The UK’s National Crime Agency on Wednesday warned that scammers are increasingly using the coronavirus pandemic as a “hook” to defraud and urged people to be vigilant against these new forms of crime.
The warning came as a pharmacist and a surveyor were arrested on suspicion of illegally selling coronavirus testing kits in two recent NCA investigations.
“COVID-19 is increasingly being used as a hook to commit fraud – and we think these offences are likely to increase during the pandemic,” said Graeme Biggar, Director General of the NCA’s National Economic Crime Centre.
“Individuals and businesses need to be fully prepared for criminals trying to turn the pandemic to their advantage by scamming them out of money. Law enforcement, government and the private sector are working together to protect the public and combat these offenders,” he said.
The NCA said as part of the agency’s proactive response against criminals trying to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic, it has also shut down a website trying to fool victims into buying suspected non-existent personal protective equipment (PPE) through phishing emails.
This followed arrests under the UK’s Fraud Act 2006 of a pharmacist and surveyor in London who made false and misleading claims about COVID-19 testing kits.
“Criminals capitalise on fear and anxiety and they will exploit any opportunity, no matter how awful, to line their pockets,” said Nikki Holland, NCA Director of Investigations.
“Illegally selling testing kits completely undermines the nation’s collective response to the pandemic and actually endangers lives. Anyone thinking of trying to profit in this way should take note of these arrests and that bringing these offenders to justice and ceasing their activities is a key priority across law enforcement,” she said.
The NCA has found that offenders are targeting people trying to buy medical supplies online and have been sending emails offering fake medical support and scamming people who may be vulnerable or isolated at home.
Frauds have also been attempted by trying to lure victims with offers that look too good to be true such as high return investments, “healthcare opportunities” or appeals to support bogus charities.
Tariq Sarwar, Head of Operations for Enforcement at the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), said: “The use of products for the diagnosis of coronavirus infection in community settings, such as pharmacies, for home use, is not at present advised by Public Health England.
“The safety, performance or quality of the products cannot be guaranteed and this poses a health risk. Always make sure you are buying your medicines from a registered pharmacy or website and your medical devices from reputable retailers.”