To many they are the reassuring face of financial investment but to scammers Money Saving Expert founder Martin Lewis and Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson are the key to luring in victims, according to the National Cyber Security Centre, which has warned the duo are used most in fake endorsement frauds.
The NCSC’s annual Active Cyber Defence report outlines the actions the agency has taken to prevent fraud, scams and cyber-attacks. It shows that the use fake news articles claiming that celebrities are backing new investment schemes is soaring through mass email campaigns, SMS texts, or adverts on social media.
They urge consumers to click through to websites which encourage them to invest in the unscrupulous programmes. The agency said it started taking action against such websites in April 2020 and by the end of the calendar year it had taken down 286,322 separate campaigns across 731,080 URLs.
Lewis, who has even superimposed “I don’t do ads” on his Twitter profile pic, told the BBC: “It’s the worst flattery I’ve ever had. These thieves and con artists leach off the reputation for trust I’ve built up by trying to help and protect consumers, in order to try and steal money off vulnerable people.
“The concept makes me feel nauseous. We must step up our fight to stop these scams which destroy millions of people’s finances and mental health.”
Back in 2018, Lewis launched legal action against Facebook for sanctioning over 50 scam ads which he insisted had caused him reputational damage. Lewis dropped the case in January 2019 after Facebook vowed to introduce a scam reporting tool as well as donate £3m to a new Citizens Advice project.
Meanwhile, Branson released an campaign last year in which a cartoon version of the billionaire recounted the ways fraudsters have used his name and likeness in the past and exposed the common tactics they use. Branson offered advice on how to tell what real engagement looks like, and what to do if you suspect you are dealing with a fake.
NCSC technical director Ian Levy said Lewis and Branson made up “a decent chunk” of all the celebrity endorsement scams discovered.
He added: “They’re really convincing and it’s no surprise that people fall for them. Criminals use both newspaper brands and celebrities combined to make these articles look really good. Martin Lewis and Sir Richard Branson are used because they are famous and because they are related to money. It must be horrible for them.”
The NCSC also revealed it had thwarted more online scams during the pandemic than in the previous three years combined.
Covid and NHS-themed cyber crime fuelled the increase, with security experts recording a 15-fold rise in the removal of online campaigns in 2020 compared to 2019. Microsoft remains the most-spoofed brand for the second quarter in a row.
It reported a significant jump in the number of phishing attacks using NHS branding to lure in victims, while the vaccine rollout was used in email and text messages to gain people’s personal information for fraud. Some 43 fake Covid apps were also taken down by the organisation.
The NCSC’s Levy concluded: “The programme is truly a collaborative effort, and it’s thanks to our joint efforts with partners both at home and internationally that we’ve been able to significantly ramp up our efforts to protect the UK.
“This has never been more important than in the last year, where it was vital for us to do everything we could to protect our most critical services and the wider public during the pandemic.”
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