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24 Jan 2022

The five biggest scams of 2021

Fake Royal Mail texts were among the scams most reported to Which? last year.

Fraudsters impersonating organisations were the most common scams last year, according to reports shared with Which?.

The crime you're most likely to fall victim to this year is fraud, according to the latest annual crime survey conducted by the Office of National Statistics. Based on the number of people getting in touch with us about scams, we're not surprised by these findings.

Last year, Which? launched its Scam Sharer reporting tool so you can easily tell us about scams you've come across to help inform our policy and campaigns work.

We received a total of 11,881 scam reports between March 1st - when our tool went live - and November 1st 2021.

Impersonation scams accounted for the majority of reports (69%) with fraudsters most commonly pretending to be from banks, household brands, the NHS and government departments. Phone, text and email were the preferred methods used by scammers to con victims.

Biggest scams of 2021

1. 'There's a problem with your Amazon account'

The enduring Amazon Prime scam continued to do the rounds in 2021, and was by far the most reported to us.

This scam targets victims through phone calls using a recorded message that prompts you to call back to fix an issue with your account. Sometimes a real person may be calling from a call centre. They may threaten to close your account if you don't act quickly - which usually means handing over your payment details.

Amazon never calls customers like this, unless it's to follow up on an issue you've raised.

Amazon phishing scams were also rife. There are a variety of different warnings scammers might send to trick you into clicking links that lead to fake Amazon sites. Usually, they claim your payment details need updating or include a fabricated invoice for something expensive that you didn't order, in an attempt to worry you.

You can usually spot these phishing attempts by checking to see if the email is not addressed to you personally, or the invoice is in a foreign currency.

Always sign in to your Amazon account from a new browser window to check orders and payment details rather than clicking on links in emails. It can take longer, but it's safer.

2. 'Your National Insurance number has been compromised'

In November, Ofcom reported that 45 million people in the UK received a scam call in the last year. It ordered telecoms networks to block calls from overseas from being masked with local UK numbers - a common tactic. But networks are skeptical, saying this won't have much effect due to internet calling technology.

One phone scam that peaked last year, and continues to do the rounds, is a recorded voice message claiming to be from the National Crime Agency.

The sternly worded warning from the National Crime Agency sounds serious, and many of you got in touch with us because you were worried it could be real. One victim told us she received several of these calls over a few days and was too anxious to sleep because she didn't know if it was genuine.

If you listen carefully, you can tell that the recorded voice is not a real person speaking - it's a 'bot' that's been auto-generated by software.

The call tells you to 'press 1 to be connected to an agent.' But this is a hotline to a scammer who will try to extract information and bank details from you.

The National Crime Agency doesn't communicate with members of the public. Realistically, there's not much someone could do with your National Insurance number without other personal information either.

Similar calls claiming to be from HMRC and warning you that you owe tax were also very common last year. These calls tend to peak around tax return season in the spring and caught a lot of people off guard last year. Again, HMRC does not contact people in this way. Contact HMRC directly if you have concerns about income tax or your National Insurance number.

3. 'You've missed a delivery'

The most common text message scams last year were warnings about missed deliveries or outstanding delivery charges.

The delivery company most impersonated last year was Royal Mail, according to the number of reports we received, followed by Hermes and DPD. We followed a Royal Mail delivery scam message to show you what happens.

Example of a fake Royal Mail text message asking for payment of an 'unpaid shipping fee'

These fake texts have a more sinister motive. Once they've conned you into handing over your details, scammers target you with other scams, using the details you've handed over to gain your trust.

Other text scams operating like this include fake texts from banks. The message is often an alert that a new payee has been set up or an unknown transfer has taken place, which asks the recipient into clicking through on the link to check the details. The link takes them to a cloned bank website which will likely ask for login details, PIN, and other personal information.

Avoid clicking on links in texts is your best bet to avoid text scams.

Criminals are able to track what mobile numbers interact with the links included in text messages, which lets them know what numbers are active. With this knowledge, they target you with more text and phone scams. We've been working with delivery companies on how impersonation attempts could be reduced best practices guide.

4. 'Apply for your Covid passport now'

We were inundated with reports about texts, calls and emails impersonating the NHS.

Troublingly, these scams quickly adapted as the situation evolved. At the start of 2021, we mostly had reports about fake invitations for Covid tests and jabs, as the number of cases soared and the vaccination programme ramped up.

Many scams requested payment or bank details in order to book a test or a jab when these services were completely free. We saw some very convincing cloned NHS websites which were cleverly designed to dupe people into entering sensitive information, thinking they were booking their vaccinations.

As venues reopened and travel restrictions loosened in the summer months, phishing requests for payments for Covid passports began circulating.

Fortunately, the majority of people targeted by these scams who reported them to us did not get sucked in. The NHS has been communicating with patients through text messages, and it can be difficult to tell the real deal from the scams.

The key thing to remember is that Covid services are always free on the NHS to British Citizens and those who reside in the UK. Be suspicious of anyone claiming to be from the NHS asking for money or payment information.

5. Online ads and social media scams

There's a high chance you've been targeted by at least one of these scams in the past year.

Online scams also featured heavily in our data, particularly dodgy retailers advertising on social media.

Action Fraud data shows that the most reported scam were those linked to online shopping and auction sites. This is in contrast to the scams you most reported to us, which were phone scams. Just 5% (634) of people who used our tool said they reported the scam, or attempted scam, to the police or Action Fraud. It's likely that phone scams have become such a common annoyance that people have simply given up reporting them.

The biggest losses

Which? research carried out in 2021, in partnership with consultancy Simetrica-Jacobs, suggested the average personal financial loss to fraud is around £600. But this past year we've heard from victims who have lost as much as £250,000 to investment scams.

The Which? Money Helpline received 346 calls in 2021 from victims of investment fraud looking for advice. Most victims told us they were hooked into dodgy investments by enticing fake news stories and adverts online, or on social media.

Ads were often falsely fronted by celebrities associated with successful businesses including Richard Branson, Gordon Ramsey and Deborah Meaden. Sometimes victims were enticed by professional-sounding websites and emails. There are common patterns, often telling you that your initial investment quickly makes excellent returns and encouraging you to invest larger sums.

First featured in January's Which? Money magazine

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