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Insight

How COVID-19 brought out the best in society, the worst in criminals and an increase in identity theft

Written by David Povey on Monday August 3, 2020


2020; the year that wasn’t (so far)

2020 was due to be an interesting year. This was going to be a year of amazing sporting events, including the Olympics in Japan, UEFA Euro 2020 across Europe and the Ryder Cup in America. Brexit was going to dominate the headlines in the UK and there was a small matter of a presidential election in America on the horizon. Throw in every one of our own personal plans and special events from weddings, holidays, starting school and university, new jobs and so on; 2020 was shaping up to be a year just like any other. Terms like pandemic, PPE, airborne particles and much more technical medical jargon were unfamiliar or irrelevant to most of the population. However, Coronavirus has changed all that. And just like many crisis events before, we have seen the best and worst of society over the last few months.

The best of us

In these unprecedented times – a phrase that’s jumped from obscurity to cliché in seemingly no time at all – there have been many wonderful sights of people coming together. From the UK, where 100-year-old Captain Tom Moore walked 100 lengths of his garden to raise over £32 million for the NHS, to all throughout Europe, from Paris and Budapest to London and Madrid, where thousands of Europeans regularly took to their balconies to applaud doctors and nurses fighting the coronavirus outbreak, and the €15.9 billion raised in pledges by the Coronavirus Global Response from across Europe.[1] As a society, we have recognised the value of our carers, medical staff, cleaners, bin men, delivery drivers etc. We have found new ways of working to slow the spread, people have delivered groceries to their self-isolating neighbours and we are housing the homeless in unused hotels to help keep them protected. Some really good initiatives, both government-led and within local communities, have been borne out of necessity.

When we want to, we as humans find ways to make the best of a situation and often come away from it having learned new things and new ways to be. During a recent session at the ICA Big Compliance Festival, Jamil Queshi presented ‘Maximising Potential in a Time of Change’ and made the point that rather than going back to what was ‘normal’– when so many organisations are realising that the ‘normal’ way of things wasn’t actually perfect before – we can move forward, reimagine the status quo into something which is better, more fit for purpose and more sustainable for the future. In essence, taking an unavoidable negative situation and, instead of letting it weigh us down, choosing to find opportunities to make positive changes and improve for the future. This again is showcasing the best of us during a crisis.

Unfortunately, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows and these positive actions aren’t the only outcomes of a crisis, and there are all too many examples of how it also brings out the worst in us.

The worst of us

There have always been issues and problems within society. However, the current pandemic has thrown many of these into stark relief. We have seen people panic-buying groceries, hoarding toilet roll, and not following health advice by flocking to beaches and illegal raves.

Take this a step further, into the world of organised crime, and there has been an opportunistic boom in fraudulent and criminal activity. Millions of workers are now working from home in line with government restrictions. There has been disruption to local and global business activity, which has only been intensified by the lockdowns, travel bans and limitations on how much people and which sectors can work that have been introduced to curb the outbreak. The result is a prolific environment for fraudulent activity.

The more people take to the Internet to do business, the more fraudsters take advantage and try to steal from businesses and consumers by taking advantage of the coronavirus crisis. Action Fraud, the police organisation in the UK is responsible for recording cases of fraud, has found that since the start of February, online coronavirus-related scams have cost 105 victims nearly £1 million. That scale of financial loss – at almost £10,000 per victim – would be difficult for many to bear at the best of times. When it is added to such an anxious time, with heightened insecurity around employment and income, it can only make matters worse.[2]

Fraudsters are using the Internet, telephone calls and texts and even visits to people’s homes in their attempts to obtain money or data that could allow them to commit identity theft. Once a criminal has taken someone else’s identity they can go on to commit any number of crimes, and this predicate offence has been on the rise.

The rise in ID theft

Identity theft is a crime that has been occurring for many years and, in simple terms, can be defined as ‘when someone steals your personal information and uses it without your permission’.[3]

Experian, a consumer credit reporting company, carried out a survey in the US to find out if people are concerned about fraud and theft and what they are doing to combat the threat.[4] More than half of respondents (55%) said they have heard of a scam related to COVID-19, and 52% of those surveyed said they were somewhat, very or extremely worried their bank account information could be stolen while shopping online.

With much of the population on lockdown, criminals have become reliant on remote/online activity to keep their world turning. There has been a huge increase in online shopping: in March 2020, online retailers saw a 21% increase[5] compared to March 2019, and with that comes the increased opportunity to steal shoppers’ details. There has been a huge rise in the number of phishing scams, with security firm KnowBe4 revealing that phishing email attacks related to COVID-19 increased by 600% in the first quarter of the year,[6] often targeting people’s good nature; from claiming to be a miracle cure for coronavirus to attempts to raise funds for the health service – criminals will stoop to any level to con people.

The City of London Police reported a 400% increase in COVID-19 related fraud just within March 2020[7] as, during the start of lockdown, criminals took the opportunities it provided to attempt stealing people’s personal information, email logins and passwords and banking details. The majority of reports are regarding online shopping scams, where people ordered items such as protective face masks or hand sanitiser, which then never arrived. This is echoed by INTERPOL’s warning for people to ‘exercise caution when buying medical supplies online during the current health crisis, with criminals capitalizing on the situation to run a range of financial scams’.[8]

In addition to this, there has been a rise in a particular type of fraud known as ‘smishing’, which is similar to phishing but carried out via text messages. These all attempt to trick people into opening malicious attachments or links which could lead to fraudsters stealing people’s personal information, email logins and passwords, or banking details. The knock-on effect is that these types of attacks reduce people’s confidence in using the Internet which, during a time when it offers one of the easiest ways of staying connected, leaves them feeling frightened and alone, cut off from the rest of the world.

What can you do?

You may be thinking, so what? What can I do? Well let’s start by suggesting a few simple ways to protect against cyberattacks and avoid becoming the victim of identity theft:

  • make sure that any website you use when shopping online is secure
  • considering doing more to look after your payment details
  • question anything that sounds too good to be true, because it often is
  • regularly check your bank and credit card statements and question anything that doesn’t look right
  • consider if your password is strong enough. Criminals are very good at breaking weak passwords and gaining access to your accounts.

Finally, if you have been a victim of identity theft, or indeed any form of fraud, then you should report it to the authorities. The following websites provide further information and advice on how to report any type of fraud: 

  • Action Fraud– the central reporting tool in the UK for anyone who has been a victim of fraud 
  • The Metropolitan Police
  • INTERPOL– an inter-governmental organisation supporting police around the world 
  • National Crime Agency– responsible for managing the major criminal threats that the UK faces. It includes an Economic Crime Command. 

Criminals will always look for ways to exploit any situation, especially a crisis. This was seen during the aftermath of the September 11th attacks in 2001, the Boxing Day Tsunami that hit Indonesia in 2004 and during the relief efforts of charities when Hurricane Katrina hit America in 2005. On the flip side, society has shown its best side and many heartwarming stories and examples have been seen during all these crises.

Consider this final thought: a crisis always brings out the best in human beings – unfortunately it also brings out the worst. So, ask yourself, which side are you on?



Suggested reading

International Compliance Association, ‘COVID-19 fraud: The forgotten fraud risk’, 13 May 2020: https://www.int-comp.org/insight/2020/covid19-fraud-risk/ – accessed July 2020

Patrick Rappo, Katie O’Hara, Calum Ablett, ‘Top ten UK frauds to be aware of during the COVID-19 pandemic’, DLA Piper, 22 May 2020: https://www.dlapiper.com/en/uk/insights/publications/2020/05/top-10-uk-frauds/ – accessed July 2020.

INTERPOL, ‘COVID-19 crimes’: https://www.interpol.int/en/How-we-work/COVID-19 – accessed July 2020 


[1] Coronavirus Global Response, ‘Breakdown of the pledges made today in the ‘Global Goal' Summit: European Commission’, 27 June 2020: https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/qanda_20_1216 – accessed July 2020

[2] Sam Griffin, ‘Coronavirus Fraud: Protecting your Identity and your Finances’, Checkmyfile, 9 April 2020: https://www.checkmyfile.com/articles/3032/identity-theft/coronavirus-fraud:-protecting-your-identity-and-your-finances.htm – accessed July 2020

[3] Ben Luthi, ‘What Is Identity Theft?’, Experian, 7 October 2019: https://www.experian.com/blogs/ask-experian/what-is-identity-theft/ – accessed July 2020

[4] Stefan Lembo Stolba, ‘Survey: The Impact of COVID-19 on Fraud and Identity Theft’, Experian, 16 April 2020: https://www.experian.com/blogs/ask-experian/survey-the-impact-of-covid-19-on-fraud-and-identity/ – accessed July 2020

[5] Suzin Wold, ‘How Covid-19 has changed shopper behaviour’, Marketing Week, 7 May 2020: https://www.marketingweek.com/how-covid-19-has-changed-shopper-behaviour/ – accessed July 2020

[6] Stu Sjouwerman, ‘Q1 2020 Coronavirus-Related Phishing Email Attacks Are Up 600%’, KnowBe4, 9 April 2020; https://blog.knowbe4.com/q1-2020-coronavirus-related-phishing-email-attacks-are-up-600 – accessed July 2020.

[7] ActionFraud, ‘Coronavirus-related fraud reports increase by 400% in March’, 20 March 2020: https://www.actionfraud.police.uk/alert/coronavirus-related-fraud-reports-increase-by-400-in-march – accessed July 2020.

[8] INTERPOL, ‘INTERPOL warns of financial fraud linked to COVID-19’, 12 March 2020: https://www.interpol.int/en/News-and-Events/News/2020/INTERPOL-warns-of-financial-fraud-linked-to-COVID-19 – accessed July 2020.


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