Online fraud rose by up to 70 per cent during the pandemic as families were forced to go online to shop and bank, official figures have revealed.
While nearly all other crimes fell in the year to December 2020 because of the pandemic, fraud overall was up by four per cent, but by far more with scams by criminals operating online.
Official data shows fraud is now the most common offence in England and Wales, with people who turned to buy their goods online during the pandemic among the biggest victims. Shopping and auction fraud offences rose to 86,984 cases in 2020, a 38 per cent increase on 2019.
There was also a 68 per cent rise in “remote bank” fraud to 73,640 incidents, reflecting the rising number of people turning to telephone and mobile banking, according to the data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
The most common tactic by the fraudsters was to set up fake websites, mobile apps or social media ads, either mimicking trusted retailers with familiar logos and slogans, or faux e-stores which then failed to deliver ordered goods.
They even included scams aimed at exploiting the surge in online grocery shopping during the pandemic with fake gift vouchers from Sainsbury’s trying to elicit personal information and Asda offers that linked to premium rate phone lines run by criminals.
An analysis by Action Fraud, the police hub for the crime, reported mobile phone purchases was one of the most common targets for fraudsters during the pandemic, with 19 per cent of victims reporting ordering them only for the items never to arrive.
Others included vehicles (22 per cent), electronics (10 per cent) such as games consoles, AirPods and MacBooks, and footwear (four per cent) on sites such as eBay (18 per cent), Facebook (18 per cent), Gumtree (10 per cent) and Depop (six per cent).
The ONS data suggests police recorded fraud is a fraction of the true amount. Its crime survey, which questions people about their actual experience of crime, counted 4.5 million offences in 2020.
This is six times more than the amount of recorded fraud and nearly 50 per cent more common than the next most frequent crime, namely theft, with three million offences. The difference between recorded and experienced crime is largely due to millions not reporting it to police or law enforcement agencies.
Rocio Concha, director of policy and advocacy, Which?, said the figures showed shopping scams were happening on an "industrial scale and continuing to grow" fuelled by increasing numbers going online in the pandemic.
“Opportunistic fraudsters have been coming up with increasingly sophisticated tactics, often using fake or fraudulent adverts, websites or social media posts to trick their victims into parting with their cash,” she said.
"Search engines and social media sites have some of the most sophisticated technology in the world, yet they are failing to use it to protect their users from scammers abusing the platforms through fake and fraudulent content.”
The only other crimes that saw an increase were domestic abuse, up by seven per cent, and drug offences, up by 15 per cent as a result of proactive police operations during the pandemic.
Offences of violence against the person were up by two per cent.
Total recorded crime was, however, down by eight per cent to 5.6 million offences during a year of lockdowns and restrictions on people’s movement. Knife crime fell by nine per cent, firearms offences by 11 per cent and murder by 12 per cent.
Recorded theft decreased by 26 per cent driven by falls in offences such as: theft from the person (42 per cent), shoplifting (29 per cent), burglary (24 per cent) and vehicle offences (21 per cent).