Criminals are posing as nurses on dating sites in order to take advantage of unsuspecting victims during the coronavirus crisis, alongside other online scams.
The National Crime Agency (NCA) says fraudsters are also offering fake or non-existent items for sale –including game consoles, personal protective equipment (PPE), medicines and even puppies – as they prey on people’s fears during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday, NCA director general Lynn Owens said online shopping fraud is up by 46% since the lockdown, “making it one of the biggest growth areas in crime” in the UK.
Owens said the topic of COVID-19 is now linked to around 3% of all online scams reported to the agency.
She said: “We’ve even seen reports of a dating fraud where people are pretending to be… a nurse in a hospital and say, ‘I need money to help me to get to work’, and abuse people that way."
The NCA is working with the Cabinet Office, the Department of Work and Pensions and HMRC to identify fraudulent claims being made.
Investigators also fear organised crime gangs could try to exploit the government’s financial stimulus package.
Owens said production of cocaine in South America and heroin in Asia has continued “almost unaffected” by Covid-19, but restriction of movement rules has allowed the agency to intercept large batches.
The NCA was involved in the seizure of some 25 tonnes of Class A drugs around the world last month, including two tonnes of cocaine off the coast of Panama, another four tonnes off the coast of Spain and Portugal, and hundreds of kilos of heroin in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
She continued: “Restrictions have meant fewer opportunities for criminals to move drugs in smaller, more discrete amounts, especially through passenger traffic, which in turn means they’ve had to take more risks and move more drugs in bulk.
“Criminals may believe that authorities are distracted, particularly at ports, and think there is an opportunity to import larger quantities. We have shown this is far from the truth.”
Investigators have made more than 130 arrests for serious organised crime-related offences and seized more than £15 million pounds in suspected criminal cash during the UK lockdown, which was first announced by Boris Johnson on 23 March.
Earlier in May, another hoax emerged attempting to fool people into believing they have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus.
It comes as trials of the contact tracing app continues on the Isle of Wight, with the government “confident” the technology will roll-out to the rest of the country on 1 June.