"Councils will do everything in their power to prosecute fraudsters and seek the toughest penalties for criminals taking advantage in this despicable way."
Elderly and vulnerable residents self-isolating are at risk of being exploited by strangers and cold callers posing as helpful neighbours in order to scam them, the Local Government Association has warned.
The LGA, which represents councils across England and Wales, is concerned that fraudsters are playing on the fear created by the coronavirus and the need for the elderly and vulnerable to reduce social contact. It is urging residents not to accept services from strangers or cold callers – whether in person, on the phone or online – who offer to run errands, collect prescriptions and do shopping and ask for cash upfront, or a credit card and its PIN.
Councils have already seen a number of coronavirus-related scams involving fraudsters knocking on the doors of the elderly and impersonating either council officers or health officials offering mandatory coronavirus testing. The intention of these fraudsters is to manipulate and gain the trust of the elderly and vulnerable in self-isolation simply to execute more elaborate scams, gain access to their property or access their savings.
The National Fraud Intelligence Bureau has already identified dozens of reports of coronavirus-related fraud in which the victims have lost a total of £800,000. The LGA says that not only are those self-isolating at risk of falling victim to fraudsters who could simply take their cash and not return, but by letting people into their homes unsuspecting victims are also at greater risk of catching the coronavirus. Other scams have included:
- Phishing e-mails offering quack remedies, vaccination kits or bogus medical advice.
- ‘Price gougers’ selling in-demand items such as facemasks and hand sanitiser at inflated prices both on fake websites and legitimate online marketplaces, with victims often paying upfront and never receiving the kit.
- Criminals exploiting pandemic panic to assist in burglary or fraud by impersonating government, council or medical officers.
- Scam e-mails pretending to be charities encouraging residents to donate or travel companies asking for information about cancelled holidays, often to secure unsuspecting victims’ payment details or steal their identity.
- Advertisements for “money mules” playing on the fears of the financially insecure, which are often part of more serious organised criminal networks including fraud and drug gangs.
The LGA says that while the vast majority of concerned residents offering to help the elderly and vulnerable in their neighbourhood are genuine, well-wishers will have the most impact by turning their focus to helping their immediate neighbours or neighbours they already know, making donations to food banks, or appealing to established services in their councils, the NHS or local charities.
Anyone who is stuck without food or medical supplies, or is lonely as a result of their self-isolation and does not have any friends and family or neighbours that they know in the area, should in the first instance contact their council.
As the fourth emergency service, councils are already working with voluntary and community groups, as well as newly established neighbourhood support groups, to identify where help is needed and the best, most secure route to providing this.
Cllr Simon Blackburn, Chair of the LGA’s Safer & Stronger Communities Board, said:
“By tricking elderly and vulnerable people in self-isolation to part with their cash, fraudsters are playing roulette with the lives of those most at risk.
“Keeping the elderly and those with underlying health conditions safe is every councils’ top priority and councils will do everything in their power to prosecute fraudsters and seek the toughest penalties for criminals taking advantage in this despicable way.
“Councils have plans in place for dealing with the very challenging circumstances presented by the coronavirus and will continue to review how best to use their staff and mobilise community resources to ensure that the elderly and vulnerable are given the support they need.”
- If you think you have been the victim of a scam, then speak to your bank immediately and report any fraud to Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040.
- You can get further information on dealing with scams and fraud by calling the Consumer Service telephone number via 0808 223 1133, or contact Citizens Advice.
- If you witness scammers in your area, or have any concerns, you should contact your local councils’ Trading Standards department.
- Government advice for dealing with coronavirus
- NHS coronavirus advice