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How to Protect Yourself from Coronavirus Scams
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Amid the fear and confusion of the current Coronavirus pandemic, scammers are taking full advantage of scared and vulnerable people.

The figures relating to COVID-19 related scams are rising at a worrying pace and it is an unprecedented challenge which we, the government, the police, and banks are having to face in the wake of the pandemic. A recent study of just over 2,000 people conducted by Citizens Advice revealed that one in three Britons have been targeted by a Coronavirus related scam since the start of the UK lockdown. There has also been a huge increase in the volume of traffic to their website and number of calls they’re receiving by people worried about fake vaccinations, testing kits and government refunds.

In February 2020, £800,000 had been lost to Coronavirus scams, according to reports made to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau. This figure has now raised to almost £2 million. The NCSC has also removed over 2,500 online scams related to COVID-19 in the last month.

In a time where most of us are heavily relying on technology to work or to stay in contact with family and friends, scammers are using this to their advantage and cyber security is more important than ever. Most of these scams are online and are coming in the form of phishing emails, malicious social media adverts, fake online sellers and hacking of video conferencing websites.

This article will outline the details of some of the Coronavirus scams that have been reported so far so you can keep your money safe.

Exploitation of the government’s new ‘test and trace’ system

Now that the government’s Test and Trace System is operating, there is growing concern that scammers may exploit this in order to steal people’s personal data.

The aim of this new system is to trace those who have tested positive with Coronavirus, and they are asking these people to share information on anyone they have come into close contact with. As the NHS are asking for this information to be shared, there is a real worry as it’s exactly the kind of information that fraudsters need to scam people out of their money.

How the real test and trace system works and how to identify scam NHS texts and calls

The new system requires those who have Coronavirus symptoms to arrange a test online via the NHS website, or by calling 119.

Important: To book in a Coronavirus test, you can do this by going to the official NHS website (www.nhs.uk) or by calling 119. Anyone who contacts you out of the blue and asks for payment in exchange for a testing kit is a scam.

If the test comes back negative, then you and members of your household can continue as normal. If the test comes back positive, then you will receive a phone call, email, or text from the NHS Contact Trace team.

The NHS Test and Trace Service will only get in contact with you for one of the following reasons:

1. If you’ve tested positive for Coronavirus

If you have tested positive for the virus then you will be contacted by the NHS via call, text, or email within 72 hours of taking the test.

Important: The genuine NHS number is 0300 013 5000, so any calls or text messages from a different number should be reported to Action Fraud.

You will be given an ID number which you will use to log in to the NHS Test and Trace website (https://contact-tracing.phe.gov.uk).

There you will be asked for the following details:

  • Your full name, date of birth and current address.
  • The names of the people you live with.
  • Places you have recently visited.
  • Names and contact details of anyone you came into close contact with around and within 48 hours before you developed symptoms.

Important: If you receive any calls, texts or emails which ask for any of this information up front, then it is a scam.

Important: If you get contacted and told that you have tested positive for Coronavirus, but you have never taken a test, then this is also a warning sign.

2. If you have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for Coronavirus

The NHS Test and Trace Service will contact you via the same methods mentioned above if you have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for Coronavirus.

You will be told to self-isolate for 14 days and they will advise you on how to do this and what you should do if you develop any symptoms.

Important: Crucially, you will not be asked to hand over any personal details about yourself, or anyone else you have been in contact with. This is because no one needs to be alerted if you haven’t developed any symptoms or tested positive. If you are asked for this information, then it is a scam.

Phishing Emails

Google has reported that over 18 million Coronavirus related phishing emails are being sent to Gmail users every single day – and this is just one email service. Tech firms are also saying that this could now be one of the biggest phishing topics ever, with Barracuda Networks claiming that they have seen a 667% increase in malicious phishing emails during the pandemic.

‘Names of patients revealed’

In this phishing attempt, scammers are posing as representatives from the World Health Organisation (WHO) or the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and offering to release names of those infected with COVID-19 in your area in exchange for payment. They may ask you to perform a bank transfer or ask for a payment in Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies.

The email will contain a link which you are urged to click on so you can make the payment. You will be asked for your bank details as well as personal information such as your name, address and date of birth.

‘Get the latest statistics’

This is another phishing email where the scammers pose as The World Health Organisation (WHO) but this time they are offering you up-to-date Coronavirus statistics and all you have to do is follow a link. However, the link will infect your device with malicious malware of viruses that could lock you out of your computer, take control of your computer, or access your personal and financial details in order to commit identity theft.

‘Coronavirus safety measures’

Scammers are sending out phishing emails where they’re offering medical advice and various ‘safety measures’ you can take in order to protect yourself from Coronavirus. Again, they ask you to follow a link or to download a PDF file which will infect your devise with viruses or malware.

‘HMRC tax refund’

Some scammers are posing as HMRC and saying that tax refunds are part of the government’s action plan to help people cope with income shortages amid the crisis. This is not part of the government’s plan and HMRC will never, under any circumstances, contact you via email, text or phone call to offer you a tax refund. This is an attempt to steal your personal information and bank details.

‘Donate to the cause’

This scam involves fake donation pages set up by scammers. You will be urged to click on a link in the email which will take you to a fake website where you’ll be asked to make a donation to help find a cure to the Coronavirus. This website has actually been set up to steal your money as well as capture your personal information and bank details. There has only been one fund set by The World Health Organisation and that can be found on their official website – they will not email you asking for donations.

How to avoid Coronavirus phishing scams

The World Health Organisation (WHO) have stated on their website that they will never ask for your personal details or password via email, they will never send email attachments that you didn’t ask for and they will never ask you to go on to a website outside of www.who.int. WHO say that you can verify whether a form of communication is legitimate by contacting them directly using the contact details on their website.

Verify the sender by checking their email address. If they’re claiming to be from WHO and the email address ends in anything other than ‘@who.int’, it is a scam so do not click on any links in the email.

Never give personal information to someone you don’t know, or to someone you haven’t initiated the contact with. Use some common sense and decide whether it’s an appropriate reason for this person to be asking for your details. You shouldn’t have to give anything to access public information.

If you see a scam, report it. This is essential in helping you and others.

Video Conferencing Scams

Many people are taking to video-conferencing in order to work from home or to stay in touch with family friends during the UK lockdown. And some are doing this for the first time, so it’s very important to be aware of how to stay safe.

Scammers are creating their own fake versions of well-known apps and websites in order to steal peoples’ personal and banking information. They are also hacking into public video calls in order to try and obtain sensitive data about individuals.

How to avoid Coronavirus video conferencing scams

Make sure you only download apps and software from trusted sources like your app store or from the provider’s official website. Never click on links which have been sent to you in the form of unsolicited emails, SMS messages or on social media messaging platforms or adverts,

Use a strong and unique password so scammers who are trying to hack into your account can’t guess it easily or find it out from your social media profiles. You should also set up two-factor authentication if this is an option as it adds an extra layer of security and stops people from being able to access your account even if they know your password.

Do not make your calls public, meaning anyone can join. Only connect with your colleagues, friends, or family directly from their information in your address book. Some video conferencing services allow you to set up a password which people must enter before they can join the call, which adds an extra layer of security. Never share this password publicly.

Fake Social Media Adverts

A lot of online scammers are taking to social media to post malicious adverts. Most of these promote miracle cures and treatments for the Coronavirus and try to create a sense of urgency by saying things like ‘Buy now, very limited stock’.

There are two possible bad outcomes for clicking on a malicious advert. Number one, it could download viruses and malware onto your device or, number two, they may allow you to purchase one of these fake products, but nothing will turn up and the fraudsters disappear with your money and personal details.

Avoid anything on social media that advertises things like this and is clearly trying to profit out of the crisis. Only go to trusted sources like the NHS or government websites for information.

Coronavirus Relief Scam

A particular smishing scam has been going round which involves scammers texting unsuspecting victims and asking them to go to a fake government website. They are claiming that this is to receive a goodwill relief payment from the government, but this is simply an attempt to steal your personal information and bank details.

The text asks you to follow a link which takes you to a fake government (gov.uk) website, and then it asks you to enter your personal information and postcode, followed by your card details in order to receive the payment.

How to identify the Coronavirus relief scam

First, the fake website URL is ‘uk-covid-relieve.com’, but the official government website ends in ‘gov.uk’. If you are on any website that appears as the government website but doesn’t end in ‘gov.uk’, it is a fraudulent site. The scammers have also misspelt ‘relief’ and have put ‘relieve’ instead, so this is something to look out for.

Secondly, as the government has never officially announced a payment of this kind, you can be secure in knowing that anyone claiming that this is available is a scammer.

Never give personal or bank details to someone who has made unsolicited contact via text, phone call, email, or social media. 

In-person Scams

Offer to do shopping

Recent reports have revealed that some particularly nasty fraudsters are attempting to steal money from elderly and vulnerable people by offering to do their shopping for them. These criminals are posting on social media community pages offering anyone who can’t get themselves to the shops to go for them. They ask for the cash upfront in order to pay for the shopping but disappear with the money and never return. They will usually post the messages on social media under a fake name so they can’t be traced or arrested.

If you are in a vulnerable position and you are having to stay at home in isolation, only trust people you know - neighbours, friends and family – and ask them for help. Don’t turn to somebody you don’t know. Some people do genuinely want to help and will offer genuine services like this, but it’s not worth the risk.

Door-to-door testing

Some scammers have been knocking on people’s doors claiming to be from the NHS and offering Coronavirus tests for a small fee. These tests are not real, and the scammers are targeting vulnerable and elderly people. You should call the police if someone knocks on your door and offers you a COVID-19 test.

What to do if you have fallen victim to a Coronavirus scam

The NCSC and the City of London Police have recently launched a new suspicious email reporting service which can be used if you receive anything that looks fraudulent. You must forward any dubious emails to report@phishing.gov.uk so the NCSC can look into it and remove any fraudulent websites. More information about this can be found on the NCSC website.

If you have lost money because of a Coronavirus scam, you must report it to your bank and to Action Fraud UK.

 

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