Scammers using Covid-19 to take advantage of taxpayers

28 May 2020

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The number of HMRC-related phishing emails received by taxpayers and subsequently reported to HMRC in March 2020 was 42,575. This figure is an increase of 58% from the previous month and 74% higher than at the start of the year, according to new data obtained by Saffery Champness via a Freedom of Information request.

HMRC requests that any individual who receives an HMRC-related phishing email, text message or phone call report this at E: [email protected], in order to assist their investigations.

In March, the advice on scams provided on the HMRC website was updated to reflect the growing issue of Coronavirus and the potential impact it could have on the nature and frequency of the scams which individuals may receive.

In total, 945 phishing emails were reported to HMRC in March 2020 that were in some way related to Coronavirus.

In 2013, HMRC was the third most-phished brand globally, and had fallen to 14th in 2015. By 2019, HMRC was only the 146th most-phished brand. 

Mike Hodges, Head of Private Wealth at Saffery Champness, comments: 

“What these numbers demonstrate is that even during this unprecedented crisis, when individuals and households are facing enormous challenges to their financial wellbeing, there is no let-up in the attempts to defraud people of their hard-earned money.  

“Furthermore, many individuals who otherwise may not interact with HMRC regularly, or do so through a tax adviser, may now have very pressing reasons to correspond with HMRC directly, as a result of applying for the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme, or other government Covid relief programmes.

“Consequently, fraudsters are looking to camouflage themselves amid the disruption by deploying phishing emails, bogus texts and automated calls to take advantage of people when they are at their most vulnerable in the midst of the Coronavirus crisis. 

“Ultimately the message, just as for the Coronavirus itself, is always stay alert. HMRC will never email, text you or message you on social media to offer you a tax rebate or refund. If you receive any unexpected communication from HMRC, always treat it with the utmost caution and do not provide any personal details until you are entirely sure the communication is genuine and never click on any link in an unexpected communication.

“Promisingly, the data does seem to suggest that in the long-term HMRC are making good headway in the fight against these kinds of scams. However, unless we are all careful, the Covid-19 crisis could undo much of the good work that HMRC has done in recent years.

“Covid-19 has brought with it an upsurge in fraudulent activity, including reports of huge numbers of fraudulent Universal Credit claims, as well as fraudulent furlough applications. In many ways, phishing is just the tip of the iceberg. At a time when HMRC may be stretched, it is important that they do not let smaller things like bogus emails and text messages fall through.”