Fraudsters are increasingly carrying out sophisticated phone scams which can involve them threatening victims with immediate arrest if they don’t pay £1,000s on the spot – and bogus calls in some cases appear to come from HMRC’s telephone number. If you receive an urgent demand to pay tax over the phone, beware.
HM Revenue & Customs revealed earlier this month that it received more than 60,000 reports of scam calls in the six months leading up to January 2019 – an increase of 360% compared to the previous six months.
And one particularly alarming scam sees fraudsters ring and tell the victim that they will be arrested for tax fraud, unless they instantly hand over payment details and pay a fee – sometimes in excess of £4,000.
Those who’ve been contacted by scammers have described the calls as “very convincing”. MoneySavingExpert.com founder Martin Lewis tweeted about the issue after a distressed victim told him they’d lost £4,000:
IMPORTANT WARNING PLS SHARE! Beware a spate of SCAM HMRC calls eg “there’s warrant for ur arrest,” “you’re being done for fraud!” so “we need money today!” They can spoof it so it comes from HMRC’s actual number. Never pay. Call HMRC from ANOTHER phone if u want to check
But HMRC says it will never call you up out of the blue and tell you that you owe money, and will only ever call asking for payment on a debt that you are already aware of.
How does the ‘HMRC’ phone scam work?
This isn’t a new issue – we’ve long warned about this kind of scam call, and fraudsters pretending to be from HMRC use many different tactics to extort money from innocent people. But HMRC says it’s seen a sharp rise in bogus calls over the past six months, and one scam that’s being widely reported at the moment involves scammers ringing you and telling you that you’re suspected of tax fraud and are about to be arrested.
MoneySavers have told us that the fraudster will then ask their victim to confirm details, such as their name and postcode, before telling them how much they ‘owe’. If challenged, fraudsters then begin to give elaborate threats, for example claiming that they are dispatching police officers to arrest you within minutes, or that they will freeze your passport – neither of which, of course, they can do.
Victims are then pressured into giving their card details, which enable the scammers to take money from their account.
To make matters worse, calls often come from a number which appears similar to an HMRC one, and in some cases victims have said scammers have ‘cloned’ an HMRC number so that HMRC’s actual number appears on the screen. This is known as ‘number spoofing’ and is something Action Fraud – the UK’s national reporting centre for fraud – has previously warned about.
How to protect yourself from scam calls
HMRC has issued the following guidance to people to stop them getting caught out:
1. Recognise the signs. Genuine organisations like banks and HMRC will never contact you out of the blue to ask for your PIN, password or bank details.
2. Stay safe. Don’t give out private information, reply to text messages, download attachments or click on links in emails you weren’t expecting.
3. Take action. Forward suspicious emails and details of calls claiming to be from HMRC to firstname.lastname@example.org and texts to 60599, or contact Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040 if you suffer financial loss.
If you think you’ve received a bogus HMRC call, email or text, you can check it against the examples shown in this HMRC guide. The Gov.uk website also has more info on how to avoid and report scams and recognise genuine HMRC contact, and we’ve more help in our 30+ Ways to Stop Scams guide.
If you do lose money to one of these scams, it may be possible to get money back from your bank. New rules mean that when someone has been tricked into making a payment themselves, they may be able to get cash back.
What does HMRC say?
A HMRC spokesperson said: “We will only ever call you asking for payment on a debt that you are already aware of, either having received a letter about it, or after you’ve told us you owe some tax, for example through a self-assessment return.
“We work relentlessly to close scams down and make people aware of them. HMRC has a trusted brand which can be abused by fraudsters to trick people trying to fulfil their legal obligations. We have invested heavily in protecting taxpayers against scams and anyone who suffers financial loss as a result of one should inform Action Fraud.”