Life as a hard-working tradesman can be tough enough without every dodgy crook and his dog trying to swindle us out of an honest living. Yet more and more often, it seems many of us are fighting a constant battle against those out to make a quick buck at our expense.
If it isn’t the increasing number of tool thieves making off with the very things essential to our livelihood, it’s the scammers using all kinds of techniques to try and trick us out of our hard-earned money.
Not too surprisingly, an increasing number of these scams are carried out by criminals pretending to be from Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs, with the legitimate HMRC reporting no less than 84,549 reports of fraudulent tax refund messages just in March 2018 alone.
The increase is due, at least in part, to the latest ploy being used by criminals in an attempt to con tradesmen: threats of a tax investigation. Here, we look at exactly how this new scam is carried out, what you need to know in order to avoid it, and how to keep yourself safe from other notorious scams affecting self-employed tradesmen across the UK.
You’re under investigation
As some readers may already know, HMRC does occasionally use an automated system to call you up and deliver a message if there’s something they need you to know. Fraudsters have taken advantage of this by using an automated system to call you up and tell you that you’re under investigation for not paying your taxes.
The message can sound pretty convincing. So, when the message then invites them to either Press ‘1’ to make an immediate payment or call a number to discuss their options, they panic and make the payment without a second thought. Potential victims who refuse to hand over their bank details to the crooks are usually threatened with criminal investigations and arrest warrants, usually with an ominous warning that they are being watched.
If this sounds terrifying, that’s because it’s supposed to – the whole scam is designed to scare people into handing their money and bank details over.
How to avoid being scammed
First things first, be aware that even though HMRC does use automated messages from time to time, they will always use a reference number that is familiar to you and which scammers would have no way of accessing. It’s also important to note that even you are the subject of a tax investigation, a random automated message won’t be the first time you’ll have heard of it.
HMRC will first contact you by post about these kinds of things, and even if you do speak to someone on the phone, they will never contact you out of the blue to ask for your bank details. If you do get a message like the ones involved in this particular scam, the safest thing to do is simply hang up the phone.
If you do speak to someone, first try to confirm that they are who they say they are. If you can’t do that, hang up and call HMRC themselves using their official contact details. They’ll be able to confirm if they genuinely do need to speak to you or not.
Tax refund scams
Similar to the tax investigation scam, crooks have been known to use automated messages to trick people into believing that they are owed a tax refund. Again, the same practice takes place; you receive a message and are told that you need to hand over your bank details in order to receive the money.
Earlier this year, Treasury Minister, Mel Stride MP, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury confirmed that these types of messages are a hoax, saying:
“HMRC only informs you about tax refunds through the post or through your pay via your employer. All emails, text messages, or voicemail messages saying you have a tax refund are a scam. Do not click on any links in these messages, and forward them to HMRC’s phishing email address and phone number.”
This brings us to other common scams you need to be aware of, and what you should do about them.
These are more likely to be about refunds than tax investigations, but as the Treasury Minister says, HMRC will never contact you about these matters in this way.
If you do receive one of these emails, never respond to it with your personal details. Instead, forward it on to firstname.lastname@example.org and then delete it for good.
Again, though HMRC may use text messages to send reminders and various messages, they’re never going to text you out of the blue to say that you owe them money, or that they owe you money.
Avoid clicking on any links or taking any action at all on text messages like this other than sending it on to HMRC’s fraud team. You can do this by forwarding it to 60599 or again by emailing the details to email@example.com.
Social media scams
We may be able to do all kinds of things via social media these days, but getting a tax refund isn’t one of them.
HMRC are no more likely to message you on Facebook asking for your bank details than they are to click ‘like’ on those photos you just posted of your last holiday. In some cases, it might be that the account messaging you doesn’t claim to be from HMRC, but a third-party working on their behalf – and that brings us to our next scam.
Third-party firms offering you a refund
If you’re ever contacted by a company who says they can guarantee you a tax refund for a small fee then there’s something you need to know: they can’t guarantee anything.
These companies aren’t affiliated with HMRC, so there are no promises that they can do anything for you. If you do come across any such companies, be sure to read the fine print on any agreements you plan on signing and avoid any company who seem even remotely suspicious.
“You have come into an inheritance/won the lottery of a country you don’t even live in/have been selected by a Nigerian Prince to help them with a business matter.
“To transfer this money to your account, please send us your bank details.”
Scams like these (known as 419 Scams) may be among the oldest tricks in the book, but crooks are finding new ways to use a similar approach with some success.
Typically, they might tell you that you have goods being held at customs and that you need to pay a fee to release them. If you’ve recently ordered new equipment or materials, it can be tempting to fall for this one but once again remember that HMRC won’t ever email you asking for your bank details and other personal information.
You should also be mindful of the spelling and grammar. Most 419 scammers clearly didn’t pass GCSE English and you should be able to spot a scam because of how poorly it’s written.
As with all of the scams we’ve listed today, remember the one golden rule: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Above all else, remain vigilant, and if you’re not sure whether a message is legitimate or not, contact firstname.lastname@example.org who will be able to verify one way or another.
If you have already been scammed and lost money as a result, report it as soon as possible to Action Fraud.