Scammers will hope to exploit cost of living crisis, say UK police

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

DCI Gary Robinson, head of the Dedicated Card and Payment Crime Unit (DCPCU), said he thought fraudsters could seize on the financial squeeze to persuade people to hand over their personal details.

“The next thing I can foresee is criminals using the cost of living crisis to social-engineer people – they might send messages offering rebates on gas and electricity and play on people’s vulnerabilities,” he said.

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

The unit, which is funded by the finance industry and made up of officers from the City and Metropolitan police forces together with members of the banking industry, blocked £101m worth of crime last year in operations targeting gangs. Its investigations into scams and frauds involving bank customers led to 123 arrests and disrupted the activities of 23 organised criminal gangs.

Since the start of the pandemic, fraudsters have used a range of themes in texts and emails to get people to click on links and give details, which were later used to persuade them to hand over money from their accounts.

“Fraudsters move with the times – whatever is the latest trend, that’s what they tend to switch to,” Robinson said. “Through the pandemic we started with vaccines, then we went to tax rebates as people were working from home, then back to vaccines, then delivery scams as people were shopping online. Then we saw an increase in romance scams as people were lonely at home.”

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Work by the unit led to several convictions related to Covid scams, including one person who had harvested victims’ details by sending out texts claiming to be from the NHS.

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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 skimming tools.

Robinson said the unit had benefited from the increased support of telecoms and social media in tracking down criminals, who were increasingly reliant on technology to find their victims. “Years ago we would execute a warrant and when got into the property there would be an old-style filing cabinet which you’d pull out and find stolen cards and counterfeit cheques,” he said. “Things happen now in a faceless way.”

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

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

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“Our desire is not to just take out the low-level criminals but to climb to the top of the tree,” he said. Shared intelligence resulting from the unit, and its 20 years of experience, made this possible.

While some crimes involved bank insiders, perhaps placed there by organised gangs, many involved scammers pretending to be from banks and building societies’ fraud departments.

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Robinson said his work had made him wary of calls he received. “My bank rang me the other day about a transaction and my initial thought was: ‘Is this my bank?’” he said. Rather than responding straight away he said he always stopped and made checks first. “It’s OK to reject, refuse or ignore any requests that they’re making. Criminals will try to rush you but your bank or the police won’t.”

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