Twin threats to vulnerable as criminals resume doorstep tactics whilst scaling up mass marketing scams; reports jump 76% during pandemic.
The current flow of people back to workplaces is leaving the elderly and vulnerable at renewed risk from doorstep crime, according to new intelligence published by National Trading Standards (NTS). The annual NTS Consumer Harm Report reveals how criminals have adapted to the pandemic, sparking fears of a return to ‘business as usual’ on the doorstep as citizens have fewer opportunities to keep an eye on vulnerable neighbours.
Whilst doorstep criminals have continued to operate during the pandemic, data shows that lockdowns may have ‘held them in check’ as opportunities to pressurise people on their doorsteps – typically older people or those living alone – were restricted by more communities staying at home, more opportunities for neighbours to meet and informal befriending schemes set up to provide support. Doorstep crime complaints dropped significantly during the first lockdown* and overall the year 2020-21 saw a 3% decrease in reported incidents compared with 2019-20**.
But whilst doorstep crime and other pressurising tactics were curtailed in the height of lockdowns, criminals don’t just stop operating – they adapt***. The new report shows starkly how criminals reacted to the restrictions, revealing a huge rise in mass marketing scams, with intelligence reports in this area increasing by 76% on the previous year†. Whilst mass marketing scams include postal mailings such as fake competitions and lotteries, the rise has been driven by criminals moving online and adapting their scams, such as by preying on people’s fears about Covid-19 to sell fake medication to prevent or treat the virus. So-called ‘Impersonation scams’, where people receive texts, emails or calls that appear to be from trusted organisations such as NHS, HMRC or parcel delivery firms have also increased.
After the first lockdown doorstep crime reports did bounce back – with complaints to Citizens Advice more than doubling between the first and second quarters of 2020-21* – though the fact that ‘working from home’ largely continued is believed to have held numbers steady. NTS is concerned that seasoned criminals may not only revert to aggressive doorstep tactics as even more people head back to workplaces, but will continue to use lucrative skills learned during lockdowns to exploit the vulnerable in other ways.
Lord Toby Harris, Chair, National Trading Standards, said:
“Lockdown restrictions and a focus on protecting the vulnerable during the pandemic created a tougher environment for doorstep criminals. Whilst it’s great that normality is returning for many, we must not forget those who will still be at home and who may be at risk from doorstep criminals looking to return to their aggressive ways.
“We’re calling on communities to continue to look out for one another and to keep in contact with family and friends who may be at risk. If you see anything suspicious, report it to the Citizens Advice Consumer Service on 0808 223 1133.
“Equally challenging is the threat from criminals who have diversified into scams that don’t involve face-to-face contact – they will certainly be maintaining and ramping up these other areas of criminality. As ever, our teams are working around the clock to stay ahead of the trends and stop the scammers in their tracks.”
John Hayward-Cripps, CEO of Neighbourhood Watch Network, said:
“During lockdown, many of us felt more connected to our neighbours and a greater sense of belonging to our communities. As more of us now leave our homes for extended periods, the elderly and vulnerable may be feeling concerned that we could lose the valuable sense of community built up during the pandemic. It is important we continue to take moments out of our day to watch out and care for those in our communities, especially our elderly and vulnerable neighbours.”
John Herriman, Chief Executive of the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, said:
“The changing national measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic led to fraudsters demonstrating how quickly they can adapt their fraud campaigns to the situation at hand. During lockdown, we witnessed fraudsters pretending to be COVID-19 secure marshals to gain access to homes. It never ceases to amaze and appal me in equal measure the depths that some will go to rob people and especially during a time of unprecedented challenges.
“Today, consumer vulnerability is far more profound than many imagine and has devastating impact across all age groups and ethnicities. We need a new national conversation about consumer vulnerability and consumer protection, and CTSI will kick-start that conversation at this year’s CTSI Symposium in Birmingham at the end of September.”
Current and emerging threats related to doorstep crime:
- Use of telephone calls, emails, leaflets and websites to make initial contact with victims. Deceptive marketing may make them appear local.
- Use of fake ‘approved trader’ websites, which list supposed ‘official’ approved businesses when in fact the approval scheme is non-existent and most traders listed appear to be connected to known doorstep crime offenders.
- Repeat victimisation of the most vulnerable.
- Links with organised crime including money laundering and modern slavery.
Other emerging threats identified in relation to mass marketing and other scams:
- Mass marketing scams including mail scams for fake lotteries, competitions, clairvoyancy services etc, digital and telephone scams.
- Impersonation scams, where scammers pretend to be from trusted organisations to defraud consumers.
- Clone websites which mirror seemingly legitimate businesses.
- Investment scams promising high returns.
- Fair Trading issues associated with the ongoing pandemic, such as businesses not adhering to legislation and restrictions, and price-gouging, where businesses heavily inflate prices for everyday goods and services to exploit increased demand.
- The UK’s departure from the European Union is a major policy change that will continue to provide opportunities for scammers to target SMEs.
- The government’s response to climate change will continue to be exploited, for example criminals posing as part of official ‘green’ home improvement schemes.
If you or someone you know has been a targeted by a scam you should report it to Action Fraud online at www.actionfraud.police.uk/ or by calling 0300 123 2040. For advice and information on how to check if something might be a scam, visit: www.citizensadvice.org.uk/consumer/scams/check-if-something-might-be-a-scam/. People can also protect their neighbours by joining Friends Against Scams, which provides free online training to empower people to take a stand against scams.
Notes to Editors
For more information please contact the NTS press office at firstname.lastname@example.org or 020 7101 5013
To access the Consumer Harm Report, please visit: https://www.nationaltradingstandards.uk/uploads/Consumer%20Harm%202021.pdf
Notes to Editors
– *Comparing NTS Annual Reports (2019-20 and 2020-21). See table below:
|Intel logs: Doorstep crime
|Apr 19 – Mar 20
|Apr 20 – Mar 21
|Citizens Advice complaints: Doorstep crime & cold calling
|Apr 19 – Mar 20
|Apr 20 – Mar 21
– **NTS Teams and Trading Standards Services in England and Wales intelligence logs on doorstep crime decreased by 3%, Citizens Advice Complaints on doorstep crime decreased by 2.6% over the previous year. Data from NTS National Strategic Assessment 2020-2021
– ***NTS previously reported that the first lockdown saw a reduction in telephone scams as illegitimate call centres closed.
– †NTS Teams and Trading Standards Services (in England and Wales) intelligence logs on mass marketing scams have increased by 1610 (76%) in 2020-21 compared with 2019-20, NTS National Strategic Assessment 2020-2021
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.