Government warns on cyber criminals activity scams during COVID-19 crisis

Thousands of people could be conned if they don’t pay attention say, leading tax and advisory form Blick Rothenberg.

Fiona Fernie, a partner at the firm said: ‘Within hours of the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) there was significant activity by cyber criminals trying to cash in on the scheme.

‘These were in the form of emails that purported to come from the Government and suggested that HMRC needed bank account details into which the grant should be paid.

Fiona added that: ‘The wording most commonly used to-date is ‘Dear customer, we wrote to you last week to help you prepare to make a claim through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

‘We are now writing to tell you how to access the COVID-19 relief. You will need to tell us which UK bank account you want the grant to be paid into, in order to ensure funds are paid as quickly as possible to you.

She noted that: ‘Most scams focus on obtaining the banking details of the recipient either by suggesting they can claim some kind of financial benefit from following the instructions in the correspondence, (for example a tax refund to help protect themselves from the COVID-19 outbreak.

‘A goodwill payment from HMRC or a large sum of money in return for a set-up payment), or that they have a fine to pay as a result of some misdemeanor: such as leaving the house more than once a day during lock down.

‘The most frequent forms of communication are emails and text messages purporting to come from government or HMRC officials and are designed to lure the recipient into precipitate action before thinking carefully about the substance of the message.

She asserted that: ‘People should be aware that neither HMRC specifically nor government more widely communicates with individuals either by email or by text, unless you have signed up to the relevant protocol with them.  Certainly, payments that can be claimed by taxpayers or fines that can be imposed are not dealt with in this way.

Fiona warned: ‘The communications are designed to look entirely legitimate and as well as using official logos, fraudsters change the ‘display name’ on their email address to only show the name of the body they purport to represent. They are very clever.

‘It is imperative to treat any email or text apparently received from an official body with extreme caution if you are taken in it could be a very costly mistake. WhatsApp or social media messages are also used by cyber criminals and should be treated with similar caution.

‘So, what should you do if you receive one of these messages?

Fiona listed below some of the things that you can do to protect yourself:

  • Do not reply to these emails, texts, WhatsApp or social media messages.
  • Do not call the phone number listed in an email or text.
  • Do not click on any links or open any attachments in emails.
  • Do not provide any personal or financial details.
  • If in doubt about whether an email or text is genuine, click on/hover over the ‘display name’ email address from which you have received the email. This will show you the full details of the sender and will make it clear whether the email is from a genuine Government or HMRC source.
  • If you are in doubt about the source of one of these messages which appears to be from HMRC, forward it to them. You can do this via email or via text at 60599 (network charges apply) and then delete it.

Fiona said: ‘In addition, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has recently launched a reporting service urging the public to forward any questionable emails.The NCSC’s automated scanning system then checks them, and immediately shuts down and removes criminal sites.

‘However, there are other scams which are even less easy to spot, and which are designed to play on the other major anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, protecting our health.

She added: ‘Of the over 2,000 online coronavirus scams which have been removed over the last month by the NCSC, almost 500 were fake online shops selling personal protective equipment items such as gloves and face masks which either never arrive or do not meet the required standards. Some of the sites also distribute malware which damages the computer systems of those who visit the sites.

‘Even charities are at risk, some have been contacted by fraudsters claiming to be from an organisation able to provide helpful information such as a list of ‘at risk’ elderly people in the community who may require support from the charity.

‘The recipient is then directed to click on a link leading to a fake website or a request to make a cryptocurrency (such as Bitcoin) payment, to enable the release of the information.

Fiona said: ‘The messages are not confined to scams allegedly coming from this government; one received yesterday by a colleague purported to come from the National Crime Investigation Center, USA which is part of the FBI, it was another scam.

Dear Scam Victim,

This is National Crime Investigation Center USA.

In our investigations from banks on International and National Funds Transfer (INFT) protocols in the past 10 years from all banks worldwide. We have come across your contact details and records with one of these banks. In view of the carried investigations, we have contacted you confidentially for vital information toward your transaction with this bank. It was clear that the bank has delayed your payment thereby looking for a means to divert your fund to different individual account not belonging to you.

However, all bank officials who mishandled your transaction has been duly sacked and management dissolved and dismissed from bank work as a result of this attempt. Upon our investigation conclusion, we found out that your transaction was legitimate and for this reason, a compensation amount of $3,150,567.00 (Three million one hundred and fifty thousand, five hundred and sixty seven dollars) has been allocated to you for immediate payment through our accredited bank, Federal Reserve Escrow.

Kindly contact the compensation paying officer with the below details.

Fiona responded that: ‘Sadly, there are always those who are happy to exploit the problems of others to their own advantage.  Despite the many pressures we are all under in these difficult and unprecedented times, we must be vigilant so that we do not become their victims.’


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