Scammers are exploiting our panic over cost of living crisis - be aware

With inflation at a 40-year-high these are worrying times for Scots, and – unfortunately – criminals have been quick to take advantage.

Consumers are being approached by scammers, claiming to be from organisations offering help with soaring energy prices and other aspects of the cost-of-living crisis.

As households struggle and seek financial support there is a greater risk of people falling-foul of callous fraudsters when distracted by other things, such as the worry of paying bills.

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Scammers are using a mixture of methods to target consumers, so it has never been more important to be aware of how to avoid them.

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October’s energy price cap rise is a timely reminder that anyone can fall victim to scams, and that the impact on personal finances and personal safety can be severe.

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At Advice Direct Scotland we have seen scammers adapt their tactics in line with major world events, including the Covid-19 pandemic and crisis in Ukraine.

New scams are being recorded as scammers try to exploit the challenging circumstances facing many families across Scotland.

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Scammers are constantly finding new ways to exploit our panic, writes Andrew Bartlett.

For instance, the UK Government has announced details on how households will receive £400 to help with rising energy bills this Autumn.

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Scottish consumers have been receiving emails claiming to be Ofgem, the independent energy regulator, advising they are reaching out in relation to the discount.

These emails request customer information or banking details, claiming that this is required for the payment to be made.

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This is a scam. Ofgem will not reach out requesting this information, and payments will be made as outlined by the scheme.

Similar tricks have been circulating claiming to be from HMRC. Such cons can be very convincing, often displaying the official branding and logos.

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But HMRC will never request bank details via email or telephone on their first contact.

Remember, these fraudsters only need this trick to work once – it’s irrelevant to them if 1,000 other people see the scam for what it is.

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There are also reports of consumers being offered ‘discount cards’ that offer reductions on energy costs. Most often, it is prepayment customers who are targeted.

This type of scammer offers a card for an up-front payment that supposedly entitles them to discounts on energy.

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Very often this fraudster operates door-to-door, taking payments in cash, which are practically untraceable.

Standing back from this situation, it may appear obvious with soaring wholesale energy prices that no energy supplier would offer discounts in this manner.

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But in the heat of the moment, when someone is anxious about money or has other issues occupying their mind, it can be easy to slip up.

As ever, if an offer made to you sounds too good to be true – it probably is. Scammers utilise panic in times of uncertainty to go about their business.

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On each of these occasions, they can steal thousands of pounds from an unsuspecting member of the public.

And when smaller amounts are taken, or when the victim is someone who doesn’t have cause to routinely check their bank balance, the thieves can be off into the sunset before anyone has even noticed.

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Financial and investment scams, such as those involving the mysterious world of crypto-currency, and telephone and phishing scams remain a concern.

Sometimes these scammers falsely use photos or videos of celebrities as endorsement, or to seem more legitimate.

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While we may not automatically associate romance and companionship scams with the cost-of-living crisis, these types of cons play on the emotions of the potential victim.

Many of these scammers use flattery and ‘love bombing’ – showering a person with compliments and declarations of affection very early on in a conversation to gain trust.

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When this trust is built, the scammer uses this, and sometimes emotional blackmail, to gather information or trick the target into giving them money.

And while so much of this illegal and disgraceful activity has moved online, fraudsters are still operating in person too.

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Householders should be wary of unsolicited visits from people claiming to be sales representatives or energy firm meter readers.

It’s important that people know it’s better to risk being blunt with someone who shows up unannounced on their doorstep than to be duped by a criminal.

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At Advice Direct Scotland we regularly highlight the importance of remaining vigilant, what action to take to improve security, and how to contact us – if you have been scammed.

Our experts can help consumers reduce their exposure to scammers when they reach out through email, over the phone, or at the front door.

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Anyone who wants to report a scam should fill in the ScamWatch Quick Reporting Tool at www.scamwatch.scot, which collects intelligence to share with various authorities.

But our priority is to keep people safe, and we don’t want to cause undue alarm.

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There are simple rules Scots can follow which should ensure their details remain safe, such as never sending money or bank details to anyone you don’t completely trust; never downloading suspect attachments to emails or texts; never ringing numbers which you’ve received in the post or by email which you don’t know; and never letting anyone in your house if there’s any doubt in your mind about their legitimacy.

We can put up signs saying, ‘no cold calling’, which may help to deter future cold callers.

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Above all, it’s important to remember there’s no shame in being scammed, and no shame in reaching out to us for advice and support if it does happen.

By reporting scams, we can tackle them head on, potentially stopping vulnerable members of our communities being caught out.

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Andrew Bartlett is chief executive of Advice Direct Scotland. Consumers in Scotland can seek free advice on freephone 0808 164 6000 or online with web chat and email at www.consumeradvice.scot.