Criminals exploit Covid-19 pandemic with rise in scams targeting victims

Criminals exploit Covid-19 pandemic with a rise in scams targeting victims online. Criminals using texts and emails to target consumers

UK Finance is warning consumers to be on the lookout for “smishing” text message scams from criminals exploiting the coronavirus outbreak. You should be careful of any texts and emails impersonating the Government, the World Health Organisation (WHO), HMRC and other organisations.

Criminals turned to online and technology-enabled scams to exploit people’s fears about the Covid-19 pandemic, UK Finance’s latest Fraud the Facts1 report has revealed. 

Impersonation scam cases, in which criminals impersonate trusted organisations to trick victims into handing over their money, almost doubled to 39,364  cases in 2020, the largest increase of all scam types. During the pandemic, criminals sent fraudulent emails claiming to offer government support to those impacted by the pandemic and scam text messages requesting payments to book a Covid-19 vaccine. They also impersonated delivery companies to exploit the rise in online shopping.

What does ‘smishing’ and ‘phishing’ mean?

I have provided a quick guide to the terms ‘smishing’ and ‘phishing’, which I will discuss in my article.

Smishing is when criminals use text messages to impersonate other organisations. Tricking people into giving away their personal and financial information or money. These scam texts often claim to be from government departments, banks or other trusted organisations. Offering payments related to the coronavirus outbreak or claiming to be issuing fines.

Phishing is when fraudulent emails are sent to impersonate reputable companies. In order to induce individuals to reveal personal information, such as passwords and credit card numbers.

What is spoofing?

Often scam messages will include a link to a fake website designed to trick people into giving away their financial and personal information, such as bank details, passwords and credit card numbers.

Cyber-criminals are also using a technique called “spoofing”. This can make a message appear in a chain of texts alongside previous genuine messages from that organisation. The banking industry continues to work closely with mobile network operators, government and other industry stakeholders to crack down on this type of fraud. You may have seen emails supposedly from Netflix, HMRC and other organisations, which are SCAMS.

UK Finance urges consumers to avoid clicking on any links contained within text messages. As well as to always log in to their bank account to update their information or make any legitimate payments. Customers can report suspected spam text texts to their mobile network provider by forwarding them to 7726.

Katy Worobec, Managing Director of Economic Crime, UK Finance, said:

“Criminals are callously exploiting the coronavirus outbreak to commit fraud, including using scam text messages imitating government departments, banks and other trusted organisations.

“We are urging consumers to remain vigilant and avoid clicking on links in any unsolicited text messages in case it’s a scam.

“It’s always safer to log into your bank account directly or contact the organisation on a trusted number or email such as the one on their official website.

“Always follow the advice of the Take Five to Stop Fraud campaign and take a moment to stop and think before parting with your money or information. If you receive a suspicious text message, report it to your network provider by forwarding it to 7726.”

Take Five to Stop Fraud

Consumers are reminded to follow the advice of the Take Five to Stop Fraud campaign. As well as to remember that criminals are experts at impersonating people, organisations and the police.

Stop: Taking a moment to stop and think before parting with your money or information could keep you safe.

Challenge: Could it be fake? It’s ok to reject, refuse, or ignore any requests. Only criminals will try to rush or panic you.

Protect: Contact your bank immediately if you think you’ve fallen for a scam and report it to Action Fraud.

Wash your hands of coronavirus scams

I spotted this on Twitter today and wanted to include it in this article. Please keep informed about COVID-ID watching the daily news updates. National Trading Standards also has a Scams Team and phone numbers are included above.


CTSI issues warning over COVID-19 ‘home-testing’ scams

It’s disgusting that anyone could take advantage of other people in these worrying times. £1 million fraud has been reported in the UK relating to the COVID-ID virus already.

The Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) is warning the public not to open their doors to bogus healthcare workers claiming to be offering ‘home-testing’ for the COVID-19 Coronavirus.

The alert comes as part of the CTSI’s ongoing advice to the public about scams and rogue practices relating to the spread of the disease.

Suspicious callers are said to have been knocking on doors of elderly and vulnerable residents in various parts of the UK, saying that they are health officials doing door-to-door testing.

Katherine Hart, CTSI Joint Lead Officer for Doorstep Crime, said: “There are unfortunately people who are willing to take advantage of those who are most vulnerable even at this unprecedented time when we should all be pulling together.

“Those who have been advised to avoid social contact as part of the measures to help stop the spread of the virus are particularly at risk of being taken in by these cold callers.

“Our message is not to open the door to anyone you don’t know or anyone calling ‘out of the blue’. Stay safe by only speaking to people you know and trust.”

Guide to reporting

Action Fraud is the body you need to report any malicious emails, calls, texts or people coming to the door.

You can report fraud or cybercrime to Action Fraud at any time of the day or night using their online reporting tool. Reporting online is quick and easy. The tool will guide you through simple questions to identify what has happened. Action Fraud Advisors are available twenty-four hours to give you help and advice if you need it.

When reporting online you will be given the option to register, log in to an existing account or continue as a guest.

By registering you will be able to:

  • Save and resume a partially completed report
  • Track progress of your report
  • Add information to your report
  • Call us to discuss your report
  • Receive an update by email

If you continue as a guest you will only be able to receive updates by email or post.

You can also report to us by calling 0300 123 2040 Monday to Friday 8am – 8pm. If you are calling from abroad please call +44 300 123 2040.

UK Finance is the collective voice for the banking and finance industry. Representing more than 250 firms across the industry, we act to enhance competitiveness, support customers and facilitate innovation.


  • There are no vaccines and people will not be going around houses testing people.
  • Please keep an eye on elderly people in your community who may be targeted and are more vulnerable.
  • No bank will ask you to transfer money between your account into a new one to safeguard your money
  • HMRC calls can be really aggressive and convincing as I found out! Again HMRC will not call you to pay for a fine or amount over the phone.
  • Netflix, Banking and other emails can be very convincing. Check the sent email address and also do not respond directly to these emails or click on these phishing emails
  • No one from the NHS or government will be going around testing individuals knocking on doors.

Criminals exploit Covid-19 pandemic with rise in scams targeting victims online

Update: 25 Mar 2021

  • Criminals used the Covid-19 pandemic to target victims online, through impersonation scams, romance fraud and investment scams.
  • UK Finance is calling for new legislation to make online platforms responsible for taking down fraudulent content and better protect consumers from these scams.
  • In 2020, Authorised Push Payment (APP)3 fraud losses amounted to £479 million, up to five per cent on the previous year. Banks and other finance providers were able to return £206.9 million of the losses from APP fraud to victims, over three quarters more than the sum returned in 2019.
  • Almost £7 in every £10 of attempted unauthorised fraud3 was blocked by the banking industry last year. Unauthorised fraud fell by five per cent to £783.8 million in 2020, with the banking industry stopping £1.6 billion of losses.

There was a 32 per cent increase in investment scam cases last year, which are often promoted through adverts on search engines offering higher than average returns, and a 38 per cent increase in cases of romance scams, driven by the rise in online dating during the pandemic.

To capitalise on the increase in online activity during the pandemic, UK Finance has also seen the emergence of criminals openly advertising fraud and scam services for sale online, including template phishing websites and custom-built scam apps which replicate real banking apps.

UK Finance is calling for fraud to be included in the scope of the government’s Online Safety Bill to better protect consumers from these scams. This would ensure that online platforms such as social media firms, search engines and dating websites take action to address vulnerabilities in their systems that are being exploited by criminals to commit fraud.

Katy Worobec, Managing Director of Economic Crime at UK Finance, said:

“The banking industry has worked hard throughout the pandemic to protect customers from fraud and to go after the criminals behind it, with over £1.6 billion of fraud stopped in 2020.

“However, we are seeing a worrying rise in online and technology-enabled scams that evade banks’ advanced security systems and use digital platforms to target victims directly, tricking them into giving away their money or information.

“We urge the government to use the upcoming Online Safety Bill to ensure online platforms take action to protect customers by taking down scam adverts on search engines, removing fake profiles on online dating websites and tackling fraudulent content on social media.

“It cannot be right that online firms are effectively profiting from fraud, while society as a whole pays the price.”

Authorised Push Payment fraud

Authorised Push Payment (APP) fraud cases, where customers are tricked into authorising a payment to another account controlled by a criminal, increased by 22 per cent to almost 150,000 in 2020. Losses amounted to a total of £479 million, up five per cent on the previous year.  

  • Investment scams, in which a criminal convinces their victim to move their money to a fictitious fund or to pay for a fake investment, saw the highest increase in losses of any APP scam type, totalling £135.1 million.
  • Purchase scams, in which the victim pays in advance for goods or services that are never received, remained the most common form of APP fraud, accounting for 52 per cent of APP fraud cases.

Unauthorised fraud

In an unauthorised fraudulent transaction, the account holder themselves does not give permission for the payment and the transaction is carried out by the criminal. Unauthorised fraud losses fell by five per cent to £783.8 million in 2020. The banking and finance industry prevented £1.6 billion of attempted unauthorised fraud and continue to invest in advanced security systems to detect and prevent fraudulent activity. This means that £6.73 in every £10 of attempted unauthorised fraud was blocked by the industry last year.

Lockdown restrictions have caused criminals to turn away from more traditional forms of fraud.

  • Contactless card fraud losses fell by 22 per cent to £16 million, the first annual fall since this data started being collected in 2013. This is likely to be related to lockdown restrictions limiting opportunities for criminals to commit contactless fraud using lost and stolen cards.
  • Cheque fraud losses saw a significant fall of 77 per cent to £12.3 million, likely driven by the continued fall in the use of cheques, which has been exacerbated by the impact of lockdown restrictions.

Working with law enforcement

The banking industry works closely with the police to prevent fraud and catch and prosecute the criminal gangs responsible. In 2020:

  • The Banking Protocol, a bank branch rapid response scheme, stopped £45.3 million of scams and led to 200 arrests.
  • The Dedicated Card and Payment Crime Unit police unit, which is funded by the banking industry, prevented an estimated £20 million of fraud, arrested 122 suspected fraudsters, and carried out enforcement activity against criminals involved in Covid-19 scams. The unit also worked with social media platforms to take down 700 accounts linked to fraudulent activity, of which over 250 were money mule recruiters.
  • 1 million compromised card numbers were protected after being shared by law enforcement with the industry via UK Finance’s Intelligence and Information Unit.

Reminder to stay safe

UK Finance urges customers to follow the advice of the Take Five to Stop Fraud campaign and remember that criminals are experts at impersonating people, organisations and the police. They spend hours researching you for their scams, hoping you’ll let your guard down for just a moment. Stop and think. It could protect you and your money.

  • Stop: Taking a moment to stop and think before parting with your money or information could keep you safe.
  • Challenge: Could it be fake? It’s ok to reject, refuse or ignore any requests. Only criminals will try to rush or panic you.
  • Protect: Contact your bank immediately if you think you’ve fallen for a scam and report it to Action Fraud.