HMRC blocks fraudsters from mimicking its call centres

Fraudsters will no longer be able to trick the public into thinking they owe HM Revenue and Customs, according to new plans unveiled by the tax authority.

Working with phone companies and regulator Ofcom, HMRC will block scammers from “spoofing” genuine phone numbers used by the taxman.

Thousands of people have fallen for the scam that involves a fraudster ringing up and saying the unsuspecting taxpayer must pay up “unpaid taxes” immediately or risk jail.

  • 2016/17 – 407 reports

  • 2017/18 – 7,778 reports

  • 2018/19 – 104,774 reports

Criminals are using technology to make the numbers displayed on phones to match up with HMRC’s official phone numbers, convincing victims that the calls are genuine and leading them to pay up.

Responding to the news, Financial Secretary to the Treasury Jesse Norman said: “This is a huge step forward in the fight against phone fraud. HMRC’s new controls will help to protect thousands of hardworking taxpayers and their families from these heartless criminals.

“Vigilance will always be important but this is a significant blow to the phone cheats.”

HMRC also said from this month callers paying tax or debts over the phone will instead enter their card details by typing them into the phone, rather than reading them out.

Last year alone, the organisation received reports of 104,774 attempted phone scams, compared with just 407 in 2016.

Head of Action Fraud, Pauline Smith, said: “Phone calls are one of the top ways for fraudsters to make contact with their victims. Between April 2018 and March 2019, one in four phishing reports made to Action Fraud were about fraudulent phone calls.

“It is encouraging to see that these newly developed controls by HMRC have already achieved a reduction in the number of calls spoofing genuine HMRC numbers. If you believe you have fallen victim to a fraudster, please report it to Action Fraud.”

Since the controls were introduced in April, HMRC said it has not received a single report of the “spoofing” trick being used, leading to a 25% fall in reported scams compared with March.

In the last 10 months, HMRC said it has also requested 1,050 phone numbers used by scammers are removed from all telecom systems.

Gareth Shaw, head of money at consumer watchdog Which?, said: “For too long, fraud victims have lost life-changing sums of money to scammers they believed to be legitimate.

“Number spoofing can be incredibly hard to spot, so it is good to see HMRC, one of the most impersonated firms, taking action to stop fraudsters from exploiting their helpline number and identity.

“A cross-sector approach is needed to tackle fraud, and it is now vital other public bodies and firms that are commonly impersonated follow this example and work with telecoms companies and Ofcom to stop fraudsters spoofing their numbers and targeting victims.”