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26th March 2021

Criminals exploit COVID-19 pandemic with rise in scams targeting victims online

Criminals used the pandemic to target victims online, through impersonation scams, romance fraud and investment scams. UK Finance is calling for new legislation to make online platforms responsible for taking down fraudulent content and better protect consumers from these scams.

In 2020, Authorised Push Payment(APP) fraud losses amounted to £479m, up 5% on the previous year. Banks and other finance providers were able to return £206.9m of the losses from APP fraud to victims, over three quarters more than the sum returned in 2019.

Almost £7 in every £10 of attempted unauthorised fraud was blocked by the banking industry last year. Unauthorised fraud fell by %% to £783.8m in 2020, with the banking industry stopping £1.6bn of losses.
Criminals turned to online and technology-enabled scams to exploit people’s fears about the pandemic, UK Finance’s latest Fraud the Facts report has revealed.

Impersonation scam cases, in which criminals impersonate trusted organisations to trick victims into handing over their money, almost doubled to 39,364 cases in 2020, the largest increase of all scam types. During the pandemic, criminals sent fraudulent emails claiming to offer government support to those impacted by the pandemic and scam text messages requesting payments to book a COVID-19 vaccine. They also impersonated delivery companies to exploit the rise in online shopping.

There was a 32% increase in investment scam cases last year, which are often promoted through adverts on search engines offering higher than average returns, and a 38% increase in cases of romance scams, driven by the rise in online dating during the pandemic.

To capitalise on the increase in online activity during the pandemic, UK Finance has also seen the emergence of criminals openly advertising fraud and scam services for sale online, including template phishing websites and custom-built scam apps which replicate real banking apps.

UK Finance is calling for fraud to be included in the scope of the government’s Online Safety Bill to better protect consumers from these scams. This would ensure that online platforms such as social media firms, search engines and dating websites take action to address vulnerabilities in their systems that are being exploited by criminals to commit fraud.

Katy Worobec, Managing Director of Economic Crime at UK Finance, comments “The banking industry has worked hard throughout the pandemic to protect customers from fraud and to go after the criminals behind it, with over £1.6bn of fraud stopped in 2020.

However, we are seeing a worrying rise in online and technology-enabled scams that evade banks’ advanced security systems and use digital platforms to target victims directly, tricking them into giving away their money or information.

We urge the government to use the upcoming Online Safety Bill to ensure online platforms take action to protect customers by taking down scam adverts on search engines, removing fake profiles on online dating websites and tackling fraudulent content on social media.

It cannot be right that online firms are effectively profiting from fraud, while society as a whole pays the price.”

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