Scammers hoping to exploit cost of living crisis, UK police say | scams

The cost of living could be the next battlefront for fraudsters, the head of the UK’s police fraud unit has warned, with criminals using the crisis as a way to lure potential victims.

DCI Gary Robinson, chief of the Dedicated Card and Payments Crimes Unit (DCPCU), said he thought fraudsters could take advantage of financial pressure to persuade people to hand over their personal data.

“The next thing I can see is criminals using the cost-of-living crisis to social engineer people: They could send messages offering discounts on gas and electricity and play on people’s vulnerabilities,” he said.

Robinson spoke to The Guardian as the DCPCU celebrated its 20th anniversary and prepared to release figures showing 2021 was a record year for fraud prevention.

The unit, which is financed by the financial industry and made up of officers from the City and Metropolitan police forces along with members of the banking industry, blocked £101m worth of crime last year in operations targeting gangs. His investigations into scams and fraud involving banking clients led to 123 arrests and disrupted the activities of 23 organized criminal gangs.

Since the start of the pandemic, scammers have used a variety of themes in text messages and emails to get people to click on links and provide details that were then used to persuade them to hand over money from their accounts.

“Scammers move with the times: whatever the latest trend is, that’s what they tend to switch to,” Robinson said. “During the pandemic, we started with vaccinations, then we went to tax refunds when people were working from home, then we went back to vaccinations, and then we went to delivery scams when people were shopping online. Then we saw an increase in romance scams as people felt lonely at home.”

The unit’s work led to a number of convictions related to Covid scams, including a person who had collected victims’ details by sending text messages claiming to be from the NHS.

The £101m figure for prevention is based on the estimated value of a crime that would have taken place had the unit not seized data or equipment, such as devices containing personal data and card-stealing tools.

Robinson said the unit had benefited from increased support from telecommunications and social media to track criminals, who were increasingly relying on technology to find their victims. “Years ago we would execute a warrant and when we walked onto the property there was an old-style file cabinet that you would pull out and find stolen cards and forged checks,” he said. “Things happen now without a face.”

During the pandemic, fraud levels soared, with UK Finance reporting last year that £754m had been stolen from bank customers in just six months.

Robinson said the cases taken on by the unit, which focuses on the organized crime gangs behind the frauds, took time to work through, in part because of the scale of the fraudsters’ operations.

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“Our desire is not just to eliminate low-level criminals, but to climb to the top of the tree,” he said. The unit’s resulting shared intelligence and 20 years of experience made it possible.

While some crimes involved bank insiders, perhaps placed there by organized gangs, many involved fraudsters pretending to be from bank fraud departments and building societies.

Robinson said his job had made him wary of the calls he received. “My bank called me the other day about a transaction and my initial thought was ‘this is my bank,’” he said. Instead of responding immediately, he said that he always stopped and checked first. “It’s okay to decline, decline, or ignore whatever request they’re making. Criminals will try to rush you, but your bank or the police won’t.”

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