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Education

Freshers face tax scams

As if students starting university this year do not have enough to cope with – the covid-19 pandemic, plus the getting used to a new campus and life – they are at risk from tax scams, warns HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

As new students start the academic year, they can be particularly vulnerable to cybercrime. With universities taking a blended approach to online and face-to-face tuition this year, and offering more remote working, students could be left particularly exposed, HMRC says.

Freshers might also be more vulnerable to these types of scams due to their limited experience of the tax system, HMRC says. It has written to universities, through the umbrella body Universities UK, asking them to help ensure their students know how to spot a scam.

In August HMRC says that it received reports from the public of more than 74,800 scam emails, text messages and phone calls. Nearly 41,300 of these specifically offered bogus tax rebates. Thousands of these scams were targeted at students and the criminals involved appear to have obtained their personal university email addresses by unlawful means. 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 inadvertently give access to their important accounts, such as online banking. Criminals also use phone scams to threaten taxpayers into handing over cash. Some 651,600 scams have been referred to HMRC since August 2019. Of those, more than 215,660 were voice or telephone scams, known as vishing.

If someone calls, emails or texts claiming to be from HMRC, saying that you can claim financial help, are due a tax refund or owe tax, and asks for bank details, it might be a scam, HMRC points out. Check GOV.UK for how to recognise genuine HMRC contact.

Jesse Norman, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, said:“Cyber criminals 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 are doing everything they 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 cyber criminals by raising awareness of what to look out for.”

And Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said: “The security and welfare of students is always a priority for universities. The message to students, at what is a particularly stressful time, is to remain vigilant and question anything that seems unusual. Any student who fears their account may have been misused is encouraged to speak to either university support services, their bank, or to the police via Action Fraud.”

HMRC adds that it works with telecoms firms to automatically block spoofed numbers used by scammers and since August 2019, has worked with internet service providers to take down nearly 10,870 malicious web pages. You can forward suspicious emails claiming to be from HMRC to [email protected] and texts to 60599.

Separately, the cyber firm Kaspersky says it’s seeing continued high rates of dangerous phishing scams in the form of fake HMRC emails that exploit the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. David Emm, principal security researcher at Kaspersky, said: “Researchers have uncovered hundreds of emails imitating HMRC, which ask people to provide their personal data to receive payments. It serves as a great reminder that during this ongoing crisis, cybercriminals are always on the lookout for topical issues that they can exploit to trick the unwary into installing malware or disclosing personal information that can be used to access their online accounts.


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