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How to avoid becoming a victim of coronavirus fraud

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has had an unprecedented effect around the world and has led to a wide range of responses.

There have been countless inspirational examples of people coming together and helping the most vulnerable members of society. At the other end of the scale, however, there has been an alarming rise in the number of cybercriminals seeking to take advantage of the panic and uncertainty caused by the outbreak.

Speaking about the rise in coronavirus-related fraud in recent times, BHIB Executive Chairman, Ashwin Mistry said:

“In confusion and panic, there is opportunity. Unfortunately in this instance, the opportunity is one for criminals who want to take advantage when we are least prepared – but you can take some simple precautions. As they say. prevention is better than cure.”

cyber security and fraud risk


Coronavirus fraud in the UK

Since 1 February 2020, there have been more than 100 cases reported to Action Fraud relating to coronavirus fraud in the UK – with total losses approaching £1 million. Many of the reports relate to shopping scams, but others include charity fraud, ticket fraud, lender fraud and counterfeiting. One victim is reported to have lost more than £15,000 after buying protective face masks that were never delivered.

There have also been hundreds of reports of ‘phishing’ emails related to coronavirus. These try to trick people into visiting malicious webpages or opening attachments that can enable fraudsters to steal their personal information, email logins and banking details.


Coronavirus fraud around the world

The increasing trend in coronavirus-related fraud is not just limited to the UK, as many parts of the world have seen a rise in recent months.

  • On 22 March the US Justice Department announced that it was taking action to takedown a website that was falsely claiming to have access to ‘vaccine kits’ that were purportedly made by the World Health Organisation (WHO);
  • In Italy a fraudulent email was sent that looked like it was from the WHO with official information regarding coronavirus, with the intention to infect computers with a ‘trojan’ virus to steal banking information;
  • Hong Kong police issued a scam alert to the public about cybercriminals trying to impersonate Department of Health workers who told victims there ‘were some anomalies’ with their health records before requesting their bank details;
  • In South Africa, fraudsters claiming to represent the central bank have been visiting customers’ houses and asking them to hand over banknotes because they may have been contaminated with the coronavirus – following reports that the bank was to withdraw banknotes and coins from circulation due to the coronavirus outbreak.


What to look out for

To help people and businesses protect themselves from becoming a victim of fraud, the UK’s fraud prevention service Cifas has the following advice:

  • Be sceptical – if you receive an email, text or WhatsApp message about coronavirus, do not click on any attachments or links unless you are sure of the identity of the sender. Be particularly wary of unsolicited communications;
  • Do not give money or personal information to websites or people you do not trust 100%. If you are approached, try to verify details and call the sender back via a number obtained from a different source;
  • Avoid emails or advertisements that urge you to ‘act now’. This sense of urgency is meant to pressure people into making irrational decisions;
  • Don’t allow yourself to be pressured into donating money, and never make donations by cash or gift card, or send any money through transfer agents. If you wish to donate money to charity organisations, do this by searching for their official websites or phone numbers, and not through advertisements or when approached.


Fraud related to the government’s financial assistance

It’s a reasonable assumption that fraudsters will be looking to exploit the package of measures that the government has introduced to support those affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Workers and business owners who find themselves in desperate need of help right now might be particularly susceptible to scams.

Even prior to the Chancellor’s announcement of new measures, there were numerous examples of tax refund and rebate scams using very authentic-looking HMRC logos in emails. In some cases, the fraudsters tried to spoof a genuine email sender address or changed the ‘display name’ to make it look like a genuine communication from HMRC.

It’s important to remember that HMRC will never send important notifications that require your direct action by email, so make sure you check any emails carefully and if you think they are suspicious do not:

  • Click on any links within the email copy
  • Open any attachments
  • Disclose any personal or payment information

For more tips and advice on avoiding fraud during the coronavirus pandemic, read out previous guides about protecting your empty business premises and how to stay safe while working from home: