There's been a huge spike in online shopping. Now scammers are cashing in, too

Lockdown closed shops and people turned to the internet to buy things - and many found that if an offer is too good to be true, it probably is.

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Over £16 million has been lost to online shopping fraudsters and scams in the three months since the UK started lockdown as people became reliant on buying things via the internet – and criminals have taken advantage.

The figure comes from Action Fraud, the UK's national reporting centre for fraud and cybercrime, which has received reports of online shopping fraud totaling £16.6m from thousands of victims since shops were forced to close due to the coronavirus outbreak from 23 March.

Unable to make purchases from retail stores, people are buying from online marketplaces instead – only for the thing they've spent money on to never arrive. Nearly a quarter of the victims were 26 years-old or younger.

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"The global outbreak of coronavirus has seen all our lives turn upside down. With the lockdown being introduced, so many more people are now online shopping, including those who have never done so before. It is, therefore, unsurprising that there has been an increase in fraud being committed," said Pauline Smith, head of Action Fraud.

"However, we are still seeing young people in their twenties falling victim the most. This has been the case for the last 18 months, which implies this is not just a trend brought about because of coronavirus. We would make a plea to this group to take extra care when shopping online," she added.

Some of the most common items people were trying to buy, only to never receive them, included mobile phones, vehicles, electronics including games consoles and laptops, and footwear. Most of the fraud victims were attempting to buy items from community marketplaces including eBay, Facebook, Gumtree and Depop.

In order to avoid falling victim to online fraud, people are urged to only buy from established retailers, to check reviews of the seller and to be wary of offers that seem too good to be true.

"It's important to shop on sites you know and trust. If you're using a site you've not used before, do your research and check reviews before making a purchase. Always be wary of emails, texts and social media posts that offer products for considerably less than their normal price – this is a common tactic used by criminals," said Smith.

It's also recommended that when making purchases online, people use a credit card, because it offers more protection if something does go wrong.

"We are working with our partners in policing, government and the private sector to look at ways to design out fraud and help protect the public. But we all have a part to play in preventing fraud, and a big part of this is down to our own vigilance," said Ben Russell, deputy director at the National Economic Crime Centre.

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"When buying from another person online, don't send money upfront, use a credit card if possible and remember, if something looks too good to be true, it probably is."

Action Fraud has also issued additional advice about staying safe online when using e-commerce, suggesting that people should use strong, separate passwords for all of their online retail accounts and email address, to prevent cyber criminals from exploiting password reuse if they gain access to one.

People are also urged to be wary of any unexpected offers they receive by email or text message because they could be phishing links to fake websites designed to steal money and personal data.

Anyone who thinks they've been a victim of fraud should report it to Action Fraud.

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