New COVID-19 tactics to rip off consumers

Access to future treatments, quick-result testing kits and government support packages are all areas that criminals are likely to exploit in the coming months, according to new intelligence published by National Trading Standards (NTS). The annual NTS Consumer Harm Report reveals how criminals are adapting to changing consumer and business needs as the coronavirus pandemic develops.

While the immediate issues exploited by criminals earlier this year involved the fraudulent sale of fake PPE, hand sanitiser and testing kits, emerging and future issues are likely to include:

  • Price gouging from profiteering traders as demand for specific products rises rapidly, such as Covid-19 treatments, instant-result Covid-19 tests or other high-demand products
  • Online fraud as more and more shoppers avoid the high street and buy online, including a rise in the use of mobile apps and social media for purchases where counterfeiters already operate
  • Legitimate government initiatives that are exploited by criminals, such as fraudsters purporting to represent government to offer business support packages, ‘copycat’ websites mimicking government schemes and the new Green Home Grant; similar initiatives have been targeted by criminals in the past
  • New websites and social media accounts offering ‘miracle cures’ including fake Covid-19 treatments, fast-turnaround testing kits or other forms of purported, non-validated products that make false claims about the virus
  • Virtual home viewings that misrepresent the property for sale or let. Property viewings by video have risen since lockdown and will rise further if future restrictions are imposed
  • Fake refund websites where companies falsely claim to offer ‘assistance’ with claiming refunds for cancelled holidays, processing insurance claims or other losses consumers may have suffered as a result of changed travel plans
  • Exploiting the vulnerable is not a new tactic – but we expect it to become more prominent as the virus encourages more people to shield, increasing loneliness and isolation.

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

“During the pandemic we have seen criminals trade fake PPE and hand sanitisers, and prey on vulnerable people at home. As the coronavirus pandemic develops, so too will the type of fraud, and our intelligence shows that criminals are evolving their behaviour again to rip off consumers. There is naturally significant interest in the development of a COVID-19 health product and I urge consumers to be mindful that con artists and tricksters will try to exploit the situation for their own criminal ends.

“The Trading Standards community will work with the resources available to tackle the fake treatment websites and scams as they emerge, and I call on consumers to be extra vigilant – not only for yourselves but for friends, families, neighbours and others in our communities. Report suspected criminal behaviour to the Citizens Advice Consumer Service on 0808 223 1133.”

Lynda Scammell, Senior Enforcement Advisor at the MHRA, said:

“It is important to bear in mind that no medicine is licensed specifically for the treatment or prevention of COVID-19.

“Our advice is to not buy by any products claiming to treat or prevent COVID-19 – any claiming to do so are not authorised and have not undergone regulatory approvals required for sale on the UK market, consequently we cannot guarantee their safety or quality and they may pose a danger to your health and the health of others.”

“We continue to encourage the public, and healthcare professionals, to report any posts claiming to sell these types of products to us via our Yellow Card Scheme:

“Always make sure you buy your medicines from a registered pharmacy or website and your medical devices from reputable retailers.”

The annual Consumer Harm Report also provides an update on the work NTS has delivered. Since NTS was established in 2014, its teams have saved consumers and businesses more than £1 billion, representing £12.64 in consumer and business detriment saved for every £1 spent.

During 2019-2020 National Trading Standards Teams:

  • secured more than £350,000 in compensation for victims
  • took 5,256,377 dangerous and non-compliant goods, with a value of £173 million, out of the supply chain
  • secured 64 convictions, with prison sentences totalling 91 years and more than £400,000 in fines
  • added a further 200,000 ‘friends’ to the Friends Against Scams campaign
  • completed landmark prosecutions for two ticket touts who were sentenced to a total of six-and-a-half years in prison
  • and ensured that the criminals behind ‘copycat’ websites that mimicked official government websites were ordered to pay back more than £6 million under the Proceeds of Crime Act.

Small Business Minister Paul Scully said:

“Scams and profiteering schemes are despicable at any time, but particularly so if they seek to exploit the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Scammers are master opportunists, and it is shocking to see the new ways in which they are targeting vulnerable people.

“I would urge consumers to take extra care at this time, and to contact Citizens Advice Consumer Service if they feel they might be looking at a scam.”

CTSI Chief Executive, Leon Livermore, said:

“I am appalled and shocked to see the lengths criminals went to defraud the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. UK consumer protection has however risen to the challenge, and I applaud the excellent work of National Trading Standards over the past year.

“Statistics, showing that £173 million worth of dangerous goods were removed from supply chains, highlights the vital role that consumer protection plays. I am proud that consumer protection authorities, and in particular National Trading Standards have risen to the occasion during a period of unprecedented crisis.

“Although the vast majority of British businesses have behaved admirably, sadly a few have attempted to use the situation to their advantage and engage in price gouging.

“CTSI is pleased to support and amplify the excellent work undertaken by NTS and encourage the public to join their excellent Friends Against Scams scheme.

“While we are all working against mounting pressures, consumer protection authorities will continue to work hard, protecting the public in the most difficult circumstances and I am confident that the coming year will bring further news of success.”