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Coronavirus: half a million shoddy face masks among surge in virus-related scams and illegal goods reported to councils

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Scams reported to councils of fraudsters shamelessly exploiting coronavirus fears by selling fake and unsafe products have soared, the LGA warns today.

The LGA said some councils have recorded a 40 per cent increase in reported scams since the start of the COVID-19 emergency, with officers continuing to seize illegal and shoddy products – including more than half a million substandard face masks by one council alone.

It is warning residents to stay vigilant against ruthless criminals using the coronavirus crisis to trick people – either online, door-to-door, by phone, text or email – into buying goods or services that do not exist. People should only buy goods from well-known and trusted retailers, and are being reminded that anyone using pressure tactics to sell goods or services is unlikely to be genuine.

Recent scams reported include fake coronavirus test kits and hand sanitisers, bogus medical products claiming to treat or prevent COVID-19, false communications about how to claim school meals funding and government grants, and criminals cold-calling residents at people’s homes offering to do shopping errands.

One scam involves a message sent by text or email stating that the recipient has been fined £60 for leaving their home more than once a day. Weblinks on these messages connect to websites that steal your personal information or hack into your computer or phone.

Recent examples of scams councils have either thwarted or are investigating include:

  • More than half a million substandard face masks and 2,600 bottles of illegal hand sanitiser taken off the market by Ealing Council
  • A car repair garage reported to Havering Council after allegedly trying to sell “COVID-19 testing kits” to customers
  • A telephone conman posing as a Swindon Council worker sorting coronavirus lockdown food parcels in a bid to obtain a pensioner’s personal details

Councils are advising people not to accept services from strangers or cold callers – whether in person, on the phone or online – who offer to run errands, collect prescriptions and ask for cash upfront, or a credit card and its PIN. If anybody needs support and is unable to access this from friends or family, they should contact their local council.

Cllr Simon Blackburn, Chair of the LGA’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said:

“Some councils have seen a significant surge in reports of scams by criminals exploiting coronavirus fears to prey on vulnerable and older people self-isolating.

“People need to be cautious. If something doesn’t seem right or sounds too good to be true, don’t hesitate to end a phone call, bin a letter, delete an email or shut the door.

“It’s important that victims don’t suffer in silence or feel embarrassed. By reporting a scam, people can help someone else avoid being a victim of these despicable crimes and help councils track down the fraudsters, bring them to justice and recover their money.

“Councils will continue to prosecute and seek the toughest penalties for these criminals. During this unprecedented time, it’s important that everybody – relevant businesses such as banks, family, friends and neighbours – plays their role in preventing fraud from happening in the first place.”

Case studies

  • Buckinghamshire and Surrey Trading Standards has reported a rise in the number of scam complaints related to the coronavirus outbreak with the total number of scam complaints increasing by 40 per cent since the beginning of March. They include reports of a woman in her 80s who answered the door to a man who tried to demand £220 in cash to complete a health and safety check. There have also been widespread complaints of scammers trying to take people’s bank details to cover payments for school meals while schools are closed.
  • Ealing Council has seized more than half a million substandard face masks – which fell apart during inspection – and 2,600 bottles of illegal hand sanitiser. The masks had fake safety markings, did not correspond to the description on the packaging and had no importer details. The council is undertaking criminal investigations.
  • Havering Council has received a report of a car repair garage allegedly trying to sell “COVID-19 testing kits” to customers. Officers also issued a warning to a chemist caught selling illegal, home-made hand sanitisers which were seized.
  • A scam phone caller posed as a Swindon Council worker arranging coronavirus emergency food parcels and asked for a pensioner’s date of birth, name and address. The would-be victim refused to provide her personal details, asked for the caller’s name who refused to give it, and hung up.

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