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Scam Awareness - Latest COVID-19 Fraud Reports

Just as we take our first steps in 2021, many businesses continue to face severe challenges in light of the new lockdown.

The news came yesterday of a new raft of grants to the value of £4.6 million, which is both welcome and necessary to support employers and employees alike with the substantial impact to trading.

However, on the back of this governmental support comes something far more sinister - a wave of spammers and fraudulent schemes aimed at manipulating struggling firms, at a time when they need it least.

While HMRC has resumed activity with vigour, to relieve some of the pandemic's strain on the public purse, now is a time to be as vigilant as ever to ensure you only disclose financial details or make grant claims, from legitimate sources.

The SAS Accounting team has created this guide to summarise the key scams out there at the moment, and to explain how you can verify that communications purporting to be from HMRC are genuine.

Coronavirus Business Grant Scams

Several Coronavirus grant scams are being sent via email, with sender names and logos snipped from the HMRC website - some of which look very convincing.

  • Goodwill payment scams are being sent predominantly by SMS, and usually, tell you that you qualify for a goodwill payment or a discretionary grant from the local authority. Such texts typically include misspellings and direct links to claim your 'grant' and might use official-sounding wording.
  • SMS scams also include schemes where you receive a message stating that you have been issued a fine of £250 for breaching lockdown rules. These scams usually include a telephone number for you to call to appeal the fine - this shows as an 0800 Freephone number, but will, in fact, incur substantial charges to your phone bill.

It is improbable that any fine or rebate would be communicated via text or email, and you would be far more likely to receive a letter in the post.

However, if you do receive a message that you think might be genuine, you can lookout for a few key tells that it is, in fact, fraud:

  • Spelling errors or poor grammar.
  • Unusual web links, such as 'govrebategrant.com' - not official GOV.UK addresses.
  • Lack of a name or business name.
  • Incorrectly spelt names or addresses.
  • Words or language that would not be used by HMRC.
  • Instructions to click on an external link, enter bank details, or call a telephone number not listed on the GOV.UK website.

If in any doubt, do NOT click on a link or call a number. You can contact HMRC directly via phone or through your online account to query any communication that you think could be authentic.

Fraudulent Tax Rebate Scams

Another prevalent scam is to send text messages, which include a link to a fraudulent website. These messages state that you have a tax rebate owing, and need to click on the link to make a claim.

There are also email campaigns being circulated, directing you to click on a link, and usually stating that you need to fill in a form by an upcoming deadline to claim the payment.

Many such emails are from 'Team GOV.UK' - if in doubt about the origin of an email, you can hover over the sender name and see the actual address behind this. Most scams come from a generic email host such as Gmail or Hotmail and are not from a genuine HMRC domain.

In some cases, these scams are sophisticated, and the linked website is an advanced replica of the GOV.UK website. Should you think such a message is genuine, never click on the link, but access your HMRC account directly through your server. If the claim is correct, it will be displayed in your tax account.

ActionFraud reports that over £4.6 million was lost to fraud in the first lockdown in early 2020, relating to scam Coronavirus grant schemes.

If you are owed a tax rebate from HMRC, this will usually be confirmed in a letter. You can also log in to your account securely to view your tax statements, payments owing, amounts overdue, and returns filed in previous years.

Can I Report a Scam Email to the Authorities?

You can indeed, and we would recommend doing so where possible. The more reports about a fraudulent scheme, the more information and grounds for this to be investigated.

  • Suspicious text messages can be reported to the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), by forwarding them to 7726, free of charge.

By forwarding the text, rather than taking a screenshot, you enable the NCSC to trace the message's origin.

HMRC fraud can be reported via phone, by forwarding an email to phishing@hmrc.gov.uk or sending on a scam text to 60599.

How Do I Know an HMRC Communication is Authentic?

At SAS, we have seen an increase in debt collection agent activities, working on behalf of HMRC to collect outstanding debts.

Generally, any communications from HMRC will be via letter or telephone, and you are unlikely to receive a text message or email with confidential information, or external links.
 
In most cases, collection agents have access only to information about the amounts owing and are usually unable to assist with queries, which should be directed to HMRC.
 
Through our experiences, this can lead to a frustrating cycle where the debt collection agency redirects queries to HMRC and vice versa!
 
We are also seeing an exceptional volume of cases where HMRC is incorrectly allocating payments to amounts due, charging interest in error, refunding deemed overpayments from earlier periods instead of reallocating to current debt, and not being responsive to queries.
 
In this climate, businesses are at greater risk of falling victim to scammers. So, it is essential to verify any communications' authenticity, even if you have been waiting some time for HMRC queries to be successfully resolved!
 
Should you receive any contact from a debt collection agent and not agree with the amount they claim to be owing, please contact SAS in the first instance. We are always here to assist with HMRC disputes and ensure you get professional support to avoid any issues escalating unnecessarily.