Courier cons, romance and fake cops: How the pandemic has helped fraudsters to thrive

While the lockdown has left many businesses battling for survival, there is one industry that has been booming throughout the crisis – the fraud business.

Elderly people are not the only group at risk of falling victim to fraud
Elderly people are not the only group at risk of falling victim to fraud

Con artists have fleeced more than £100 million from unsuspecting members of the public in the region over the 13 months up to March this year, accounting for more than 39,122 offences. The offences were reported across the West Midlands, West Mercia, Staffordshire and Dyfed-Powys force areas.

Today it emerged the Government is urgently looking at new measures to tackle online fraud, admitting the scale of the scam problem is “deeply concerning”.

Caroline Dinenage, minister of state for digital and culture, says the Government is working with the industry, regulators and consumer groups to tackle fraud.

She says tighter regulation of online advertising was one of the things her department was looking at.

“The growth and scale of online pensions scams, and online fraud more broadly, is deeply concerning,” she says.

Jane Parsons, consumer expert at Citizens Advice, says thousands of people had sought advice on scams during the pandemic.

“For one-to-one advice, we were averaging 2,500 scams cases per month during early lockdown,” she says. “This increased to a whopping 5,000 cases per month since September 2020.

“These scams cover all manner of things, from fake investments and sham health products to dating fraud and bogus dog breeders.

“It’s clear opportunistic scammers are taking advantage of the public’s current concerns regarding their health, wellbeing and finances.”

Adam French, consumer rights expert at Which? believes the growth in online shopping during the pandemic has been a major factor in growth of internet scams.

“The coronavirus crisis has meant that more people are shopping online than ever before, while opportunistic scammers have been coming up with increasingly sophisticated tactics to steal people’s money,” he says.

“Search engines and social media sites have some of the most sophisticated technology in the world, yet they are failing to use it to protect their users from scammers abusing the platforms through fake and fraudulent content.”

Google insists it has “strict policies” over advertisements run on its search engine, with 3.1 billion advertisements – including 123 million for financial services – blocked and removed last year.

It also claims to block 100 million emails to users each day.

However, the company says it is seeing an increasing number of fraudsters promoting bogus businesses or running phone-based scams to lure users off its platforms and avoid detection.

Bogus police officers and ‘courier scams’ have also left many people out of pocket.

In January this year, Dyfed-Powys police revealed that tricksters purporting to be a police officer had conned five people out of £63,000 in cash and gold.

In one incident an elderly woman was tricked into buying more than £10,000 of gold and then handing it over to the scammers.

Dc Gareth Jordan, of the force’s cybercrime team, says the recent crimes saw victims receive a telephone call by someone purporting to be a police officer from Paddington Police Station.

“The fake police officer tells them about fraudulent activity on the person’s bank card, or tells them that they need to transfer money to another account due to suspicious activity,” he says. “It is the prelude to courier fraud, where someone comes to pick up the bank card, after extracting all the details such as the PIN number from the victim, or getting the person to go to the bank to withdraw money that can then be collected or sometimes transferred into other accounts.”

Figures show the over-60s are one of the most vulnerable to such scams, with a significant number of people in their 90s being targeted.

In the Staffordshire force area, there were 1,700 reports from people aged 60 or over, while in the West Midlands force area, the number was 3,000.

In Dyfed-Powys, the most commonly targeted were people aged between 70 and 79, with around 841 reported victims making up 19 per cent of all those who gave an age. There were 2,024 reports with victims aged 60 and over, accounting for 45 per cent of all victims, and 44 of them were aged between 90 and 99.

Dc Jordan said the courier scam, involving a bogus police officer, tended to be aimed at older people.

“This scam is often aimed at the older generation, who have a respect for the police and may fall for the story that much more readily,” says Dc Jordan.

“What is worrying is that it can be just the start of further fraudulent activity including phoning the victim up stating they are the bank and getting the victim to transfer money to another account in the deceitful belief that their own account is now at risk due to fraudulent bank card use. The third part is investment fraud and gold purchases.”

Det Insp Emma Wright of West Mercia Police, says: “Sadly, these predators are again targeting vulnerable people who may not have seen the news recently or be aware of media and police reports about this scam.

“I urge everyone who has elderly or vulnerable relatives to please give them a call, call over the fence to their neighbour or remind them if they pop into your shop that the police will never, ever, call you and instruct you to withdraw your cash.

“No officer will ever ask for you to travel to a bank and hand over your money as part of an investigation if a loved one is in custody or if your account has been compromised. These are all lies.”

Younger people, who tend to spend more of their time online than other generations, have also been identified as a vulnerable group. In the West Midlands, the 20-29 age group was actually most likely to fall victim to fraudsters.

Romance fraud, where criminals pretending to want a relationship con victims out of money, also saw a rise during the lockdown as more people turned to internet dating sites.

Vulnerable victim preyed on every 40 seconds

Official crime figures show that an older person in England and Wales becomes a victim of fraud every 40 seconds.

Age UK analysed the Crime Survey for England and Wales, which interviewed more than 34,000 people about their experiences of crime.

The survey found that almost one in 12 of respondents aged 65 and older reported being the victim of fraud in the last year – equivalent to more than 800,000 older people in England and Wales.

People are now nearly three times more likely to be a victim of fraud than to be burgled and nearly 19 times more likely to be a victim of fraud than to be mugged

Age UK has campaigned for a new national strategy to tackle the growing problem of fraud. The Charity argues that whilst there is some good work already taking place, such as the National Trading Standards Scams Team, fraud should become a national policing priority, backed up by much stronger and better coordinated partnership working across police forces, trading standards, banks, adult social care services and other local agencies to combat the rising threat from this type of crime.

Previous Age UK research found that more than two-fifths of older people – that’s almost five million people aged over 65 – believe they have been targeted by scammers at some point.

Fraud affects people of all ages and backgrounds but Age UK’s analysis revealed that those older people with higher incomes, or who lived alone, were more likely to report having been a victim of fraud.

Whilst there is increasing awareness of scams sent by email and online romance fraud, older people are also often targeted by pension and investment fraud as well as postal, phone and doorstep scams. Financial losses are common, but being scammed can also seriously affect a person’s quality of life and wellbeing.

Many people experience a deep sense of shame, embarrassment, anxiety and loss of independence following a scam. Some older people lose their life savings, decimating their retirement income, while those defrauded in their own homes are more likely either to die or go into residential care within a year.

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