Shoppers need to be vigilant this Christmas, scammers are out in force - Andrew Vine

It’s less the season of goodwill that is approaching than a period of trying to cheat us all out of our hard-earned cash, judging by the number of scam calls and emails I’m getting.

The last week or so has seen them coming thick and fast into my inbox and on the mobile, and everybody I’ve mentioned this to has noticed the same thing, presumably because fraudsters are determined to hijack our online Christmas spending.

At least a dozen attempts have been made to scam me, some of them familiar because they have been widely warned against, and a few that are new.

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Among the old favourites was the call from someone pretending to be from Microsoft telling me there is a problem with my computer, and if I follow instructions, he’ll sort it out. The phone went straight down before the end of his pitch.

Beware of fraudsters determined to hijack our online Christmas spending. PIC: Alamy/PA.Beware of fraudsters determined to hijack our online Christmas spending. PIC: Alamy/PA.
Beware of fraudsters determined to hijack our online Christmas spending. PIC: Alamy/PA.

So too with the call from somebody claiming to be from HM Revenue and Customs, with the good news that I’m due a tax refund just in time for the most expensive time of year. No, I’m not. Goodbye.

Others, though, are less familiar and increasingly plausible, including a WhatsApp message supposedly from a company I know well and trust asking me to get in touch. I did, but on the number I know is genuine, not the one on the message, and they knew nothing about it.

Then there was the very convincing-looking email from John Lewis – again a company so many of us trust – offering discounts in exchange for completing a survey. Hot on its heels came an offer on orders for Christmas food from Waitrose, with genuine-looking branding.

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A look at the John Lewis and Waitrose websites quickly established both were scams, but the polished appearance of the emails suggested that the fraudsters are becoming ever more sophisticated and there’s no doubt they will have fooled a lot of people.

There were none of the giveaways that used to flag up scams, such as misspellings and sentences that didn’t make sense, or amateurish and obviously fake graphics. Shoppers keen to bag a bargain – and who isn’t, at this time of year – will certainly have clicked on the links and set off on the road to being defrauded.

It will be a few weeks before we know the extent of scams perpetrated on shoppers during yesterday’s Cyber Monday and last week’s Black Friday online sales bonanzas, but it is bound to be huge.

Earlier this year, the bank industry group UK Finance reported that in 2022, fraud cost the country £1.2bn – or £2,300 every minute - and there had been an estimated three million victims.

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They are just those who have reported fraud to banks. It’s a fair assumption that many more are unrecorded because consumers who have given away their account details know they will not be compensated, so simply don’t bother reporting it.

Behind those statistics lie countless individual stories of despair, of people who have saved all year only to see money carefully put aside stolen, of families possibly plunged into financial difficulties at a time when that hits home especially hard.

Even avoiding online shopping is no guarantee of staying safe from scams. Shops commonly ask for mobile numbers, or offer to email a receipt instead of issuing a paper copy, and almost without realising it, our details are out there and circulating, potentially offering a route for fraudsters to get in touch.

Yet virtually nothing is being done about it, even though reputable retailers are obviously waking up to the menace it represents to their businesses.

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That’s to be seen in the email sent by Amazon last week to customers worldwide offering tips to avoid being scammed. If that online giant is concerned enough to make such a move, it is an indication of the scale of the problem.

Far too little attention is being paid to it, either in Britain or, it seems, anywhere else. It is utterly pointless reporting online fraud to the police, since so much originates overseas and lies beyond their powers to investigate, even if they had the resources.

The Government has largely ignored online scams, despite announcing a “fraud strategy” earlier this year that involved the banning of cold-calls selling financial products and greater cooperation with tech companies.

Both ideas are laudable, but they aren’t going to stop people being taken in by a fake email with John Lewis branding, let alone track down the people sending it.

Nobody is getting to grips with this either legislatively or in law-enforcement terms. There isn’t even a public awareness campaign to encourage people to think twice.

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