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Could you recognise a cloned company scam?

The National Economic Crime Centre is targeting boomers in the run up to Christmas after latest figures from Action Fraud show more than £36 million has been lost to investment fraud via cloned company scams this year.

Warnings on how to spot and report cloned company investment scams will be shared across the National Crime Agency’s social media channels, with those aged 55 to 70 in mind.

Data shows 34% of this age group were impacted by cloned company investment fraud in the first six months of this year, with average losses of £39,218 per victim.

Investment fraud by way of cloned websites has been on the rise in recent years, with Action Fraud reporting a total of £78 million lost last year – the year of the first coronavirus lockdown.

The crime is committed when fraudsters replicate or clone real company websites by using the name, address and ‘Firm Reference Number’ (FRN) attached to a company and authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA).

Once a fake website is up and running, fraudsters typically draw people in with adverts on search engine websites and social media.

The promise is usually of an attractive return on an investment, most commonly on bonds, cryptocurrency and ISAs.

Returns advertised are typically moderate, but just above the market rate, making the adverts appear genuine.

Losses with one particular scam, which used the guise of a popular comparison website, recently totalled £750,000.

Victims of this scam described how they had searched online for investment opportunities, and were presented with an online form, similar to forms typically found on genuine comparison websites.

Those who completed the forms were then contacted by a fraudster purporting to be from a known investment firm. They were able to persuade the victims to invest their savings in non-existent bonds, quoting legitimate company details and even using the identity of actual employees of the company.

The National Economic Crime Centre (NECC), part of the NCA, is working with City of London Police to reinforce steps that the public can take to protect themselves.

1. Reject unsolicited investment offers whether made online, on social media or over the phone. Be cautious when dealing with large sums of money, even if you initiated the first contact.

2. Always check the FCA Register to make sure you’re dealing with an authorised firm and check the FCA Warning List of firms to avoid.

3. Only use the telephone number and email address on the FCA Register, not the contact details the firm gives you. Look out for subtle differences such as letters replaced with numbers (e.g. S and 5, O and 0), additional words, or spelling errors. 

4. If you have visited a website you think is suspicious, report it to the National Cyber Security Centre, using their quick and easy reporting tool.

5. Consider seeking impartial advice before investing.

If you think you’ve fallen victim to an investment fraud, report it to Action Fraud as soon as possible online at http://www.actionfraud.police.uk or by calling 0300 123 2040.

Jon Shilland, fraud lead at the NECC, said:People can, and have lost their entire life savings to cloned website investment scams.

“Even tech-savvy and seasoned investors can be vulnerable, given that many of the adverts for them appear on or through well-known and trusted websites.

“Everyone should be highly alert and take caution before parting with any amount of money online. If it looks too good to be true then it probably is, but in today’s low-yield environment investors should be mindful that criminals can tempt investors with rates of return which sound ever more plausible. It is becoming ever harder for investors to recognise these websites as being fraudulent.

“The Online Harms Bill will be a great step forward but alone is not sufficient. It only covers user generated content and will not address the criminal exploitation of online advertising which is having a devastating impact through investment and pension fraud. We therefore welcome the Government’s recognition that other steps will be needed, and look forward to working together with the tech sector, law enforcement, regulators and the Government to take them”.

Temporary Detective Inspector Craig Mullish, from the City of London Police, said: “Every year, victims lose thousands of pounds to criminals imitating genuine investment firms with some even losing their life savings. This trend of ‘cloned companies’ is particularly worrying as it makes it even harder for people to spot a fraudulent investment opportunity.

“Investing any amount of money comes with an element of risk so always remember to stop and think as it could protect you and your money. It’s really important people take time to do their research and seek independent impartial advice before making an investment.

“If you think you’ve fallen victim to an investment fraud, contact your bank immediately and report it to Action Fraud as soon as possible online at http://www.actionfraud.police.uk or by calling 0300 123 2040.”

3 December 2021