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India: Scam Call Centres

Volume 803: debated on Tuesday 21 April 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the government of India to request the closure of call centres targeting British citizens with scams.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, the Government take fraud very seriously and are committed to combatting it. The City of London Police, which is the national lead force for fraud, has partnered with law enforcement and industry to combat call centre fraud from India and other jurisdictions. UK authorities continue to work with their Indian counterparts on a case-by-case basis to target criminals responsible for defrauding members of the public and businesses.

Is the Minister aware that I have lived, worked and visited India, and I know both good and rogue call centres there? The BBC recently exposed call centres that target UK elderly people, saying that their computer is frozen and giving them a phone number for technical support that will unfreeze it in return for payment. These are vulnerable people who are currently in self-isolation. They are elderly people with no family support and are worried stiff that they will lose their only means of visual communication, so they pay up. Will the Minister urgently link up with the City of London Police fraud action force and the National Crime Agency to put real pressure on the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation to act on this matter?

Minister. I was going to add “Baroness Williams of Trafford”, because I did not introduce you the first time.

That is quite all right, Lord Speaker.

I thank my noble friend for that question. He raises a very pertinent point, and I myself have had representation from older people who are worried about scams. As regards our work with India and the Indian Government, my noble friend mentioned the City of London Police, which, as I said, is the lead force for economic crime and has partnered with law enforcement and industry to combat call centre fraud from India and other jurisdictions. It has, for example, partnered with Microsoft, which has led industry efforts to combat this kind of fraud, and as a consequence of that partnership the City of London Police has supported Microsoft in the initiation of a number of enforcement actions, the most recent of which occurred in the Kolkata region. Obviously, things that happen overseas are a matter for the overseas authorities. Moreover, this type of fraud is global, and quite often you cannot trace where it originated.

My Lords, last week I received an Outlook email that cited a password I have used, although not for the dubious purposes it alleged. If I paid $1,900 into a Bitcoin account, discretion was assured. Clearly, the attacker had accessed the passwords from one site and sent out a blanket blackmail attempt. Is the Minister convinced that the platform operators are doing everything they can to detect the pattern of such blackmail attempts?

My Lords, I know that law enforcement agencies are working extremely hard. In fact, every day I am on operational calls with various law enforcement agencies, and my mother was targeted by exactly the same scam last week. The FCA has conducted the ScamSmart campaign to raise awareness of this type of thing, particular pension and investment scams.

Thank you, Lord Speaker, and well done to everyone for getting us to this point. Given the rise in Covid-related fraud and scams in the UK, where we know unscrupulous criminals are exploiting fears about the virus in order to prey on older and vulnerable people, as the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, said, what are the Government doing to ensure that local government capacity, especially in trading standards departments, is fit for purpose, and what direct enforcement action has the Competition and Markets Authority taken in respect of companies breaking the law?

I thank the noble Baroness for that question. She is right to raise this. Local government is at the heart of some of that local awareness-raising and enforcement action. We have given a grant of £500,000 and an additional £600,000 for National Trading Standards scams teams to provide call-blocking technology to vulnerable people.

My Lords, yesterday the Times reported the cybersecurity company Avast as saying that scammers have been targeting healthcare providers worldwide since the pandemic struck. Its CEO said:

“We’ve seen an increased number of attacks against hospitals and the NHS is one of the top targets right now.”

These attacks use ransomware and shut down NHS systems unless a ransom is paid. The last large ransomware attack on the NHS was in 2016 and led to disruption in at least a third of trusts. In 2018, the NHS published a lessons-learned report that made 22 recommendations to protect against future attacks. How many of those recommendations have been implemented, and how safe from ransomware attacks is the NHS at the moment?

I hope the noble Lord will forgive me when I say that I do not have specific information to hand on the NHS. It is pretty disgusting how this exploitation takes place very quickly on the back of a vulnerable event. Counterfraud guidance is being circulated alongside further advice and guidance from cybercrime technical work, which consists of more than 100 police officers across the country with a focus on helping businesses and individuals to protect themselves from these sorts of crimes. The public sector is a huge part of national business as we know it. I have certainly had a lot of information on Covid-19 exploitation, such as selling people protective equipment that is absolutely fraudulent and tests that are absolutely fake. It is an appalling practice, but it is happening and we are working across agencies to try to combat it.

My Lords, I thank everybody who has made all this possible. It is much appreciated. I declare my interests as listed in the register.

I have a particular question on pension fraud and pension scams. I know the Government have been doing a great deal of work trying to protect people better, but there are practical ways in which we can try to prevent money leaving pension funds. So far, there is a ban on cold calling, but it is not a complete ban: your provider can call you or others can call you. Individuals are not clear about where to report scams. There is Action Fraud, City of London Police, the Scorpion campaign, ScamSmart, the FCA and the Pensions Regulator.

I would be grateful if my noble friend would ask the department whether, on pension fraud, it might be possible, with our pensions Bill going through at the moment, to look more carefully at asking pension providers to clamp down on people who are in a rush to transfer quickly, to direct people to Pension Wise, and perhaps to help people protect their pensions with a line of defence at the provider level. Obviously we cannot stop scams completely; these are very unscrupulous people who can change IP addresses and phone numbers and can even pretend not be in the country they seem to be coming from.

My Lords, I am sorry; I am looking for the appropriate bit in my notes but cannot find it. The noble Baroness raised a very important point. Particularly at this time, when people are feeling vulnerable, it is really pertinent to raise that point. Obviously I am not in the pensions department, but I will take that point back and alert my colleague, my noble friend Lady Stedman-Scott, to it.

My Lords, I fear that, again, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed, so we will have to move on, with apologies to those who have not been able to ask their question. We come to the fourth Oral Question, which is from the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock.