That’s the warning as National Trading Standards highlights threats to look out for as criminals exploit cost-of-living fears.
For one in four (24%) UK adults*, losing just £100 to a scam now would tip them into serious financial crisis, unable to pay bills, buy food or buy other essentials, according to research released today by National Trading Standards (NTS).
Although losing any amount of money to a scam today would hurt 70% of people more than it would have done a year ago, a loss of just £250 would tip 37% into crisis, with 48% unable to cope with a loss of £500.
As it publishes its annual strategic assessment on the emerging threats for consumers and businesses, NTS is warning that millions more people are now vulnerable to an incoming tidal wave of scams where criminals target victims on the doorstep, by phone, post or online, as well as being lured into the murky world of counterfeiters.
As the need to cut household spending intensifies, our buying behaviour is changing. More than three quarters of people say they are looking for bargains more than ever before and NTS predicts that desperation will see many tempted by counterfeit products. 36% say they would buy fake goods; of these, 41% have never done so before. This suggests 15% of adults – or 8 million people – could be newly drawn to fakes.
More than a quarter believe fakes are a cheaper way to get what you want and 17% think buying fakes doesn’t do anyone any harm.
But counterfeiting is not a victimless crime.
The criminal trade damages legitimate businesses and aside from being poor quality, fake electrical goods can be a fire hazard, while copycat toys can pose huge risks to children due to small parts, accessible batteries and toxic chemicals.
Even seemingly innocuous fake designer clothes and accessories cause huge harm as this trade props up organised crime such as drug trafficking, modern slavery and child sexual exploitation.
NTS is also braced for a spike in ‘green’ home improvement scams, with Citizens Advice seeing an 18% rise in complaints year-on-year, alongside a 28% increase in doorstep crime complaints.
NTS analysis of the incoming scam calls blocked by almost 10,000 call-blockers installed in UK homes, shows a staggering 85% increase from August to September alone in scam calls offering grants for solar panels, loft insulation, spray foam, double or triple glazing and boiler replacement. This is a sobering barometer of the onslaught of calls faced by vulnerable people across the country.
To reduce their bills, 64% of people are either currently making their home more energy efficient or considering doing so. Whilst these measures can lead to vital savings if handled properly, in the wrong hands they can be disastrous. NTS currently has five energy-related cases awaiting trial, including a firm that conned victims into paying for useless external invisible spray wall coatings, falsely claiming they would reduce energy bills, cure damp and reduce condensation.
With a third of people saying they have been targeted by home improvement criminals, NTS warns that those eligible for government grants will be particularly susceptible to criminals claiming to be from accredited government support schemes.
When asked how they would find a firm to work on their home, worryingly, 12% would respond to an online ad, 9% would reply to an ad on social media, 9% would respond to a leaflet through the letter box and 4% would hire a firm that knocked on the door – all classic tactics used by criminals.
Lord Michael Bichard, Chair, National Trading Standards, said: “Seventy percent of people told us they are more stressed about money than they were a year ago. This means people are more likely to be in ‘panic mode’ when making financial decisions – and this is what we see criminals capitalising on. Scams have always taken a huge toll on victims but now more than ever, people simply cannot afford to be ripped off.
“With living costs rising across the board, we are anticipating that the trade in fake goods will receive a boost that will put families in danger and cost society greatly in the long run. We’re also braced for a spike in doorstep and cold-calling crime, energy-related fraud and mass marketing scams as criminals target people trying to reduce their bills or take advantage of government support.
“My message to the criminals exploiting people’s money worries is that they will not get away with it. Our teams are working relentlessly to identify and bring them to justice and I would urge the public to help us by reporting scams to Action Fraud or Citizens Advice.”
From today, the NTS scam-fighting website Friends Against Scams, which provides free online training to empower people to take a stand against scams, will include a dedicated section on the cost-of-living crisis, bringing together advice and resources as well as updates on the latest scams to watch out for.
Friends Against Scams is also calling on more people to join their army of ‘friends’ and help raise awareness in their communities.
Matthew Upton, Director of Policy at Citizens Advice, said:
“From fake texts to faulty goods, scammers are preying on people’s attempts to make their money stretch further.
“Anyone can be a victim of a scam and you shouldn’t feel embarrassed if you’re caught out. Reporting your experience gives us the best chance of fighting back and stopping fraudsters in their tracks.”
Chief Executive at the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI), John Herriman said:
“These findings sadly come as no surprise to us, as we know from our own research that over two thirds of consumers see themselves as being much more vulnerable as a result of the cost of living crisis – and we are likely to see further rises in consumer detriment, the like of which the UK hasn’t seen since the days of post-war rationing. For the unscrupulous, current circumstances provide a golden opportunity for the criminally minded to profit from the most vulnerable.
“Local Trading Standards services are working in partnership with a range of other agencies, including the Police, and it is even more important that we continue to raise awareness to the public of the increasingly cunning and devious ways scammers are exploiting consumers, but also encourage them to report these to agencies like Citizen’s Advice and Action Fraud, to help us in taking action against these criminals. We continue to work with consumer protection experts to highlight emerging scams and to arm consumers with the knowledge they need to protect themselves at a time when every penny counts.
“With Christmas fast approaching this is also a reminder to the public that while counterfeit goods and festive fakes may seem like a money saving deal, they are a false economy and very often associated with poorer quality products, potential safety issues, as well as contributing to the coffers of organised crime.”
Tips to keep yourself safe from scams:
- Don’t be put on the spot when making any decision about money. Take a moment to stop and think before you give out any information. This simple action could save you hundreds – or even thousands – of pounds. Remember, a genuine organisation will never pressure you into an immediate decision.
- Don’t click on any link sent to you out of the blue, even if it looks legitimate. Go to the official website for the information, or for the correct contact details to get in touch yourself.
- Don’t be tempted by fake goods. They could be dangerous, they’re likely to be very poor quality – meaning you’ll have to replace them quickly anyway – and you will be putting money straight into the hands of criminal gangs. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
- Never agree to work by anyone who knocks on your door uninvited, rings you out the blue or contacts you online. Get recommendations from trusted friends or use your council website for an approved list of traders.
For advice and information on how to check if something might be a scam, call the Citizens Advice consumer helpline on 0808 223 1133.
You can also report concerns to us by using our online report tool which can be found here.