Cost of living scams: What to watch out for

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The UK faces dire economic circumstances, with inflation at a 40-year high of 10.1 per cent and driving up the cost of consumer goods, wages dropping 3 per cent in value between April and June and a bleak winter of spiralling energy bills on the horizon.

With the Tory leadership contest still unresolved and outgoing prime minister Boris Johnson seemingly seeing out his premiership from the beaches of Greece, no meaningful help for the British people looks likely before 6 September.

That said, former chancellor Rishi Sunak did announce a package of measures earlier this year to help struggling families through the worst of the storm, even if they were attacked by many as too little, too late.

His headline gesture was knocking £400 off household energy bills alongside a £650 one-off payment for around eight million households on means-tested benefits; a £300 one-off payment to over 8 million pensioner households to be paid alongside their winter fuel payment; and a £150 one-off payment for around 6 million people across the UK who receive certain disability benefits.

More will be required from either Mr Sunak or foreign secretary Liz Truss once one of them wins the keys to 10 Downing Street and the former’s successor as chancellor Nadhim Zahawi has reportedly already told Treasury officials to prepare to issue further payouts now that Ofgem’s energy price cap is expected to rise again in both October and in January, initially to £3,600 and then to a whopping £4,200.

Such desperate circumstances make for ideal conditions for scammers, with The Financial Times recently reporting that £1.3bn was stolen from British consumers in 2021, up from £1.2bn a year earlier according to UK Finance and that 140,000 calls have been into Stop Scams UK’s dedicated helpline since it was launched last September.

Analysis from antivirus software giant McAfee meanwhile reports that the number of scams naming one of the “big six” energy firms rose by 10 per cent year-on-year (y-o-y) in the first three months of 2021 when citizens first began to fret about their heating bills.

Most recently, Citizens Advice reported that 40 million Britons, more than 75 per cent of the population, had been targeted by a scam so far this year, a 14 per cent increase y-o-y.

COST OF LIVING: HOW TO GET HELP

The cost of living crisis has touched every corner of the UK, pushing families to the brink with rising food and fuel prices.

  • The Independent has asked experts to explain small ways you can stretch your money,including managing debt and obtaining items for free.
  • If you need to access a food bank, find your local council’s website using gov.uk and then use the local authority’s site to locate your nearest centre. The Trussell Trust, which runs many food banks, has a similar tool.
  • Citizens Advice provides free help to people in need. The organisation can help you find grants or benefits, or advise on rent, debt and budgeting.
  • If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email [email protected], or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.

Scammers operating by text, email, phone and even in person are expected to continue to target vulnerable people this autumn and winter by turning the present crisis to their advantage, just as they exploited the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine before it.

“We know scammers prey on our worries and fears and the cost of living crisis is no exception,” warns Dame Claire Moriaty, CEO of Citizens Advice.

“Anyone can be targeted by a scam, and as the purse strings are tightened and financial pressures pile on, it’s more important than ever we recognise the red flags. By reporting scams and sharing our own experiences, we can work together to protect ourselves and each other.”

John Herriman, the CEO of the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, adds: “Everyone is at risk of being scammed but the cost of living crisis results in more and more consumers facing increasing levels of vulnerability. This means they face even greater risks of being caught by unscrupulous and illegal practices by those who are intent on exploiting the already difficult situation people find themselves in.

”At a time when the sad reality is that some are having to make choices between heating and eating, people can be particularly vulnerable to, for example, fraudsters offering cheaper energy. It is crucial that the public is wary of all these threats and that they contact the authorities if they suspect any attempt to defraud them or others.”

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has already issued the following warning about scammers attempting to target cost of living payments.

Three specific approaches Martin Lewis’s MoneySavingExpert site has warned about include: texts claiming to be from “Gov.org” or the DWP itself asking you to claim or apply for cost of living payments – something you do not need to do as they are made automatically; bogus calls claiming to be from your local council asking for bank or card details so that your £150 council tax rebate can be paid (again, not necessary); and fake messages purporting to be from Ofgem (the payments are being overseen by the Treasury, not the energy regulator).

Other possible approaches scammers might attempt include offering fake discounts on prepayment electricity meters, false offers of energy refunds, tax rebates or phoney cryptocurrency promotions.

Here are some tips on how to avoid being caught out by scammers.

  • Do your due diligence. Do not send money to anyone you do not know or buy anything you are not entirely sure of. Deals that sound too good to be true often are. The Financial Conduct Authority’s website has a list of genuine companies whose details you can check.
  • Look out for spelling and grammatical errors, inappropriately informal greetings and sloppy layouts in texts and emails – dead giveaways.
  • Do not download files and attachments from dubious sources, make sure your antivirus software is up to date and run a scan before opening anything you are suspicious of.
  • Do not call unknown phone numbers from such emails, particularly if they appear to be premium numbers. Remember you can contact your service provider to check out the cost of dialling particular numbers.
  • Fraud can also happen in person so do not allow doorsteppers or anyone you feel uncomfortable with into your home.
  • Do not feel ashamed. Anyone can fall victim to fraud. Be honest with yourself and seek help.

For further information on scams and how to report them, visit the websites of Citizens Advice, Action Fraud or Stop Scams UK.

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