potentially vulnerable is directed towards reliable, trusted and free sources of information which are available. For example, the Gov.uk and NHS 11 websites contain free and regularly updated information about COVID-19.
Action Fraud advise that people should be vigilant for spam emails or scams and not to respond to unsolicited messages. Attorneys or deputies must also consider whether any payments made are in a person’s best interests.
What is the impact of COVID-19 fraud?
The overall impact is too early to gauge, but it is likely to involve the further loss of assets. The particular use of COVID-19 to commit fraud, at a time where vulnerable people may already feel anxious, may also:
- Leave victims feeling even more anxious, scared or confused
- Erode victims’ trust in others
- Make victims feel embarrassed or unable to report fraud as a result
What can attorneys, relatives, carers and deputies do?
Anyone who is caring for somebody who is potentially vulnerable should be alert to the following “red flags”, which might suggest that fraud has occurred. They include:
- Overcharging vulnerable adults for services or products – whilst the prices of some items might increase in times of limited supply, there is a distinction between reasonable price increases and profiteering.
- Unsolicited emails or calls asking for personal information, banking details or money
- Unexplained large gifts or transfers being made from a vulnerable adult’s assets to a third party
- Vulnerable adults appearing to spend beyond their means or in a way which does not fit in with their usual spending pattern
- Unexplained or sudden changes being made to Lasting Powers of Attorney or Wills
- Unpaid bills, arrears or debt recovery action when the vulnerable adult should have sufficient money available to pay their bills, or someone else should be arranging payment on their behalf
- Vulnerable adults not being able to afford items when they should have sufficient money available
- Payments being made to unsolicited doorstep sellers
- People claiming they need access to a vulnerable person’s property who do not have an official ID which can be separately verified. Genuine callers should be willing and able to confirm their identity.
The above list is not exhaustive and it is important to reassure vulnerable adults and their carers, relatives, deputies or attorneys that, if fraud has occurred, there are still people who can assist.
Victims may not wish to ‘trouble’ the police or social services at this time. However, if anyone is concerned that a vulnerable adult has been a victim of a fraud, scam or financial abuse, they should not be deterred from alerting the relevant authority. That authority can then decide how to deal with the matter.
Also, there is useful advice and updates available on the Action Fraud website: https://www.actionfraud.police.uk/
The Government is also producing daily briefings which mean that updates can be obtained free of charge and no-one should have to pay for that information.