THE Covid-19 pandemic has made people more susceptible to fraud as cases of criminal gangs exploiting vulnerable people have soared by nearly 25% in the last year.

Senior officers described the impact of fraud as "devastating" as Police Scotland launched a major campaign to urge people to protect themselves from having their money and personal information stolen.

Latest Scottish Government figures show that in last year, April 2019- March 2020, fraud increased by 23% and since 2010-11 has gone up by 33%.

During a six-week campaign, officers will warn that criminals are becoming more sophisticated in their methods, taking advantage of advanced in technology.

Police Scotland’s Deputy Chief Constable Malcolm Graham said: "The campaign is timely because we've seen a big increase in fraud, and particularly online financial fraud, through the course of the covid pandemic.

"In the lead up to Christmas, also, people are quite often spending more money and spending more time online.

"We're trying to get the message out to people that they can take some actions that are going to prevent them becoming victims of fraud.

"Of course, the responsibility for crime always rests with those who commit it. There are organised crime groups behind a lot of this activity, both within the UK and Scotland, but often globally and internationally.

"We're trying to improve our understanding of an ever changing picture because criminals are opportunistic and they are exploiting people's vulnerabilities."

Mr Graham said police are aware that levels of fraud reported to police are "much lower" than the instances of the crime because people are often too ashamed or embarrassed to come forward.

The importance of online life has made a wider range of people vulnerable to fraud.

The Deputy Chief Constable added: "The impact it has on people can be devastating because often people who are targeted specifically are vulnerable for one reason or another.

"It might be people who are elderly. It might be that people are put under pressure or intimidated.

"When they realise what's happened they may be either ashamed or embarrassed that they've been the victim of scamsters and then we don't ever hear about it.

"People have lost their whole life savings. People have signed over a substantial amounts of property and assets.

"It can really change people's lives emotionally and financially in terms of their security for the future."

Between April 2019 and March 2020 there were 11,939 crimes of fraud recorded in Scotland - including many committed online - making an increase of 2,264 crimes the previous year.

Throughout the campaign members of the public and businesses will be encouraged to follow straightforward and impartial advice – Stop, Challenge and Protect - aimed at reducing the chances of becoming a victim of financial fraud. This includes online fraud, email deception as well as phone-based and social media scams.

Essential information will be advertised on social media, digital screens as well as on Spotify.

Police Scotland is working with Take Five to Stop Fraud during the six-week campaign.

The force also works with banking institutions, which can spot signs of fraud early and move to protect customers.

Katy Worobec, Managing Director of Economic Crime at UK Finance, said: “The banking and finance industry is committed to protecting customers from scams and is working closely with law enforcement and others to target the criminal gangs responsible, with almost £7 in £10 of fraud prevented in the first half of this year.

“Criminals are experts at impersonating people, organisations and the police. Particularly with the impact of Covid-19 and an increasingly digitised society, criminals are ruthlessly adapting their methods to target consumers online, via social media and over the phone.

"These scams are often sophisticated and well-researched: we encourage customers to be wary of unsolicited calls, emails, or text messages and avoid clicking in links in any unexpected correspondence."

Given that criminals can be working internationally, Police Scotland also cooperates with the National Crime Agency.

Mr Graham said: "At a European and global level we have very strong arrangements in place to get evidence and intelligence when needed.

"In some countries it is harder to hold people to account when the international agreements with the UK are not as strong and criminals will often base themselves in those countries knowing it is going to be more difficult for them to be held to account.

"That doesn't mean we don't try."

The officer also said that, even with successful prosecutions, it is not always possible for victims to get their money back, making prevention essential.

Among the online fraud being tackled is romance fraud, another rising crime.

Mr Graham said: "That's something that's symptomatic of the broader ways in which crime groups particularly have found ways of exploiting people's desire to connect and therefore perhaps people are understandably susceptible to a fraud at that point of contact.

"It serves to highlight there's always new ways that criminals are finding to exploit however people are living their lives to defraud them of their money or information."

Humza Yousaf, the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Justice, said: “While levels of crime including those involving robbery, housebreaking and theft have fallen over the last decade, reported cases of fraud have risen by a third over the same period, at a time when we have all increased our use of online and mobile technologies.

“During 2020 we have seen unscrupulous individuals using the lockdown and on-going restrictions as an opportunity to target some of our most vulnerable citizens and exploit businesses.

"Such criminal behaviour is absolutely abhorrent and the Scottish Government is working with police and other partners to pursue those who cause harm and misery to our communities and to support people to stay safe."