Beware of the ‘friend in need’ scam circulating on WhatsApp right now

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Whatsapp users are being targeted by scammers posing as friends or family in need of help. (Credits: EPA)

If you’ve recently received a text from a friend claiming they’re stuck abroad and urgently need hundreds of pounds to get home, you might want to hold on before you hit send.

In what’s the latest text-based scam, users are being targeted by scammers posing as friends or family in need of help.

Toni Parker, a 53-year-old nurse and mum of four, fell victim to the scam.

She believed she was talking to her eldest son and was conned out of £2,500.

‘I love my kids and if they text me in need I will help them, who wouldn’t help their own children?’ said Toni, from Wolverhampton in the West Midlands.

‘These scammers know this and I think they are purposely targeting mothers because it is our natural instinct to help.’

Whatsapp and consumer protection body, National Trading Standards have both warned users against these ‘friend in need’ scams.

‘Scammers send messages that appear to come from a friend or family member asking for personal information, money or a six-digit pin number,’ said Louise Baxter, the head of the National Trading Standards scams team.

How does the scam work?

A young woman using a smartphone.
The scam preys on people’s desire to help friends and family (Getty)

The messages could either be sent from compromised accounts of friends or from an unknown number claiming to be a friend who has lost their phone or been ‘locked out’ of their account, according to Baxter.

Preying on people’s desire to help friends and family, scammers could pose as anyone from your friends asking for money or your children asking for help paying a bill.

Scammers hijack WhatsApp accounts by using accounts they’ve already hijacked, to message friends and contacts asking for help.

Often these people claim that they are sending their WhatsApp security code to you and ask for it to be sent back to them. This security code probably belongs to the victim and enables the scammers to hijack their accounts.

WhatsApp is asking users to be vigilant and to verify the person’s identity via a phone call or voice note.

‘A friend in need is a friend worth calling,’ said WhatsApp.

‘WhatsApp protects our users’ personal messages with end-to-end encryption, but we want to remind people that we all have a role to play in keeping our accounts safe by remaining vigilant to the threat of scammers,’ said Kathryn Harnett, policy manager at WhatsApp.

Whatsapp advises against sharing your six-digit pin code with others—even friends and family. It also recommends that users set up two-step verification for added security.

59% of people have either received a scam text in the past year or know someone who has according to a 2021 survey conducted for Whatsapp. 46% of these were via SMS but 13% were on WhatsApp.

Genuine scam message seen on smartphone screen. Unpaid parcel shipping fees scam text. (Link is not active). Stafford, United Kingdom, June 7, 2021.; Shutterstock ID 1987244459; purchase_order: -; job: -; client: -; other: -
A Government task force was set up earlier this year to tackle the sharp rise in scams during the pandemic. (Credits: Shutterstock / mundissima)

To raise awareness, Whatsapp and National Trading Standards has launched an awareness campaign called ‘Stop. Think. Call.’ aimed at informing potential victims about the scams and educating them on how to protect themselves and their WhatsApp accounts.

Who gets targeted?

People aged under 34 are more likely to prefer texting over phone calls and hence at risk for this kind of scam, according to research from the campaign.

Ofcom research found that 45 million people received at least one fraudulent message this summer. Telecom provider EE has blocked 18,000 sim cards after detecting 42 million scam text messages since July.

For people over 75, landline calls posed a bigger threat with 61% saying they had received a potential scam call.

Fraudulent texts and emails from courier firms and messages offering access to Covid vaccines and passports have also been used by criminals recently to get hold of personal details.

£754 million has been stolen from customers during the first half of this year alone, according to The trade body for banks, UK Finance. 

A Government task force was set up earlier this year to tackle the sharp rise in scams during the pandemic.

‘Criminals who defraud people using phone and text scams can cause huge distress and financial harm to their victims, and their tactics are becoming increasingly sophisticated,’ said Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom’s networks and communications group director.

Ofcom encourages people to forward suspicious texts to 7726, which will then be investigated by mobile phone providers. Scam calls can be reported to Action Fraud by calling 0300 123 2040 or by visiting the Action Fraud website.

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