Text scams use fears about coronavirus outbreak and to panic people and steal money

Andrew Griffin
Police community support officers talk to a man on a street in Brighton, southern England on March 24, 2020 after the British government ordered a lockdown to help stop the spread of coronavirus: GLYN KIRK/AFP via Getty Images

Police have warned about scammers looking to seize upon fear about the coronavirus outbreak to steal people's money.

The messages suggest that people have been given cash by the government or warn them that they are being punished for going outside. They look like official messages, even down to the recipient appearing to be the UK government.

But the messages are actually sent by scammers who are attempting to exploit people's panic about the outbreak to make money.

One of the messages claims that the government is giving out payments to people and that they need to click on a link to claim it.

"As part of the NHS promise to battle the COV-19 virus, HMRC has issued a payment of £258 as a goodwill payment," one representative message reads.

The details of who is supposedly paying out the money vary – some texts claim it it being distributed as part of the NHS response to the outbreak, and others say it is being administered by the council – but they all include an ostensibly official link that is actually run by the criminals. The links themselves borrow the branding of the official UK government website.

The links ask for card details, ostensibly to refund affected citizens, but which is then presumably used to take money.

"We are aware of scammers sending text messages such as the below to take advantage of unsuspecting members of the public at this time," the Metropolitan Police said in a statement. "Never click on links that are included in a text or email unless you are 100% sure it's verified."

Another widespread message does not appear to contain a link but is instead just a threatening message, presumably with the intended effect of seeing how recipient will respond. It claims that users have been out of the house repeatedly over the day, are therefore "in breach of government guidelines" and will be charged through their phone bill.

The messages can appear incredibly believable. Because of the lack of regulation and security measures in SMS messages, it is possible to pretend to be sending a text from a given sender, allowing scammers to easily pretend that a message come from the government or any other official body.

The messages are an example of "smishing", where scammers send texts that look legitimate but trick the user into clicking on a link, paying money or texting a premium rate number. While the latest examples look to seize on worry about the coronavirus outbreak, criminals often use any approach that is likely to be successful, such as claiming to be food delivery companies or phone networks.

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