Impersonation scams nearly double during COVID, costing £58m

Impersonation scams have nearly doubled in the first half of 2020, at a cost of £58 million, as criminals seek to exploit the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

UK Finance found that almost 15,000 impersonation scam cases were reported by its members in the first six months of this year - an increase of 84 per cent on the same period in 2019.

Impersonation scams occur when the victim is convinced to make a payment to a criminal claiming to be from a trusted organisation. This could include the police, a bank, a utility company, or a government department.

Among these, over 8,220 cases involved criminals impersonating the police or a bank, a year-on-year rise of 94 per cent. Another 6,730 cases involved fraudsters imitating other trusted organisations such as a utility company, communications service provider or government department, an increase of 74 per cent.

The total cost of £58 million represents a rise of three per cent on the cost of such scams in January to June 2019.

The total cost for 2020 was split between £36.7 million lost to bank and police impersonation scams and £21.2 million lost to scams impersonating other trusted organisations.

Scams involving the criminal impersonating a bank or the police often begin with a phone call or text message claiming there has been fraud on the victim’s account. The customer is then convinced that to protect their money they must transfer it to a ‘safe account’ which actually belongs to the fraudster.

Other common scams involve text messages or emails claiming a victim must settle a fine, pay overdue tax or return a refund that was given by mistake.

Intelligence reported to UK Finance suggests that the rise in impersonation scams is being partly driven by criminals exploiting the pandemic. These include fraudsters sending emails or text messages pretending to be from government departments and offering grants related to COVID.

Additionally, criminals are exploiting the growing numbers of people working remotely, by posing as IT departments or software providers and claiming that payments are needed to fix problems with people’s internet connection or broadband or asking for remote access to the victim’s computer.

Criminals tend to research their targets first, using information gathered from other scams, social media and data breaches in order to make their approach sound genuine.

They will also often try to rush or panic their potential victims into making a payment, for example by claiming their money is at risk or their account will be blocked unless they act.

Katy Worobec, managing director of economic crime at UK Finance, said: “Criminal gangs are ruthlessly exploiting this pandemic to commit fraud, so it’s vital we all work together to beat them.

"We are urging the public to remain vigilant against these vile scams and remember that criminals are experts at impersonating people, organisations and the police - fraudsters will spend hours researching their victims, but they only need you to let your guard down for a minute.”

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