Scammers stole £1.2bn from British bank customers in 2018

Rupert Jones


Scammers stole £1.2bn from UK bank customers in 2018, according to official data, with a near-500% leap in counterfeit cheque fraud, indicating some criminals are resorting to old-school techniques.

The headline fraud figure is up almost a quarter on 2017, when the total was £968m. There was a 50% leap, to £354m, in the amount lost to scams in which people are duped into authorising a payment to an account.

Last year saw a string of high-profile data breaches at household-name companies, and banking body UK Finance, which issued the data, said it believed that in cases where large amounts of customer data were stolen, businesses should contribute to a fund used to reimburse victims of scams.

Data breaches involving “three significant brands” which occurred during 2018 were reported to have resulted in the attempted compromise of around 6.3m payment card details, the body said. It did not name the companies, but they are understood to be Dixons Carphone, British Airways and Ticketmaster.

Companies do not contribute to reimbursement funds. It is banks and their customers who bear the impact, even though UK Finance said data breaches at third parties were a major contributor to fraud losses. “They don’t have any skin in the game,” the organisation said.

While the figures highlight how criminals are taking advantage of new technologies, they also indicate that old-fashioned frauds are surging in popularity among some scammers.

The number of people writing cheques continues to fall, but cheque fraud losses jumped in 2018, hitting £20.6m more than double the 2017 figure of £9.8m, and the first rise in seven years.

A 486% increase in counterfeit cheque fraud accounted for most of the new total. A counterfeit cheque is created by a fraudster to look like the real thing, and is then drawn on a genuine account. By contrast, a forged cheque is stolen from a customer and signed by the criminal.

However, UK Finance said the volume of cheque fraud increased by only 16%, indicating that a small number of high-value transactions led to the bigger losses in 2018.

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There has been a dramatic rise in the number of cases where criminals hack into email accounts – either of individuals, or of the builders, solicitors or other people they have employed – in order to dupe consumers into sending large sums to criminal accounts.

The Guardian has featured a number of these cases, which are also known as authorised push payment (APP) scams.

A total of £354m was lost to APP scams in 2018. This compares with £236m in 2017 – though UK Finance said the new data was not directly comparable as changes had been made to the identification of these frauds, and four additional banks had begun reporting cases.