What Covid-19 means for fraud in the public sector

By Anne Cairns, Audit Manager 

Covid-19 has changed all our lives. And for many public sector staff, it’s meant working under extreme pressure, bringing greater risks of fraud. 

We’ve now outlined some of those risks – and how to reduce them – in a new publication for public sector bodies. 

They include things like normal internal controls being relaxed to allow bodies to buy goods or services which are needed urgently, possibly from new suppliers. 

Some departments may also be under-staffed at the same time as inexperienced staff, without the same understanding of the organisation’s procedures, are working remotely. That might mean duplicate payments are not detected.  

More remote working may also result in isolation or mental health issues which could lead to increased addictive behaviours such as gambling, making individuals vulnerable to serious organised crime gangs. 

And there are many more examples in our short guide, including a risk of an increase in phishing emails and scams trying to get hard-pressed staff to click on links which allow fraudsters access to public sector systems 

There are plenty of things public bodies can do to reduce these risks, including running ‘dummy phishing’ exercises to test employees’ reactions; rotating employees working with vulnerable service users; and ensuring fraud hotlines and whistleblowing processes are still running. 

But there are wider Covid-19 fraud risks for the public, too. 

Texts may be received advising recipients that they are eligible for a tax refund under the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme. Recipients are asked to click on a link which leads to a fake HMRC website where they are asked for personal and financial details 

Or cold callers posing as the NHS contact tracing service may call people to say that they have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19. The caller may ask the recipient for bank details to pay for a Covid-19 test. 

And, unfortunately, there is a risk of online child sexual exploitation increasing as children spend a lot of their time online during the lockdown, either during their spare time or while receiving education. 

If you see or suspect fraud, or you would like to find out more about the risks, you can visit our counter-fraud hub or report any illegal activity to Police Scotland

In the meantime, here are some other useful resources:

Police Scotland –Keep Secure Online

Police Scotland – Reporting Cybercrime 

Trading Standards 

NHS Scotland Counter Fraud Services

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