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Press release

23 April 2020

Protecting businesses from COVID-19 scams

Malicious email attachments, false government grant phone calls and CEO impersonation scams are among a raft of scams undermining businesses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The increasing risk has led National Trading Standards to launch Businesses Against Scams – a free online training tool to protect businesses, employees and customers from costly scams.

With remote working and many businesses having to stop or diversify their trading practices, criminals are seizing the opportunity to target employees who are isolated from colleagues. Scams include criminals impersonating government officials or a senior member of the business in order to put pressure on employees to give out sensitive information or make payments.

Criminals will also try and gain access to businesses devices and networks, and everything stored on them. They can do this by:

  • Sending emails with malicious attachments;
  • Exploiting vulnerabilities in your operating systems if they are not up-to-date;
  • Trying to get you to click links or visit malicious websites.

Once they have access to your device and your data, they may try to steal your data or extract money from you by getting you to pay a ransom.

At a time when businesses are already facing challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the proliferation of related scams are adding further strain on businesses. This includes scams directly targeting businesses – such as tax refund frauds – which can lead to significant financial losses for businesses.

Scams targeting customers also undermine businesses, as criminals often impersonate businesses to defraud their customer base, causing reputational damage and potential loss of business. The emotional and mental impact on employees and business owners who have fallen victim to a scam can also be devastating and long-lasting.

The increased risk for businesses has led National Trading Standards to encourage more businesses to join Businesses Against Scams. The initiative provides free tools for businesses to help upskill and train their workforce, through free online training modules that will help staff identify and prevent potential scams. Businesses can take the training and sign up at https://www.friendsagainstscams.org.uk/BAS.

Louise Baxter, Head of the National Trading Standards Scams Team, said:

“Criminals will use every opportunity they can to defraud innocent people. They will continue to exploit every angle of this national crisis and we want businesses to be prepared. We’ve launched Businesses Against Scams as a free tool for organisations to help them protect their business, their staff and their customers.”

Lord Toby Harris, Chair of National Trading Standards, said:

“COVID-19 has presented new opportunities for businesses to be exploited. Criminals are expert at impersonating people, businesses and the police. They spend hours researching a business for their scams, hoping an employee might let their guard down just for a moment. Business must be vigilant at all times. Never rush, act cautiously and always challenge.

“The Businesses Against Scams initiative empowers businesses and their employees to take a stand against scams by equipping them with the advice and knowledge on how to identify and prevent a scam.”

Four common scams targeting businesses include:

Government grant/tax refund scams – A business is contacted by phone, email or post by government imposters suggesting the business might qualify for a special COVID-19 government grant or a tax refund. Variations on the scheme involve contacts through text messages, social media posts and messages.

Businesses should be cautious about unexpected urgent communications offering financial assistance. Check that the information is genuine by using official government websites.

Invoice/mandate scams – A business may be contacted out of the blue by someone claiming to be from a regular supplier. They state that their bank account details have changed and will ask you to change the payment details.

Never rush a payment. Use contact details that you have used before to check that it is genuine.

CEO impersonation scams – A sophisticated scam that plays on the authority of company directors and senior managers. An employee receives a phone call or email from someone claiming to be a senior member of staff – they ask for an urgent payment to a new account and instil a sense of panic. Scammers may even hack a staff email account or use spoofing software to appear genuine.

Be cautious about unexpected urgent requests for payment and always check the request in person if possible.

Tech support scams – With more people working remotely and IT systems under pressure, criminals may impersonate well-known companies and offer to repair devices. Criminals are trying to gain computer access or get hold of passwords and login details. Once they have access, criminals can search the hard drive for valuable information.

Always be suspicious of cold callers. Genuine companies would never call out of the blue and ask for financial information.

If a business believes they have been the victim of a scam they must contact their bank immediately and report any suspicious activity to Action Fraud https://www.actionfraud.police.uk or by calling 0300 123 2040.

Businesses Against Scams is a new element of the successful Friends Against Scams initiative, run by National Trading Standards to provide free online training to protect and prevent people from becoming victims of scams www.friendsagainstscams.org.uk/

Notes to Editors

COVID-19 scams

Detailed counter fraud advice is available online, including from Scamsmart, CIFAS, TakeFive, Citizens Advice, Trading Standards and the National Cyber Security Centre. There is bespoke advice about COVID-19 fraud on the Action Fraud website.

Reporting to Action Fraud can be done online at https://www.actionfraud.police.uk or by calling 0300 123 2040. If you live in Scotland, please report directly to Police Scotland by calling 101. For up-to-date information on COVID-19 fraud please follow Action Fraud on Twitter.

Forward suspicious emails claiming to be from HMRC to phishing@hmrc.gov.uk and texts to 60599. Check HMRC-related phishing, or bogus, emails or text messages against examples published on GOV.UK.

About National Trading Standards

National Trading Standards delivers national and regional consumer protection enforcement. Its Board is made up of senior and experienced heads of local government trading standards from around England and Wales with an independent Chair. Its purpose is to protect consumers and safeguard legitimate businesses by tackling serious national and regional consumer protection issues and organised criminality and by providing a “safety net” to limit unsafe consumer goods entering the UK and protecting food supplies by ensuring the animal feed chain is safe.

About Businesses Against Scams

Businesses Against Scams is part of Friends Against Scams, which aims to protect and prevent people from becoming victims of scams by empowering people to take a stand against scams. Anyone can join the Friends Against Scams campaign by attending a Friends Against Scams awareness session or completing the online learning. With increased knowledge and awareness, people can make scams part of everyday conversation with their family, friends and neighbours which will enable them to protect themselves and others.

Published: 23rd April 2020