As lockdown measures show the first signs of easing, millions of people will be breathing a tentative sigh of relief. It’s been a long ten weeks and we’re all missing friends and families, as well as looking forward to getting back to business.
But it’s important not to let our guard down. Not just with regard to the virus, but when it comes to the communications we receive. Lockdown has seen many examples of people coming together to help one another; sadly, we’ve also seen a huge increase in scams, with criminals using this period of confusion and rapid change to their advantage.
At the end of April, the National Cyber Security Centre set up a new service to allow people to report suspicious emails. They received 160,000 such reports in the first two weeks. It’s essential that we all pause to think before we act. Let’s look at how to spot a scam and what you can do about it.
Too much information?
Even before COVID-19, life was busy. But during business as usual it’s easier to stay alert to things that might seem suspicious – if you’ve won a prize in a competition you didn’t enter, it’s probably a scam. We’ve become better at spotting the known red flags (emails from strange addresses, poor spelling and grammar, and requests for details you wouldn’t expect to be asked for), but we need to stay vigilant.
At UNIQ Family Wealth a client recently had their email address and personal information hijacked. The scammer emailed our Client Relationship Team to alter the account details and withdraw £20,000. Fortunately, the security we have in place meant the scammer was spotted and stopped, but it was a close call. Scams are constantly evolving and at a time like this, when there’s a lot of information about new schemes and processes going back and forth, it’s easier to miss things.
There’s a lot of new information to absorb, with many new government plans designed to help protect incomes. Then there are updates from banks as well as communications about people’s health – all of these are opportunities to harvest private information that could be used against you.
Phishing – what is it and why is it dangerous?
Email ‘phishing’ isn’t new. The term goes back to 1996 when the first examples of scam emails began to pop up, designed to trick people into divulging personal information or unknowingly download malicious software. Even though the concept is old, it thrives in times of urgency. If you’re worried about a situation, you’re more likely to be distracted. Emails have become much more sophisticated and we’re seeing some very convincing campaigns delivered in what looks like the GOV.UK format.
It’s not just emails we need to be aware of. Increasingly, scammers are using SMS (‘smishing’) with headings like ‘COVID’ and ‘UKGOV’. A fake text takes far less effort to look convincing, and it can instil a greater sense of urgency. The tactics are varied, but typically involve promises of rewards and threats of fines. One scam delivered by SMS claims the recipient has been reported for being out of the house more than they should, resulting in a fine. If they don’t pay £250 immediately, it will increase to £5,000. It also includes a number to call, so they can settle up straight away.
The goal here is to panic the user into accepting the smaller amount when threatened by the larger one, to call and ‘stop things from getting any worse’. In another scam, the user is told they’re due to receive several hundred pounds from the government, in this case £458 of COVID-19 relief money.
But a moment’s thought could save a lot of money and stress. For one thing, none of those figures above has ever appeared in Government guidance (an internet search will show you that). It’s not always easy to think clearly in the moment, so here’s how to react if you receive an email that’s either bad news, or suspiciously good news.
What to do next
1) Never, ever respond
Remember that scammers send out huge numbers of emails and text messages. They expect that while most will be ignored, enough will lead to action and make their efforts worthwhile. If you respond, you’re letting them know it’s an active phone number or email address.
2) Don’t panic
Not easy given the circumstances, but that’s why it’s doubly important. Take a breath and ask yourself how likely the subject matter is to be real. If you’ve been watching the regular Government briefings, does any of this information sound familiar? Does the communication address you by name? Is it from a bank you don’t use? Does it contain spelling mistakes, questionable grammar or inconsistent information?
3) Do some digging
A few minutes spent searching online can set your mind at rest. If it’s an SMS, Google the phone number. Given the proliferation over the last few weeks, you’ll almost certainly go straight to a page of results about scams. If it’s an email, check the sender’s address. It’s easy to disguise an email address so it sounds real, but by looking a little deeper you can often find the true source. Remember though – never use the phone numbers, email addresses or links in the email or SMS itself.
4) Educate yourself
You can pre-emptively visit the Government’s guidance on COVID-19 scams. It’s also a good idea to proactively visit your bank’s website to find out what they’re doing and how they’re contacting customers. Have a look in their news section to get up to speed on how and when they’d contact you (and what they would and wouldn’t ask for). It’s also worth signing up to Which? Scam Alerts to stay in touch with new developments. Forewarned is forearmed.
5) Report it
In battling a criminal industry that’s based on attempting to gain your trust, information from people you really do trust is important. If you’ve been unfortunate enough to be drawn into a scam, let your friends and colleagues know about it, so they can avoid it and pass the message on. If you’ve seen and avoided a scam, don’t keep it to yourself. Let people know. You can make your insight and experience go even further by officially reporting it at Action Fraud.
What if you’ve already responded?
If it’s too late for that first tip and you’ve already clicked, texted or called, don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s easily done and you’re certainly not the only person to do it. Scams are becoming more sophisticated all the time and if your mind is on other concerns it’s easy to act in the moment.
The key is to stay calm. First things first, tell your bank. Even if you haven’t lost money yet, time is of the essence. Your bank can take steps to make sure you’re kept safe and they’ll be able to discuss where you stand on being able to recall any lost funds.
Next, if it’s an email, change the password on the address they used to contact you. It’s a worthwhile exercise to change passwords elsewhere too, especially if you’ve been using the same one for multiple accounts. Finally, once again, report it.
Even if you’ve already been scammed, we can all do our part to help shut this industry down. Flagging up your experience can help other people to avoid it and it’ll make life more difficult for scammers in future.
Please get in touch on 02920 782330 if you would like to talk to us about the current situation. You can access your portfolio valuation here.