Numbers of scam emails purporting to be from the UK tax authorities have skyrocketed since the start of the year, as criminals seek to exploit financial fears over the coronavirus outbreak.
The number of phishing emails reported to HM Revenue & Customs climbed to 42,575 in March — up 74 per cent since January, a freedom of information of request has revealed.
In January, 24,446 such emails were reported to HMRC, rising to 26,940 in February. However, in March, the same month the UK went into lockdown, reports of phishing scams increased dramatically.
The FOI request also revealed that Covid-19 was explicitly referred to in HMRC-phishing emails reported in March, having not featured at all in January or February.
Phishing emails fraudulently pretend to be from a trustworthy source to trick people into clicking on links and divulging personal information such as email logins, passwords and banking details.
Mike Hodges, head of private wealth at accountants Saffery Champness, whose firm made the FOI request, said: “Many individuals who otherwise may not interact with the Revenue regularly, or do so through a tax adviser, may now have very pressing reasons to correspond with HMRC directly, as a result of applying for the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme, or other government Covid relief programmes.
“Consequently, fraudsters are looking to camouflage themselves amid the disruption by deploying phishing emails, bogus texts and automated calls to take advantage of people when they are at their most vulnerable in the midst of the Coronavirus crisis.”
The pandemic has led to a wider increase in fraud. According to Action Fraud, the UK’s fraud reporting centre, 1,713 people had lost £3.5m to Covid-19 related scams by May 15.
“There’s nothing in life that’s so terrible that scammers won’t be prepared to take advantage — and coronavirus is no exception,” said Sarah Coles, personal finance analyst, Hargreaves Lansdown.
Mr Hodges urged people to be extremely cautious if contacted unexpectedly by someone claiming to be from the tax authority.
HMRC has stressed it will never email, text or message individual taxpayers on social media to offer a tax rebate or refund.
Taxpayers should forward any suspicious emails claiming to be from HMRC to email@example.com and send any suspicious texts to 60599. Consumers who receive suspect messages can also compare them with examples of scams published on the government’s web pages.