'Covid vaccine scammers nearly got me'

By Patrick Cowling & Shari Vahl
You and Yours, BBC Radio 4

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Sioban MooreImage source, Sioban Moore

For most of us, being notified that you were to receive your Covid-19 vaccination was a moment of relief.

But for some, it was the start of an ordeal that has cost people all over the UK more than a third of a million pounds.

Sioban Moore, from North Yorkshire, escaped disaster by a whisker after receiving an email, supposedly from the NHS, inviting her to get her jab.

A retired children's social worker, Sioban has been helping to drive people to hospital appointments and collect shopping for people during the pandemic.

Because of her volunteering work with vulnerable people, the email was just what she had been waiting for.

"I was very keen to accept the invitation," she told BBC Radio 4's You and Yours.

The message told her that unless she responded within 12 hours, the opportunity would go as the offer would be given to someone else. Eager to receive her vaccination, Sioban followed the link and accepted the invitation.

Personal details were then requested: date of birth, phone number, email address - and her bank details.

'The penny dropped'

Sioban found the reasoning for this request for her bank details strange, but believable, as the scammers said this was to cover any costs that might be incurred by the vaccine process.

"I got up and went to my purse and got out my credit card. I looked at it and the penny dropped massively," she said.

Luckily, Sioban realised it was a fraud just in time and didn't lose any money. Many people have not been so lucky and have been taken in by these scams.

A BBC Freedom of Information request has discovered that between 1 December 2020 and 25 June 2021, 1,168 reports were received by police forces across the UK of Covid vaccine-related scams - that's double the number for the previous six months.

These scams led to the loss of at least £388,468.44 from victims.

Of these cases, the vast majority are recorded as having "no outcome" and the remaining 29 cases are recorded as "no further action".

It is important to remember that these are only the figures of reported cases recorded by Action Fraud, the agency responsible for reporting frauds and scams, and that the real figure is likely to be much higher.

"I felt such boiling anger," Sioban says. "It's exploiting people's vulnerability and fear, particularly fear, that we are all gripped by due to this virus and the situation we are in.

"I was so angry that this could happen - not least with myself for nearly being taken in."

How do these scams work?

Image caption,
The fake emails purporting to be from the NHS can look convincing at first glance

Criminals attempting to defraud you will often use a topical issue of the day as their way into gaining your trust. Covid-19 vaccinations are just the latest in a long list of these.

In this instance, fraudsters will often send a text or an email claiming to be from the NHS and ask for personal details like your name, address, date of birth, and phone number - or as in Sioban's case - mother's maiden name.

This information will then be used to attack you. The same people will ring you up pretending to be from your bank and will ask whether you were texted or emailed about a Covid-19 vaccine.

When you say that you did, still pretending to be the bank, they tell you that your account is under attack and your money should be moved into a safe account they will set up for you. This is when they steal your money.

Fighting the scammers

Sarah Lyons, from the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), spoke to You and Yours about these scams.

"Unfortunately criminals are taking advantage of the pandemic to try to make money out of all of us. We see them using a huge variety of methods, such as the email with links, or text messages and phone call - these phishing attacks."

The good news is that there are ways to protect against these scams. If you suspect that you have received a phishing email, then forwarding the email to report@phishing.gov.uk will send it into the system of the NCSC.

If it is found to be malicious, then it will be blocked or taken down. If you receive a text, forward it to 7726.

Ms Lyons said that since the email reporting service was launched just over a year ago, they had received more than six-and-a-half million email reports from the public.

These have led to more than 50,000 scams being blocked and 97,000 scam URLs being brought down.