Online shopping hit by large-scale fraud: Which?

Phone and text scams have mushroomed during the pandemic. Messages such as those from fraudulent couriers that ask for administrative fees to deliver non-existent parcels surged by 83 per cent in the past year.

This may sound a slightly esoteric form of fraud but it has been fueled by the pandemic, with more people commiting themselves to the less than tender hands of delivery drivers and supermarket distribution agencies.

Fraudsters were using the increase in online shopping during the pandemic as a “springboard” for tricking a growing number of people.

Overall, the UK police agency Action Fraud reported a third more cases in 2020 than the previous year. The Which? organization reported more than 410,000 cases.

Scams related to shopping, investments and delivery-related frauds, and carried out over phone and by text, had already been on the rise — but at a slower pace than in 2020. The consumer group warned that last year’s acceleration indicated that “the scams industry has boomed during the Covid pandemic”.

The UK government has proposed new laws to tackle soaring levels of financial fraud in its draft Online Safety Bill (OSB)– — currently being considered by Parliament.

This establishes a new regulatory framework to tackle harmful content online and allows for the authorities to levy fines against social media sites unless they do more to protect people from losing large sums of money.

It is recommended that the Online Safety Bill should make the platform responsible for identifying, removing and preventing fake adverts posted by fraudsters.

The full scale of the problem might also be bigger than reports to Action Fraud indicate. ONS crime statistics include more than four million incidents of fraud in 2020, indicating that only a fraction of victims report fraud to police authorities.

Online shopping scams were, as in recent years, the most reported type of fraud. Complaints to Action Fraud surged by 65 per cent in the year ending April, with more than 103,000 people falling victim according to Which? Young people were disproportionately affected, with 56 per cent of online shopping scam complaints made by people aged 20 to 39.

But consumers lost most money through investment scams, roughly £535m in the past year. Which? researchers had found “an explosion of these scams appearing in adverts or results on search engines”.

Internet companies such as social media platform Facebook and payment company PayPal argue they make significant investments into preventing fraudsters using their platforms, but they do profit even from fraudulent advertisements or transactions.

Facebook said its team of 35,000 staff who work on safety and security disable billions of fake accounts every year, as the platform tries to “detect and reject scams”.

PayPal said “sometimes things can go wrong” and that its payment protection cover gives people 180 days to report issues, such as not receiving goods and services they paid for.

An indication of how cruel online scams can be, said Which?, was the growth of so-called recovery fraud, where victims are scammed for a second time as fraudsters pretend to help them recover losses from the original scam. Last year, victims lost an average of £14,408 to this kind of crime.

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