Con artists masquerading as NHS coronavirus contact tracers have been calling victims and asking for £500 to send them test kits and results.
Experts warn the new Government tracking scheme has provided a ‘perfect landscape’ for scammers as it is so new and few people have any experience about how it works. It comes after England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jenny Harries insisted people could tell if callers are legitimate because they will ‘sound professional’.
But former vehicle fraud detective Ken German says many a fraudster has made money from sounding official and ‘well educated’ over the phone. The ex-copper says he was called four times by people claiming to be contact tracers, one of whom patched him through to a premium line number charging £3.50 per minute.
He said: ‘It was all so matter of fact, like “we do this all the time, we don’t get paid, we’re volunteers, we’re just letting you know you need to do this”. It’s that authority of voice.
‘I was walking around my office, I thought “what the bloody hell is this about?” when he said £500 I thought “What? That’s not right and that number is wrong. I put the phone down, if it’s really desperate, if they really need it they will get back to you somehow.’
‘I made a few enquiries and then I thought, “of course it’s a scam you silly sod”. I wasn’t worried at all [about coronavirus], my worry was that I wasn’t as quick as I used to be in getting round to knowing it was a scam.’
Mr German, 76, from Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, says he spoke to friends who had received similar calls, but one had only been asked for £100.
Having worked for Scotland Yard for 35 years solving vehicle theft and fraud, the father-of-two now works as a consultant for the motor industry. He says it’s surprisingly easy for people to fall for these tricks.
He added: ‘I think really you’ve got to hammer home to yourself that these scams are very much a part of today and you’ve just got to actually look at everything, you’ve got to challenge everything.
‘It’s a war, you might win one battle but you can’t win the war and if you’ve got anything they want they will try and get it.
‘These people are experts and they’ve live a good lifestyle from it. People who have been scammed are in very upset with themselves but they’re in good company.’
Founder and CEO of the UK-wide Cyber Helpline Rory Innes says he has been getting reports of this exact same con.
He told Metro.co.uk: ‘We haven’t had a huge volume of them, we’ve had a handful so far but £500 is the only volume we’ve seen. It’s a low amount, high volume model, they’re just trying to hit as many people as possible.’
Once they’ve run out of people who are willing to hand over half a grand, these sophisticated criminal gangs who often operate overseas are likely to lower their asking prices.
Being abroad makes it difficult for police to stop them as long as they are out of their jurisdiction.
Mr Innes added: ‘Typically they do eventually get shut down – domains get closed and numbers get blocked. But they just set back up really quickly, so it just become a bit like whack a mole.’
The Volunteer led Cyber Helpline anticipates these operations running for the next three to six months while the Contact Tracing System is busy making legitimate calls.
Mr Innes says these scammers are using digital marketing tools and hire people who can sound professional, making it easier to pull the wool over people’s eyes.
He added: ‘These are the same people who have been running loads of other different types of scams, they’ve just moved onto track and trace because it’s new, it’s relevant and people will fall for it.
‘You can get a phone call completely out of the blue and you’re told to self-isolate, it’s a perfect landscape for a scammer.
The Department for Health and Social Care say anyone who does not want to talk over the phone can ask for an email or text instead to log on to the scheme’s web-based service. Details on what will and won’t be asked can be found here.
A DHSC spokesperson said: ‘NHS Test and Trace is vitally important to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.
‘We have been working with the police and the National Cyber Security Centre, who have advised on measures to keep the public safe.
‘Official NHS Test and Trace contact tracers will never ask you for payment, financial details, PINs or passwords. They will also never visit your home.’
Contact tracers will never
Ask you to dial a premium rate number to speak to us (for example, those starting 09 or 087)
Ask you to make any form of payment
Ask for any details about your bank account
Ask for your social media identities or login details, or those of your contacts
Ask you for any passwords or PINs, or ask you to set up any passwords or PINs over the phone
Ask you to purchase a product
Ask you to download any software to your device or ask you to hand over control of your PC, smartphone or tablet
Ask you to access any website that does not belong to the Government or NHS
A spokesperson for City of London Police’s Action Fraud reporting centre said: ‘Unfortunately, criminals will exploit every opportunity they can to defraud innocent people of their money, or steal their personal details.
‘This government service is extremely important in the fight against coronavirus and it’s vital the public get on board with it. However, we understand the concerns people have about the opportunity for criminals to commit scams and we are aware from media reports that some scam texts are already in circulation.
‘It’s important to remember that NHS Test and Trace will never ask you for financial details, PINs or passwords. They will also never visit your home.
‘Whilst it is possible for criminals to fake official phone numbers, they cannot fake official website addresses. We would encourage anyone with concerns about a phone call, text message or email they have received, in relation to Test and Trace, to check the website address being provided to you carefully.’
‘If possible type in the official address, which will be https://contact-tracing.phe.gov.uk followed by unique characters given to you, directly into your browser.
‘If you think you have been sent a scam message, please report it to Action Fraud.’