HMRC warns students on cybercrime threat

Tax agency says freshers could be even more vulnerable to scams as teaching moves online

Credit: Daniel Reinhardt/DPA/Press Association Images

HM Revenue and Customs has warned that students starting university this autumn may be “particularly exposed” to cybercrime.

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, many students beginning or returning to university courses are receiving most, or even all of their tuition remotely. As well as the greater level of risk created by this situation, HMRC also warned that fraudsters have added to their arsenal of tax-related scams by posing as agencies offering financial support in coping with coronavirus.

During August, citizens reported to the tax agency 74,800 scam emails, phone calls, and text messages. About 55% of these promised tax rebates to the recipients.

“Thousands of these scams were targeted at students and the criminals involved appear to have obtained their personal university email addresses by unlawful means,” HMRC said. “These scams often offer fake tax refunds or help with claiming Covid-related financial support. Phishing email messages can also provide a gateway for criminals. Students who provide personal details in response can end up inadvertently giving access to important accounts, like email or online banking, leaving scammers free to commit fraud and steal their money.”

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Through industry organisation Universities UK, HMRC’s head of cyber operations Mike Fell has written a letter to all university vice chancellors advising them on how best to support students in spotting scams and ensuring they do not fall victim.

He said that many scammers will purport to represent government entities such as TV Licensing, the DVLA, or ‘GovUK’.

“New university students who might have had little or no interaction with the tax system might be tricked into clicking on links in such emails or texts,” Fell said. “We are therefore asking each university to join us again in raising awareness of HMRC scams as early as possible in the academic year and in encouraging university leaders to ensure fraud prevention and cyber advice is integrated into your guidance for new students, to help prevent financial loss.”

HMRC’s core advice is broken down into three instructions: stop; challenge; and protect.

Students are advised to take a moment of consideration before handing out either money or information and that it is acceptable to refuse or delay while they consult government advice to ascertain if the request is genuine.

Examples of attempted fraud should be forwarded to or via text to 60599, while victims should notify their bank and Action Fraud.

Financial secretary to the Treasury Jesse Norman said: “Cybercriminals use every method they can to steal money and personal data from students. We are concerned that remote working because of Covid-19 could lead to more tax scams targeting a new and potentially vulnerable university intake. HM Revenue and Customs is doing everything it can to clamp down on cyber fraud, but students also need to be vigilant. We would urge university principals to take a lead in helping to protect their students from these cybercriminals by raising awareness of what to look out for.”


Sam Trendall

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