Impersonation Scams – What You Need to Know

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An impersonation scam occurs when a person is tricked into making a payment or providing sensitive information to a fraudster that claims to come from a trusted organisation such as a bank, the police, a utility company, or a government department such as the HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC). Almost 15,000 impersonation scam cases were reported in 2020, up 84 percent when compared to the same period in 2019.

Top impersonation scams

Clone firm investment scams

Clone firms are bogus companies that have been setup by fraudsters using the details of genuine companies authorised by the FCA (Financial Conduct Authority). With this scam, legitimate Investment firms are impersonated to trick people into parting with their cash. Victims are often contacted via social media platforms, marketing emails or search engine channels. Clone firms may offer you investments in products such as student accommodation, cryptocurrency, FX, shares and bonds that are non-tradeable, worthless and even non-existent. According to the FCA, consumers reported average losses of £45,242 each when investing with fraudsters impersonating legitimate investment companies.

How do clone firm scams work?

The process begins with fraudsters setting up a cloned website using the name, address and Firm Reference Number (FRN) of legitimate firms authorised by the FCA. Many of the content on the bogus website will be the same, but the contacts will be changed so that when you try to get in touch with the legitimate firm, you’ll be corresponding with the fraudsters instead.

How can I avoid being scammed in this way?

Clone firm scams are highly sophisticated, and often very difficult for ordinary people to spot. Even if you do some due diligence by checking the FRA register, it isn’t enough because you’re dealing with impersonation of a legitimate firm. This means the Firm Reference Number will be genuine. In fact, fraudsters often encourage victims to check the FRA register as proof of their legitimacy. If you are currently considering an investment opportunity, here are tips offered by the FCA to avoid falling victim to this scam.

  • Check out the regularly updated warning list of firms that you should avoid doing business with.
  • Only deal with investment firms on the FCA register to ensure you’re dealing with an authorised firm.  
  • Use the phone number on the FCA register to ensure that you are dealing with the legitimate firm.
  • Consider getting impartial advice before going ahead with the investment opportunity.
  • Contact the FCA’s consumer helpline for advice.
  • When researching a company online, make sure the name of the firm is spelt correctly.

Make sure you check the register by typing because the Register has also been cloned by fraudsters.

HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) Scams

In the UK, scams impersonating the tax authorities have been going on since at least 2016. HMRC is a key target for fraudulent campaigns mainly because it is a government department and one of the UK’s most trusted bodies. Media reports suggest that nearly 1 million people in the UK have received calls, emails, texts or emails from criminals impersonating tax officials in the last year. According to the National Trading Standards eCrime unit, HMRC scams are most prevalent around paper and online tax deadlines.

Tax refund email scams

Millions of self-employed Brits who file Self-Assessment tax returns each year are the primary targets for tax refund scams, especially in the run up to January’s tax return deadline. Around this time, many received legitimate-looking emails with the HMRC logo that claims they are owed a tax rebate to help protect themselves from the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. The aim of these scams is to trick you into providing sensitive information such as your bank details.

Tax scam emails are becoming increasingly sophisticated, and can be hard to spot because they often appear to come from official government email addresses. They contain the taxman’s official GOV.UK logo, along with the crown. They can also include official-style reference numbers, reference your government gateway account, and are even signed off with the name and/or signature of a real HMRC employee.   

How to spot fake HMRC tax emails:

Fake HMRC tax emails are becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate from the real thing. HMRC have also admitted that many smart fraudsters now have access to falsified ‘from’ addresses to look like an authentic HMRC address, for example ‘ But here are a few things to keep in mind that should make it easier spot a fake email purporting to be from HMRC:

  • Spelling errors and mistakes with the email’s text is an obvious give away.
  • HMRC does contact people about outstanding tax bills, and uses automated messages at times. However, these calls will always include your taxpayer reference number.
  • HMRC will never ask you to disclose confidential information such as your full address, postcode, Unique Taxpayer Reference or bank details
  • Be suspicious of tax emails that pressure you to act immediately. HMRIC have confirmed they do not make these types of threats or demands.
  • HMRC will never send an email or text asking for sensitive information like bank details or personal information for tax rebates or refunds. They only ever send such letters by post. If you’re asked to share sensitive information like bank details to get a tax rebate, you can be 100% sure that it’s a scam.
  • Be cautious of an email that starts with a generic greeting such as “Dear customer”. Emails from HMRC will always use your registered name.
  • HMRC will never provide a link to a secure login page. Customers are advised to avoid clickable links within emails and text messages and navigate directly to the secure website and log into accounts directly.

What to do if you receive an email you suspect might be fake

If you receive such an email, HMRC requests that you forward all suspicious emails to for investigations. You can forward suspicious text messages to 60599. Text messages will be charged at your network rate. And if you have cause to believe you may have fallen victim to such a scam, you are advised to report the matter to your bank/card issuer ASAP. 

If you are ever unsure about the legitimacy of an email, here’s HMRC’s phishing email guide that provides some insights into how to recognize a fake tax email. HMRC have also published guidance on what’s genuine HMRC communication, and what’s bogus.

HMRC Phone Scams

HMRC phone scams involving criminals impersonating a tax official are often targeted at the elderly and vulnerable. They typically begin with an automated call from “Officer xxx from HMRC” with a warning that there is a criminal court case filed against you and a warrant out for your arrest.

You are urged to call the number provided in the call immediately. On calling that number, you’re likely to be informed that you have an outstanding tax bill that requires urgent payment. You may also be threatened with a criminal record if you refuse to pay. The amount of personal information that the professional-sounding man shares about you is likely to convince victims that the impersonator is genuine.

Tax scam text messages

One of the most widespread messaging scam is bogus notifications from HMRC. Cybercriminals use text message spoofing where they substitute the SMS sender ID to make the message appear to come from HMRC rather than a phone number. These messages will typically include hyperlinks to websites that will harvest your confidential information or download malware to your device.

Examples of messages you might receive include:

  • Tax refund: Recipients are told they are entitled to a tax rebate and to click on the included link to claim their refund.
  • Goodwill payment: A Covid-19 scam informing customers they are entitled to a “goodwill payment” with a link where you can apply for this payment.  Here’s an example of the scam wording: ‘As part of the NHS promise to battle the COV- 19virus, HMRC has issued a payment of £258 as a goodwill payment. Follow link to apply.’.
  • ‘£250 fine’ text message: This text message claims you are going to be fined £250 for leaving the house more than once. The message also includes an 0800 number to call to appeal and a link for more info.

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