Chapter 1: Scams and the Importance of Tackling Them
What are scams?
Defining what is meant by a “scam” is difficult. There is no legal definition within Scots law. People can also interpret the term differently, associate it with different events or impacts, or may have a preconceived notion of what a scam ‘looks like’ in practice. An example of this is provided in Box 1. All these factors can inform an individual’s behavioural response, as well as what type of enforcement action is taken and by who.
Scams can transform, evolve from one tactic to another and become more prolific or targeted once a victim responds.
While the definition of a scam may vary, and scams link closely to other criminal activities, there is one key common factor that underpins all types of scams.
At its simplest, scams are a form of fraud. They represent criminal activity.
To inform this strategy, preliminary work was carried out in partnership with advice and enforcement bodies in Scotland during 2019, and the following definition was agreed:
“A scam is a fraud or attempted fraud performed by a deceptive individual, group or company in an attempt to obtain data, money or something else of value.”
This will form the basis for on-going partnership working, although we recognise that this definition may be refined further.
For an overview of some of the most common types of scams perpetrated against people, see Scams Prevention Strategy Partnership and Advisory Group
Why is it important to tackle scams, and why now?
There are three aspects of scams that mean that tackling them in Scotland must be a priority for government.
Box 1: Perception vs. Reality – when is a scam not a scam?
Case Study: Refund for Cancelled Holiday
Mr Smith contacted consumeradvice.scot – a service funded by the Scottish Government and delivered by Advice Direct Scotland – after receiving a demand for a payment of £1,846 from a company in Ireland called ‘Intrum’ that he believed to be a scam.
“I was sent an email saying I owed money. We booked a holiday with EasyJet that was cancelled. We asked the bank for money back for apartment we booked in Croatia. The bank got the money back for us.”
He advised that the accommodation had been booked separately, and as such he may be in breach of contract with the accommodation provider for cancelling the contract and getting the money back. He was referred on to the Association of British Travel Agents for further information, as the accommodation provider were a member.
Although in the end it would appear that this was not a ‘scam’, the consumer had categorised it as such when reaching out to www.consumeradvice.scot.
(1) Everyone is at risk of being targeted by scammers, and some are at greater risk than others.
Scams do not discriminate, and so present a significant challenge to society. According to Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS), “Some estimates suggest that half the population are hit by attempted scams every year, many of them more than once.” In this way, we all exist on a spectrum of vulnerability to scams – some people are therefore at more risk than others, and require greater support.
Figure 2 shows some ways in which someone may become more, or less at risk of being scammed, according to both the tactics employed by the perpetrators and the resources or circumstances of the individual who is exposed to the scam. However, it has been recognised by some that there is a current absence of research, for example, related to the susceptibility of different individuals to online scams. For this reason, the descriptions provided are presented for illustrative purposes only, in order to reflect some of the commonly discussed ways in which frontline service providers and enforcement bodies currently look to support people and reduce their level of risk of being scammed.
The main point is that no one is immune from the risk that scammers pose, and scams are not constrained by geographic, demographic or socio-economic boundaries. This means tackling scams requires a multi-pronged and national level approach.
(2) The impacts that scams can have on people are wide ranging and can lead to longer term issues for those targeted.
The cost to our economy of scams is clear. In March 2018, EKOS produced their ‘Preventative Spend Research’ report into the financial cost of scams to the Scottish economy, commissioned by the Scottish Government. In this report is was noted that the Annual Fraud Indicator Report 2017 showed a cost to the UK of £190 billion across all sectors, of which around £7 billion related specifically to individuals. The challenge acknowledged by EKOS is that there are difficulties in establishing the true cost of scams to the Scottish economy. Most significantly, perhaps, is the fact that there is a current lack of disaggregated data across devolved administrations within the UK. Another is the fact that many scams go unreported by victims, meaning the true cost of scams is hard to quantify accurately. What can be said, though, is that from a financial perspective the issue is not to be underestimated.
However, the impact that scams can have on people is as much a social and health one, as it is an economic one, having an emotional and psychological impact on the person involved.
“It’s been really traumatic. […] It breaks you as a human being and leaves you scared of the outside world. It’s still hard to trust yourself and others […] and it take a long time to not feel like an idiot. There’s a lot of shame and despair which hasn’t gone away and I’m still awaiting closure to this day.”
The above quote is from an anonymous social media scam victim from October 2019; and is cited by Which?, as an example of the serious implications that scams can create for people, beyond financial or data loss of some form.
A report published by the Communications Consumer Panel in 2020 found that survey respondents to their research use words such as “traumatised, embarrassed, humiliated, angry and devastated” to describe the emotional impact of being scammed.
Those individuals who already suffer from poor mental health can be at particular risk of more pronounced detriment. The Money and Mental Health Institute undertook research in December 2020, which looked at Online Scams and Mental Health. At a UK level, it found that 40% of online scam victims have felt stressed and 27% have felt depressed, with people who experienced mental health problems being more likely to report both. The financial impact of some scams can also damage an individual’s confidence levels and self-esteem, or at the extreme, their ability to live independently at home.
If we are to create a fairer Scotland for all, then we must recognise the importance of taking a “whole person, whole system” approach to scams prevention, enforcement and support. We need to ensure that victims of scams are supported as crime victims, and consider their needs holistically.
The impacts of scams are diverse and intrinsically linked to wider judicial, financial, health and social care support infrastructure. This means that tackling scams – through prevention and capacity building – can bring a wide range of individual and societal benefits and reduce demand on the broader landscape of frontline services.
(3) The level and severity of scams being perpetrated is increasing.
More and more people are switching to digital platforms for both personal and work activities, this has only created new opportunities for scammers to reach a broader populous. The impacts of the current Covid-19 pandemic – both in terms of a shift to home working and the rate of change in government policy and funding programmes – has also provided scammers the chance to capitalise on general uncertainty, and the acuteness of needs of some people for financial or other types of support. See Box 3 for an illustrative example.
As Katy Worobec, Managing Director of Economic Crime at UK Finance, said in December 2020:
“Criminals are experts at impersonating people, organisations and the police. Particularly with the impact of Covid-19 and an increasingly digitised society, criminals are ruthlessly adapting their methods to target consumers online, via social media and over the phone. These scams are often sophisticated and well-researched […]”
Across sectors, there has been an evidenced upturn in the number of scams being recorded during the pandemic period. For example, UK Finance reported that its members had seen almost 15,000 instances of impersonation scams between January and June 2020, which represented a 84% increase compared to the same period the previous year.
Many frontline organisations, such as Trading Standards Scotland (TSS), have had to create bespoke advice webpages to provide the latest information on coronavirus scams, due to evidence of new tactics being deployed, including, for example, fraudsters cold calling homes pretending to be NHS staff to provide a bogus in-home Covid-19 test in exchange for money.
Box 3: How are scammers exploiting the Covid-19 pandemic?
Illustrative Example: NHS Scotland Test & Protect
NHS Scotland’s Test and Protect was rolled out across Scotland at the end of May and a new app, called Protect Scotland, was launched to support proximity contact tracing and help suppress the spread of COVID-19. Both are extremely important in the fight against coronavirus. Unfortunately, criminals will exploit every opportunity they can to defraud people of their money, or steal their personal details. Criminals are acting quickly and have started to contact victims pretending to be from the NHS. Below is an illustrative transcript of how criminals can try to exploit the uncertainty and novelty of the Test & Protect programme to trick people in parting with their money, as featured in an issue of the Scottish Government’s Cyber Resilience Covid-19 Bulletin, 18 June 2020.
Scammer: ‘Good morning, I'm calling from the NHS track and trace service. According to our system, you are likely to have been in close proximity to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. This means that you now need to self-isolate for 7 days and take a COVID-19 test.'
Victim: 'OK. Can you tell me who that person was?'
Scammer: 'I'm not able to tell you that. That is confidential information.'
Victim: 'Right. Um... so ....'
Scammer: 'But you do need to be tested within the next 72 hours. So can I just get the best mailing address so that we can send a kit to you?'
Victim: 'Ok (gives address)'
Scammer: 'Thank you - and I just need to take a payment card so that we can finalise this and send the kit to you.'
Victim: 'Sorry - a payment card? I thought this was all free?'
Scammer: 'No - I'm afraid not. There is a one-off fee of £50 for the kit, and test results. Could you read off the long card number for me, please, when you're ready.'
Victim: 'No - that's not right. This is part of the NHS so there's no charge.’
Scammer: ‘I'm afraid there is. Can you give me the card number please - this is very important. It ensures that you get the test tomorrow. Also there are penalties for not complying.'
Victim: Puts phone down. Calls Police Scotland on 101 to report the incident.
In response to these types of scam attempts during the pandemic in 2020, the Scottish Government liaised closely with Public Health Scotland and Trading Standards Scotland, in order to ensure that clear and consistent advice on what tracers would and would not ask of individuals contacted.
Following the initial national lockdown period in March 2020, TSS reported that “Scottish consumers have reported scammers cold calling households and posing as Red Cross or NHS workers to collect donations for fake Covid-19 charities. Other scammers have posed as local council staff and offered to buy groceries for self-isolating or shielding individuals, taking their money but failing to return.”
What the pandemic has shown us is not new – scams and the creativeness of their perpetrators is a systemic problem. Rather, what it has allowed is an intensification of existing tactics.
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