OPPORTUNIST fraudsters who have already taken Barnsley residents for thousands during lockdown continue to evade police and council officials as the first Covid Christmas approaches.
Typically, criminals target elderly or vulnerable people, but this is not exclusively the case - and authorities have urged extra vigilance as the Christmas gift buying rush begins.
In the most recent incident, the Chronicle was contacted by a 39-year-old woman from the Redbrook area who was targeted by fraudsters twice in one week.
The first scam, a call from someone purporting to be from HMRC, saw the victim - who didn’t wish to be named - fleeced of £2,200 last Wednesday.
Two days later, she’d been stung by a fake website as she looked for Christmas gifts.
“A few months ago I’d had a letter through the post from HMRC saying my account was being investigated,” said the woman.
“I didn’t think too much about it and thought they would get in touch with me directly if anything had happened.
“And then last week I had a phone call that - saying it out loud, it sounds ridiculous - the HMRC had put a warrant out for my arrest for tax evasion.
“My first reaction was that I had to put it right - it never dawned on me that it was a scam.
“They kept me on the phone, kept me talking, and didn’t give me a chance to really listen to what they were saying.”
The criminals ‘spoofed’ HMRC’s number, meaning when the woman’s phone rang it looked like a genuine call.
“It all linked together, it was convincing how they’d planned it all out,” she said.
“It’s rife at the minute - these people are playing on people’s vulnerabilities.”
Action Fraud is handling the incident, which is the latest in a significant increase in cases in Barnsley.
In June, Trading Standards launched an investigation into scammers fraudulently marketing face coverings online - who made £100,000 posing as an address in Hemingfield.
And with more people shopping online due to lockdown restrictions, Barnsley Council has urged residents to be extra vigilant as they do their Christmas shop.
Coun Jenny Platts, cabinet spokesperson for adults and communities, said the increasing popularity of platforms such as Facebook Marketplace made them a ‘prime target for fraudsters’ marketing fake or falsely-advertised items.
“It is always safer to purchase goods from legitimate retailers,” she added.
“If you are buying an item from someone on Facebook Marketplace, make sure you are able to see the item first as some sellers often use stock imagery to dupe buyers.
“If you have to meet the seller, do so in a public place and take a friend with you if you can.”
Facebook told the Chronicle it had launched a scam alert service alongside the Advertising Standards Authority in a bid to curb the issue.
A spokesperson urged suspicion over pages offering prizes, unverified accounts or those misrepresenting their location, and messages with poor spelling or asking people to communicate away from Facebook to platforms such as email.
Reports continue to mount of thieves attempting often elaborate means of duping locals.
Scammers have feigned being from Barnsley Council and the crisis-hit Barnsley Hospice in the last month.
Courier fraud - in which offenders convince victims that they need their help in a fraud case, before an associate is sent to their home - has caused a particular headache for police.
South Yorkshire Police is investigating a spike in reports in Barnsley, where three people targeted in a single week in November.
One incident saw an elderly man lose £6,000 after being coerced into withdrawing cash.
Fraud protection officer Andy Foster advises those concerned to install call-blocking software or hardware such as ‘Truecaller’ on their phones.
Coun Platts added council staff had also seen a rise in fraudulent animal sales over social media.
“Any breeder selling puppies for profit should be licensed with their local authority, who can ensure welfare standards are maintained,” she said.
“Overall, we advise you to be cautious and listen to your instincts.
“Keep your personal details safe and never give your bank card or PIN number to a stranger.
“Remember, if an offer seems too good to be true then it probably is.
“If you think you’ve been scammed, tell your bank and report it to Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040.
“If you need advice, call the Citizens Advice helpline on 0808 223 1133.”