<Guides
  • >
  • Guides>
  • A personal finance guide on how to defend yourself against coronavirus scams

How to defend yourself against Coronavirus scams

Photograph of Nick Renaud-Komiy

Written by Nick Renaud-Komiya , Personal finance specialist

15 June 2020

Fraudsters are posing as bank and government employees to try and steal from vulnerable people. Here are some things you can do to protect yourself from scammers.

photograph of a middle aged woman looking shocked with head in hands.

As things change rapidly during the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, this guide will be updated regularly to reflect changes in rules and regulations.

How are scammers using Coronavirus to target people? 

Scammers are using increasingly clever ways to try and steal your money. 

They can use different techniques to trick victims into handing over their money directly. These criminals can also steal information about their victims and then get hold of their money by posing as the victim and contacting their bank. 

Now these criminals are using Coronavirus to target people who are especially vulnerable. These scams have taken different forms, for example: 

  • Online shopping scams where people have ordered protective face masks or hand sanitiser gel that never arrived

  • Emails sent to people claiming to be from HM Revenue and Customs offering tax refunds. Victims are directed to a website that asks for their personal details

  • Messages promoting fake investments schemes and trading advice to encourage people to ‘take advantage’ of the economic downturn caused by the pandemic

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has more details on the techniques that scammers are using right now to exploit the financial uncertainty caused by COVID-19 

What you can do to protect yourself from scammers

 We’ve seen reports of victims getting contacted by criminals pretending to be from their bank, energy or internet service provider, the government and the NHS.  

While it’s impossible to be 100% protected from being targeted by scammers, there are some things you can do to protect yourself. Here are some tips to help you stay safe from scammers, based on how they might try to contact you.

Phone 

Your bank or service providers will never contact you by phone or email and ask you to provide: 

  • Your personal details 

  • Your debit or credit card numbers 

  • Remote access to your computer 

  • Your online banking card reader codes 

Fraudsters are known to use technology that allows them to display a genuine company's phone number on your screen, which can trick you into thinking the call is genuine. 

If you have concerns, hang up and call the company they said they are from back on a genuine number such as the one on your statement or the back of your card to ask if the call was genuine. 

Post 

If you move house:

  1. Get your post redirected to your new address

  2. Notify your bank and other businesses you have dealings with.

Scammers can try and use your old address and contact details to get money out of your bank accounts. There have also been examples of criminals successfully applying for loans using other people’s details. Once they receive the money, they disappear.

Always shred old bills, bank statements or personal correspondence. A 'cross-cut' shredder does a better job of destroying your information than a 'strip' one.

Text messages 

Scammers are able to send text messages to your phone that look like they are from a legitimate source. This is called ‘spoofing’. ‘Spoofed’ text messages can catch out even the savviest of mobile users. 

We’ve seen reports of people receiving fraudulent Coronavirus-related text messages that are supposedly from government bodies or NHS contact tracing teams.  

These messages direct victims to websites where they are asked to enter their bank details and other personal information.  

If a message asks you to call a particular number, do not call the number or reply to the text. Instead, check out the number to see if you can find the details of the person or business that sent you the message. 

You can also try the following:

  • Type the number into a search engine to see what comes up

  • Enter the number on the PhonepayPlus number checker

  • Contact the customer services team of the company that the text is supposedly from

If you receive a text from a number you think is suspicious you can always block it. But beware, the scammers may use a different number to contact you next time, so this is not a foolproof way to prevent scam or spam text messages.

Read more on how to identify and stop spam text messages.

Emails 

One of the most common ways that fraudsters target people is by sending out ‘phishing’ emails. These try and trick you into opening malicious attachments.  

These attachments may contain a virus that will allow a criminal to monitor your online activity or help thieves to steal sensitive personal information, like email logins, passwords, and banking details. 

Other phishing emails try to direct you to a webpage that asks you to fill in a form. The details you give are then used to steal from you. 

In March 2020 Action Fraud, the UK’s national reporting centre for fraud and cyber crime, said it received over 200 reports of Coronavirus-themed ‘phishing’ emails.  

Some signs that an email is fraudulent: 

  • Firstly, is it unsolicited? Be wary of emails from people or companies that you’ve never dealt with before. It’s a good idea not to click links or open emails from senders you do not already know 

  • If the message contains spelling and grammar mistakes, this can be a sign that it is from a scammer. Some scammers deliberately weed out potential victims who are paying too much attention by inserting spelling, punctuation and grammar errors

  • Check the email address of the sender. Even if the contents of the email seem legitimate, the address may reveal that the sender is not who they claim to be. This is tricky though, as some scammers use sophisticated techniques to make an email look like it has come from a legitimate source

  • Is the email asking you to make a quick decision? A message may try to pressure you to transfer money between different bank accounts, for example.  

As a general rule it’s a good idea to ignore emails with offers for financial products, like investments. But if you receive a marketing email about investment and pension products, you can check if they are legitimate by using the Financial Conduct Authority’s ScamSafe online tool. 

Staying safe online

 Online shopping

The biggest single type of Coronavirus-related fraud that Action Fraud has received reports about is online shopping fraud, where customers pay for goods that never arrive. 

Some criminals are taking advantage of our need to do more of our shopping online due to the COVID-19 lockdown. Many reported scams involve fake product listings for protective equipment, like face masks. 

It’s always a good idea to pay for any online purchases using a credit card. This way you’ll be able to benefit from Section 75 protection and are more likely to get your money back if you’re the victim of an online shopping scam.  

Any credit card purchases worth between £100 and £30,000 receive payment protection in the event that you do not get what you paid for, or a seller has misrepresented a product. 

A similar protection may also be available to you if you use a debit card for online purchases. The Chargeback scheme enables you to get money back from your bank or prepaid card provider if you bought a product which never arrives or if your card is used fraudulently. 

Unlike Section 75, the Chargeback scheme is not enforced by law. It is a voluntary agreement between credit card providers and card issuers (Visa, MasterCard and American Express), who set the scheme rules.  

Online banking 

As mentioned above, fraudsters may contact you via a ‘phishing’ email to get you to go to a website and give out your bank details.  

However, you might also unknowingly log on to websites that look like they’re from a legitimate company, but are fakes created to harvest your details. 

To stay safe online it's imperative that you're on guard against phishing scams and don't take the bait - for more help spotting them read our guide to checking a website is legitimate

In order to keep your bank details safe online you should also make sure that your computer or device is up to the job. 

Getting an up to date anti-virus software and a firewall as the absolute minimum, although more comprehensive protection like anti-spyware is advisable. 

Most major banks also offer free security software that's designed to protect your banking details and this is definitely worth using too - Trusteer Rapport is the most widely recommended by major UK banks.

For more tips, read our guide on how to keep your bank details safe online

Other tips: 

  • You should also avoid making any advanced or upfront payments until you’re sure the company you’re dealing with is legitimate.

  • You should also avoid using public wi-fi, for example in cafes and restaurants. Scammers have been known to get access to your details using poorly protected public broadband. If you’re out and about, your smartphone’s standard 4G connection is often more secure.

  • Keep passwords and pin numbers secret. Memorise them, and never write them down. Use different passwords for each account and avoid using personal information like dates of birth or names.

The government-run Money Advice Service has more information on how to protect yourself against scams

If you think you’ve been the victim of a scam 

First of all, don’t panic. If you think you've been a victim of fraud, these simple steps can help you protect yourself and stop fraudsters in their tracks: 

Speak to your bank 

They’ll be able to cancel your cards so that if a fraudster does have access to your card details, they will not be able to use them again. They can also increase security on your accounts in order to stop other unauthorised transactions. 

Your bank can also provide you with useful information on how to better spot scams and frauds in future. 

If you see a direct debit on your account that you do not recognise, your bank can also stop it immediately so that it cannot be used to make any more payments. 

Register with Cifas 

Cifas is a fraud prevention service. It helps individuals, financial services companies, police forces, and other public sector organisations to add information to the National Fraud Database. 

Registering with Cifas will put a flag against your name on the National Fraud Database so companies will carry out extra checks before they approve applications for financial products in your name. Cifas membership costs £20 for two years.

Report the scam to Action Fraud 

If you are a victim of a scam, report it to Action Fraud as soon as you can by calling 0300 123 2040 or by using the agency’s online reporting tool

You should specifically contact Action Fraud if you are the victim of any of the following types of fraud: 

  • Online merchant scams, for example where a seller has not delivered any goods that you’ve bought from them using sites like Amazon Marketplace, eBay or GumTree

  • Driving licence scams

  • TV Licence scams

  • HMRC and tax scams

  • Competition or lottery scams 

Action Fraud’s advisors can also offer advice on what to do next. 

Report scams to the Financial Conduct Authority 

You can also report fraudulent companies to the FCA by calling freephone 0800 111 6768 or by using the watchdog’s online reporting form.

More tips on what to do if you’ve been scammed.