Devastating spike in scams as fraudsters exploit pandemic and online shopping surge, Which? finds

A huge shift towards carrying out everyday tasks online for millions of people during the pandemic has led to a devastating surge in scams, according to Which? analysis of Action Fraud figures.  

The consumer champion found that in the year to April 2021, 413,553 instances of fraud were reported to Action Fraud – an increase of a third (33%) on the previous 12 months. More than £2.3 billion was lost by victims as a result.

In previous years scams reported to Action Fraud have increased in more modest increments. The rise between 2019 and 2020 was a much lower eight per cent, suggesting the scams industry has boomed during the Covid pandemic.

These figures also probably vastly underestimate the actual fraud numbers. ONS crime figures estimate that there were more than four million incidents of fraud in 2020 – meaning only around 10 per cent of offences are reported to Action Fraud.

Online shopping scams were easily the most reported type of fraud – having surged dramatically by two-thirds (65%) over the last year as scammers took advantage of more people shopping online.

Which? is calling for the government’s Online Safety Bill to give online platforms a legal responsibility to identify, remove and prevent fake and fraudulent content on their sites – including the adverts often used by fraudsters as the basis for online shopping scams.

There were more than 103,000 reports from people who fell victim to online shopping scams – more than the next three scam categories combined.

Which? also looked at the regional breakdown of the Action Fraud data, which shows that consumers are around twice as likely to report being a victim of any type of fraud in the East of England (1 in 187) as in Northern Ireland (1 in 476) or Wales (1 in 380).

With a lot of fraud starting online, theoretically you should be at no greater risk in one region than another, however these fraud figures may be partly explained by variations in internet usage in these regions.

According to the ONS, Wales and Northern Ireland have the greatest proportion of people stating that they have not been on the internet in the last three months. The region in England with the biggest offline population, the North East, also has the fewest reports to Action Fraud in the country (1 in 321).

London had the most people online and the second highest incidents of fraud per 10,000 (1 in 193) – with only the East of England having more.

However other factors could play a role too – for instance a lot of promotional activity involving Action Fraud is online which could be having an impact on offline awareness of the organisation.

Young people account for the greatest number of reports of online shopping scams – 56 per cent of reports to Action Fraud came from people aged 20-39. This compares to 34 per cent from victims aged 40-59 and nine per cent from those aged 60-79.

The category that saw the biggest year-on-year increase in reports was phone and text scams at 83 per cent. Fraudsters have taken advantage of people’s changing habits, most recently leading to a surge in texts alleging to be from courier and delivery firms asking recipients for admin fees to retrieve packages.

The second biggest increase was online shopping scams and the third was investment fraud (a 50% increase). Previous Which? research found an explosion of these scams appearing in adverts or results on search engines. Investment fraud also accounted for the most money reported lost overall, at £535 million.

There was also a worrying increase in a particularly cruel scam called ‘recovery fraud,’ where victims are scammed for a second time by criminals pretending to help them recover losses from the original scam. There was a 39 per cent increase from the previous year with victims losing a shocking £14,408 on average. Only mandate fraud (£31,126) and investment fraud (£25,496) resulted in bigger reported average losses per victim.

Which? believes that industries including tech giants, banks, telecoms providers, as well as regulators and the government, must take more responsibility for preventing victims from facing the devastating consequences of scams.

Jenny Ross, Which? Money Editor, said:

“Fraudsters have added to the suffering that many people have faced during the past year by using the pandemic and the increase in online shopping as a springboard for tricking a growing number of victims.

“Tech giants, banks, telecoms providers, regulators and the government need to keep up with the evolving tactics of scammers and make sure people cannot be targeted when going about everyday activities like shopping.

“The government’s Online Safety Bill must give online platforms a legal responsibility to identify, remove and prevent fake and fraudulent content on their sites – including the adverts often used by fraudsters as part of online shopping scams.”

Case study

Debbie Georgakakou, 59, ordered a coat in August 2020 having seen an advert on Facebook from a company called Peekachill. The item never arrived despite the company providing apparent tracking to show that it was on its way. She eventually managed to get a £35.98 refund from PayPal having asked Peekachill for proof of postage which was not provided.

She then set up a Facebook page to warn other victims and has heard from dozens of people sharing similar experiences of being scammed as Peekachill items either did not arrive or arrived not as described.

She told Which?: “Getting a refund was not an easy task and many people give up trying as the process of providing proof is long. This was a stressful experience and has put me off purchasing anything else in the same manner.”

Notes to editors

  • Which? analysed data from Action Fraud, the fraud and cybercrime reporting centre for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, between April 2020 and March 2021.

  • In 2019 Scotland pulled out of the Action Fraud system in favour of maintaining its own database so it was not included in Which?’s analysis.

  • ONS, ‘Internet users, UK: 2020’ looked at internet use in the UK, including geographical location.

Fraud Type Incidents Total Cost Avg Cost YoY change
Online shopping and auctions fraud 103,254 £69,600,000 £674 65%
Advance fee fraud 38,844 £52,239,600 £1,345 16%
Retail/consumer fraud 29,466 £152,700,000 £5,182 26%
Cheque, card, online banking fraud 27,773 £183,900,000 £6,622 -6%
Investment fraud 20,989 £535,139,700 £25,496 50%
Computer fixing fraud 18,811 £22,100,000 £1,175 -1%
Dating scams 7,754 £73,900,000 £9,531 40%
Phone fraud 5,073 £1,500,000 £296 83%
Mandate fraud 4,681 £145,700,000 £31,126 -21%
Door-to-door fraud 4,373 £21,000,000 £4,802 -9%
Fake loan fraud 2,782 £4,100,000 £1,474 -18%
Ticket fraud 2,104 £2,100,000 £998 -71%
Recovery fraud 2,096 £30,200,000 £14,408 39%

Descriptions of different fraud types

Online shopping and auction fraud
For example, something you bought online does not arrive, or you don’t receive payment for something you sold.

Advance fee fraud
Involves an upfront payment with the promise of a delayed reward which you never receive.

Retail/ consumer fraud
Something you bought doesn’t arrive or doesn’t match the description (excludes online purchases).

Cheque, card and online banking fraud
Includes stolen cards or forged cheques being used to make payments.

Investment fraud
You are tricked into thinking you’re making a genuine investment with the prospect of lucrative returns.

Computer fixing fraud
You are told that your computer needs fixing in exchange for a fee. No fix takes place.

Dating scams
Criminals use dating apps and social networks to form emotional relationships with you, which they use to extort money.

Phone fraud
Includes missed calls that are expensive to phone back or text messages about fake competitions.

Mandate fraud
You are tricked into changing details of a standing order or direct debits so money goes into a criminal’s account.

Door-to-door fraud
Where fake tradespeople or salespeople take payment for a product or service they never deliver.

Fake loan fraud
You are offered a loan in exchange for a fee, but the loan is never paid.

Ticket fraud
Where you pay for tickets that never arrive.

Recovery fraud
Where you’re recontacted under the guise of getting your money back from a previous fraud. A fee is charged or financial details are obtained.

Which?’s advice on what to do if you’ve been scammed by an online advert

  • It is possible to get your money back in many cases, although the process might be time consuming and inconvenient.

  • If you paid using a credit or debit card your money is covered by card protections. Ask your bank if you’re eligible to claim using chargeback or Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act.

  • When you use PayPal, your money should be protected by its Buyer Protection policy. You can make a claim through your PayPal account.

  • If you paid using a bank transfer, contact your bank as soon as possible and ask if it can help you.

  • If you’ve lost money or personal details to a scam, report it to Action Fraud online at or by calling 0300 123 2040.

  • Find out more about how to recover your money after a scam

Rights of reply


“We don’t want fraudulent activity on our platform, and we have removed the Page brought to our attention. We work not just to proactively detect and reject scams themselves, but also to block scam advertisers from our services. Our teams disable billions of fake accounts every year and we have 35,000 people working on safety and security. We have also donated £3 million to Citizens Advice to deliver a UK Scam Action Programme to both raise awareness of online scams and help victims.” – a Facebook company spokesperson


“We are pleased that we have refunded Ms Georgakakou. Most of our customers use PayPal every day without a hitch, but sometimes things can go wrong and that’s why we offer our Buyer Protection cover.

“PayPal Buyer Protection gives people up to 180 days to get in touch with us and report any problems, such as not receiving goods or services they have paid for. It covers eligible purchases made at any website when the customer pays with PayPal.”


Which? reached out to Peekachill for comment but the email bounced back.

About Which?

Which? is the UK’s consumer champion, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. Our research gets to the heart of consumer issues, our advice is impartial, and our rigorous product tests lead to expert recommendations. We’re the independent consumer voice that influences politicians and lawmakers, investigates, holds businesses to account and makes change happen. As an organisation we’re not for profit and all for making consumers more powerful.

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