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Pandemic triggers ‘devastating’ surge in scams

Emma Lunn
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Emma Lunn

A huge shift towards carrying out everyday tasks online during the pandemic has led to a devastating spike in scams.

Consumer champion Which? analysed Action Fraud figures and found that in the year to April 2021, 413,553 instances of fraud were reported to Action Fraud. This was an increase of a third (33%) on the previous 12 months. More than £2.3bn was lost by victims as a result.

In previous years scams reported to Action Fraud have increased in more modest increments. The rise between 2019 and 2020 was a much lower 8%, suggesting that scams have boomed during the Covid pandemic.

Which? warns that the published figures probably vastly underestimate the actual fraud numbers. Office for National Statistics (ONS) crime figures estimate that there were more than four million incidents of fraud in 2020 – meaning only about 10% of offences are reported to Action Fraud.

The most common scams

Online shopping scams were the most reported type of fraud. These surged by two-thirds (65%) during the past year as scammers took advantage of more people shopping online.

Which? is calling for the government’s Online Safety Bill to give online platforms a legal responsibility to identify, remove and prevent fake and fraudulent content on their sites – including the adverts often used by fraudsters as the basis for online shopping scams.

There were more than 103,000 reports from people who fell victim to online shopping scams – more than the next three scam categories combined.

Regional and age variations

Which? found that consumers are about twice as likely to report being a victim of any type of fraud in the East of England (one in 187) as in Northern Ireland (one in 476) or Wales (one in 380).

With a lot of fraud starting online, theoretically you should be at no greater risk in one region than another, however these fraud figures may be partly explained by variations in internet usage in these regions.

According to the ONS, Wales and Northern Ireland have the greatest proportion of people stating that they have not been on the internet in the past three months. The region in England with the biggest offline population, the North East, also has the fewest reports to Action Fraud in the country (one in 321).

London had the most people online and the second highest incidents of fraud per 10,000 (one in 193) – with only the East of England having more.

Young people account for the greatest number of reports of online shopping scams. More than half (56%) of reports to Action Fraud came from people aged 20 to 39. This compares to 34% from victims aged 40 to 59, and 9% from those aged 60 to 79.

‘Recovery’ fraud

The category that saw the biggest year-on-year increase in reports was phone and text scams at 83%. Fraudsters have taken advantage of people’s changing habits, most recently leading to a surge in texts alleging to be from courier and delivery firms asking recipients for admin fees to retrieve packages.

The second biggest increase was online shopping scams and the third was investment fraud. Previous Which? research found an explosion of these scams appearing in adverts or results on search engines. Investment fraud also accounted for the most money reported lost overall, at £535m.

There was also a worrying increase in a particularly cruel scam called ‘recovery fraud,’ where victims are scammed for a second time by criminals pretending to help them recover losses from the original scam. This type of fraud saw a 39% increase from the previous year with victims losing a shocking £14,408 on average. Only mandate fraud (£31,126) and investment fraud (£25,496) resulted in bigger reported average losses per victim.

Jenny Ross, Which? Money editor, said: “Fraudsters have added to the suffering that many people have faced during the past year by using the pandemic and the increase in online shopping as a springboard for tricking a growing number of victims.

“Tech giants, banks, telecoms providers, regulators and the government need to keep up with the evolving tactics of scammers and make sure people cannot be targeted when going about everyday activities like shopping.

“The government’s Online Safety Bill must give online platforms a legal responsibility to identify, remove and prevent fake and fraudulent content on their sites – including the adverts often used by fraudsters as part of online shopping scams.”