Pros and their cons: how fraudsters are targeting the under 40s

Woman speaking on the phone

From teenagers upwards, everyone is at risk from fraud – what danger signs should younger people be looking for?

By Steve Smethurst

While there are some old favourites, fraud evolves constantly in response to world events. BBC journalist Alistair Coleman could only laugh recently when he received an email from “Lawrence Pierre, financial assistant to the late Jeffrey Epstein”. Apparently, just two days before he’d died, he wanted to give Alistair 30% of a $10,500,000 fund for his charity work. As Alistair joked on Twitter: “I’m going to be rich soon because of this thoroughly legitimate email from noted financier Je... Oh.”

Few would fall for such a clumsy hook, but frauds are often much more sophisticated and many GP surgeries have recently put out advice saying that women are being contacted by text message, claiming to be from the call and recall service to advise they are overdue for cervical screening. The message asks them to call a mobile number and provide personal details. “These messages are NOT from the NHS Cervical Screening Programme,” says the warning.

Scammers have also been quick to target fears around COVID-19. Greater Manchester Police’s Economic Crime and Cyber Unit has seen an increase in pandemic-related frauds since February 1, for example. One is a phishing email scam, which falsely promises the victim a free supermarket shop if they click on the link in the email. The link then leads the victim to a fake site, to enter their personal and financial information.

Fraud prevention

This constant evolution is why everyone needs to remain vigilant – and despite a general perception that older people are more vulnerable, the risk is spread evenly throughout age groups and peaks between the ages of 35 and 54. ONS statistics 2 indicate that adults with university degrees or diplomas and those working in managerial and professional occupations show higher rates of victimisation. The same stats tell us that adults living in higher-income households (those earning £50,000 or more) are most at risk.

Data collected by Action Fraud, meanwhile, adds to this picture and indicates that younger people are particularly vulnerable to online shopping and auction frauds, ticket rental scams, card fraud and rental fraud, including holding deposits. 

As an example of the threat to younger generations, the CIFAS National Fraud Database, which draws information from more than 350 organisations, is pushing for fraud to be taught in schools, noting that the number of under-21s affected by identity fraud shot up by 26% in 2018 3

Its annual report noted: “The continuing increase in the number of young victims of identity fraud is a clear signal that the need for education on the risks of fraud is pressing. Younger age groups should present far less of a challenge when it comes to delivering appropriate prevention messages as many are still in education and can be more easily reached.”

Students at risk

Aviva’s financial crime manager James Tringham says that wherever there is money, there will be scammers. “There are certainly frauds we see where young people tend to be victims,” he says.

“Ghost broking is the one we see most of. That’s where someone pretends to be an insurer or a broker, and sets up fake policies for people. Customers are duped into believing that they’ve bought genuine insurance – usually at enough of a cheaper rate to be desirable. 

“There are also frauds that target students. Some are linked to fake accommodation, or employment, or even payment of tuition fees. Quite often, it’s overseas students who are the focus as their fees aren’t capped at £9,500, and can run up to £18-23k a year.”

Another financial crime targeted at the young, and also the poor, is money-muling. If you’re a drug dealer, for example, you will need to get your proceeds of crime into usable form. One way to do this is to hire dupes. 

James explains: “You tell the ‘mule’ that money will be paid into their bank account on some pretext. The mule then has to pay it on again, in turn. They get a small cut of the money for doing this. It’s typically aimed at teenagers on the basis that they’re usually too naïve to realise the implications.”

Like many UK universities, the University of Exeter has a web page devoted to fraud for its international students, and pays particular attention to the practice of money muling, 4 including a video that states: “Offers of making quick and easy cash are tempting. But don't be fooled. The money you're being asked to transfer could be used to fund criminal activity, even terrorism. 

“Banks have systems in place to detect suspicious money moving across accounts and will report this to the authorities. Your account will be closed, making it hard to get student loans, mobile phone contracts or other types of credit. You even risk going to prison for up to 14 years.”

Mule herders, as those who control networks of mules are known, tend to recruit online through Facebook and Instagram with posts advertising easy money. There will often be images or videos designed to lure in the unwary by showing individuals with lots of cash, showing off designer clothes and other luxury items. When a potential mule takes the bait, the conversation is moved to an encrypted channel such as WhatsApp.”

If it looks too good to be true…

Paul Pisano, UK Financial Crime Risk Director at Aviva is clear that it doesn’t matter how old – or young – you are, you can still be a victim of fraud. Fraudsters operate online, by post, email, text and phone and they can be very convincing. 

He says: “Fraudsters are particularly active now, during the COVID-19 crisis, often posing as raising money for the NHS or charities. Or they may offer too-good-to-be-true investment opportunities. Or ask you to pay money through your bank account for them. Be careful, and take the time to check things are genuine.

“At Aviva, we work hard with our customers, and with police, to detect and prevent crime. But we can’t do it all. Everyone needs to be alert to the dangers.”

Aviva’s three-step guide to fraud avoidance

  1. Spot – don’t hand over any money. Don’t give out your personal data.
  2. Pause and verify – could it be fake? Don’t click on any link you’re not certain of. Don’t assume callers are who they say they are. Ask for time. A genuine caller will happily give you that.
  3. Report and protect – use complex passwords and keep your software up-to-date. If you think you’ve lost money, call your bank immediately. 

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