Fraudsters devise new coronavirus scams and revive old tricks as householders report hard-sell visits.
Doorstep scammers are back in business after lockdown, as investigators issue warnings over a silent epidemic of unrecorded crime.
Almost £19m was lost to doorstep crime last year, according to the UK’s national reporting centre for fraud and cybercrime, Action Fraud. That’s despite a year’s worth of varying restrictions that should have meant very few unexpected visitors to homes.
With many “in-person scams like this dramatically underreported, the figures are likely to be far higher, consumer group Which? has warned.
And now, as more restrictions are lifted, experts are warning of an imminent boom in scams.
Doorstep deceit comes in many forms. Fraudsters might offer building, gardening or home-improvement services, then overcharge for or never complete the work. They often pose as salespeople or charity workers as a means of parting people from their hard-earned cash.
Reports to police for this type of fraud in April last year were 46 per cent lower than April 2019 as doorstep sellers were banned during the lockdown. However, by the summer, reports of doorstep scams had returned to pre-pandemic levels, with fewer restrictions stopping fraudsters from going out.
Which? has found that scammers have exploited vulnerable people’s uncertainty and isolation, using the pandemic as an opportunity to create new coronavirus frauds, as well as recycling old scams.
Since the start of the first lockdown last March, 16 per cent of people have received unsolicited visits from someone claiming to be a salesperson or charity worker, the research found.
Although it is unclear how many of these visits were scams, even genuine doorstep selling can leave consumers disadvantaged, unnerved and pressured, especially the elderly and vulnerable.
Just a week into the first lockdown, William Grayson, 81, from Weston-super-Mare, was visited at his home by two volunteers from a “Covid support group” who offered to do shopping and errands for him while he was shielding. He gave the young couple £200 cash over two visits for food and home essentials but never got his shopping.
He said: “Realising these people were out to get me made a dark time even darker for me to be honest.”
Elsewhere, victims have reported visits by fraudsters claiming to be from their local NHS, offering fast-track services, testing and vaccines, as well as collecting donations for fake charities.
The NHS continues to stress that all testing and vaccine services are entirely free, and that nobody from the NHS will ever turn up at your door unannounced. Those being vaccinated at home are likely to be contacted in advance by the NHS or a district nurse to arrange an appointment.
Adam French, Which? consumer rights specialist, said: “It’s highly concerning that doorstep scammers are back in business and looking to exploit the pandemic in every way they can. We all need to be wary of anyone who knocks on our door unexpectedly.
“Adopting a blanket policy not to buy goods or services offered at the door is a sure-fire way to stop any would-be fraudsters in their tracks,” he adds. This should apply to anyone you haven’t made an appointment with, including utilities engineers.
“However, if you do decide to purchase something at your door, you should ask the seller for their ID or call the company to verify their identity before making any payments,” says French.
“If you encounter a fraudster, you should report this to Action Fraud in England or call Policing Scotland on 101 in Scotland, and if you have any safety fears, dial 999 immediately.”
Paying by card for services or products that were not provided could entitle victims to a refund under Section 75 or chargeback rules.
If you’re deceived into making a bank transfer to a fraudster, your bank may be able to reclaim the money or refund you under a voluntary code introduced in 2019, called the contingent reimbursement model.
The prevalence of cash in doorstep transactions makes recovery of notes and coins all but impossible.
The public are also being urged to check on elderly or vulnerable neighbours and relatives to ask whether they’ve had people calling and warn them to beware fraud. Neighbourhood Watch schemes and community groups can also be helpful in raising awareness of local scams.
Mr Grayson now refuses to open the door to anyone unless it’s an arranged visit from someone he knows. His son has also fitted a smart doorbell that films anyone who turns up.
Trading Standards says deterrents such as these and “no doorstep sellers” stickers in the window prove surprisingly effective deterrents.