Article by Sam Griffin - 9th April 2020

Coronavirus Fraud: Protecting Your Identity And Your Finances

While individuals, communities, and governments around the world are fighting to control the coronavirus pandemic, fraudsters in the UK have unbelievably ramped up their efforts to prey on the vulnerable. The fear and desperation generated by the coronavirus have made a fertile breeding ground for scammers and imposters of all sorts, so extra vigilance is needed to protect your wallet and your identity.

Victims are already reported to have handed over lump sums to scammers, disclosed their private and sensitive information, and in some cases even granted fraudsters entry into their home. The aim of these fraudsters is usually to either steal your identity (and use it for their benefit, taking out finance for example) or to convince you to hand over money.

Identity fraud is an ever-present threat in the modern world and people are especially susceptible during desperate times. The good news is that there are tried and tested measures you can take to protect yourself and reduce the likelihood of you falling victim. As always, it’s best to be informed and be secure.

Scam Messages

Action Fraud, the police organization that records cases of fraud, has found that online coronavirus related scams have cost 105 victims nearly £1 million since the start of February. Almost £10,000 per victim is a heavy price at the best of times, and uncertainty around employment and income only make matters worse.

These online scams can come in many different forms. The most prominent are phishing emails pretending to be from an official body, which are sent out thousands at a time, with the hope of netting just one or two (highly profitable) victims.

Specific examples of these phishing emails in action include:

  • Imposters pretending to represent US government agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These emails asked recipients to click on a link to help report Covid-19 cases. An unrecognised link is dangerous as you cannot be certain what will happen should you click on it. You may be redirected to a page asking for your sensitive data or you could even have harmful software automatically installed on your computer to steal your information.
  • Fake HMRC emails claiming that the recipient is eligible for a tax refund due to the coronavirus. Again, a link is included within the body of the email to siphon away sensitive data from readers who click it.
  • Emails mimicking WHO (World Health Organisation) requesting donations to support development for a Covid-19 vaccine have been identified as being operated by imposters to illegally acquire funds.

These are just three recognised examples of coronavirus scam emails that are in circulation. There will inevitably be more to follow, but they will likely function in a similar manner: try to convince the reader that they’re genuine and trick them into providing sensitive information. Some scams may even infest the victim’s computer with data stealing viruses if a link or attachment is opened.

Fraudsters at the front door

A particularly brazen form of fraud is when an imposter physically visits your home, pretending to represent an official body.

London’s Metropolitan police has reported recent incidents of individuals targeting the elderly and vulnerable who are self-isolating to avoid the coronavirus. The fraudsters offered a range of ‘services’, including collecting food shopping, deep cleaning the property, and even virus testing. They then collected funds from the victims with nothing provided in return. This illegal behaviour is especially dangerous during a pandemic, as visiting people during self-isolation risks spreading illness, thereby harming the physical health of vulnerable people.

While this form of fraud is focused more on acquiring funds via deceit than it is about stealing identity, similar measures apply to protect yourself: do not engage with them. The police clarified that most groups helping the community have honest intentions and will be affiliated with charities or the local council with proof to assure you.

What should I do?

Strong security measures are important at the best of times. While fraudsters are looking to benefit from a global pandemic, the need to protect your identity is even greater.

How to protect yourself against identity fraud

  • Do not click on links that you don’t recognise. Links that take you through to another webpage are dangerous as you cannot be sure what will happen once you click on the link. You might expect that it takes you to an official website, but it could easily direct you to an imposter website where it then asks for your private details. Clicking a link might even install harmful software onto your computer that can steal your information.
  • Do not open any attachments that you don’t recognise. Opening an email or text message attachment could download and install its contents onto your computer. This means malicious software (malware) from unsafe emails can be used to record your keystrokes, watch your screen, or steal your information.
  • Do not supply your private information to anyone by email. Your card numbers, account numbers, sort codes, passwords, and security questions should not be given out in response to any email.
  • If you receive an email that you’re unsure about, contact the company that apparently sent the email, using contact details you find by navigating to their official website. Don’t rely on any contact details included within the email as these could easily be fabricated to divert you through to an imposter.

What to do if you have already fallen victim

  • Contact Action Fraud to record the fraudulent activity. You should be given a crime reference number, which you can provide to any organisations that need it before they conduct a thorough fraud investigation.
  • Contact your bank to explain the situation. If any of your cards or accounts have been compromised, your bank should be able to rescue them.
  • Contact Cifas, the UK’s fraud prevention service. Cifas can add Protective Registration to your Credit Report, which ensures that any credit applications made in your details are subject to further checks. This can help guard against any further fraudulent attempts to take out finance using your name.
  • Place a Notice of Correction on your Credit Report. One of the only appropriate times to add a Notice of Correction to your Credit Report is after you’ve been defrauded or had your identity stolen. A Notice of Correction is simply a short message, explaining any circumstances you feel are important to your financial situation. If you add a message explaining that you’ve had your identity stolen, lenders should take extra security measures to ensure that any application made using your details is genuine before approving it. Adding a password to your Notice helps secure your identity even further, as only you – and no fraudsters – should know the password.
  • Monitor your Credit Report. One of the purposes of identity theft is to benefit the criminal financially – to do this, they might open a credit agreement in your details with no intent of repaying the owed money, leaving you with an outstanding balance and a damaged Credit Report. One of the best ways to keep an eye on the credit agreements in your name is to monitor your Credit Report. You’ll be able to see all the lenders who have reported accounts registered to your details, how much is owed, and the status of the accounts, as well as any searches relating to credit applications in your name. If you spot anything suspicious, you’ll be able to see exactly which company to contact.

There is no way to make yourself fully immune to identity theft and fraud, but these measures should go some way in reducing the chances of you falling foul to unscrupulous criminals.

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