HMRC: Staying one step ahead

Source: PSE June/July 2018

Mike Fell, head of operational and cyber security at HMRC, lists the pioneering ways through which the organisation has been successfully stamping out cybercrime from malicious fraudsters.

Cyber security remains one of the most serious threats to the UK’s wellbeing. That’s why, at HMRC, we’re committed to protecting our customers and their data by staying one step ahead of cyber criminals.

Back in November 2016, the UK Government set up the National Cyber Security Centre. We’ve joined forces with the new body and other government departments like the Department of Work and Pensions, the Home Office, and the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency to improve our cyber defence and to protect the UK from harm.

HMRC will never advise customers of tax refunds by email or text. Despite this, criminals take advantage by sending scam emails and texts which link to fake government websites to dupe the public into handing over their personal data or banking details.

In the year to April 2017, we identified and requested the removal of 14,631 malicious HMRC-related sites. As well as this, we’ve taken over 300 million phishing emails out of circulation by using cutting-edge technology.

Scammers also set up sites to mislead the public into paying premium rates for services, such as phoning HMRC, that are available for little or no cost. By challenging ownership of the misleading domains being used to advertise such services, HMRC has been able redirect over three million visits from these to the genuine GOV.UK contact HMRC pages. This has saved the public an estimated £2.4m.

As we have applied technical controls, and the public have become savvier around what sort of emails to be suspicious of, traditional email phishing is less credible than ever. Unfortunately, this means the criminals have developed their techniques, moving to abuse SMS text messages to dupe people through ‘SMiShing.’ The volumes of SMiShing attacks grew significantly during 2016 and 2017, and we know people are more than nine times more likely to be duped by HMRC-branded SMS phishing attacks than email attacks.

The cyber security team in HMRC have worked hard with industry on an innovative pilot to protect a range of HMRC-related ‘alpha tags’ – the sender identifier that can display on your phone when you receive a text message. This technique blocks the vast majority of the most credible HMRC-branded text messages, stopping them before they are even delivered to your phone.

Since the pilot began, there has been a 90% reduction in customer reports of SMiShing attempts using the most credible HMRC branding. This has forced criminals to use less relevant alpha tags, which are easier for potential victims to spot.

Just before Christmas last year, there was a particularly nasty scam targeting the elderly and vulnerable groups. Fraudsters cold-called the victims, claiming to be from HMRC, and told them they had an outstanding tax bill to settle before asking them to buy online payment vouchers and read out the codes. Most victims were over 65 and lost £1,150 on average.

HMRC has worked hard to help protect the public from this scam, including working with the voucher provider to put warnings on the cards, working with partners such as UK Finance to increase public awareness of the scam, and writing directly to UK retailers to ask them to train their staff to look out for this.

We take protecting our customers seriously, and part of this means advising them on how they can keep themselves safe. Our top tips include recognising the signs – genuine organisations like banks and HMRC will never contact you out of the blue to ask for your PIN or password; staying safe – don’t give out private information, reply to text messages, or download unexpected attachments or links; and taking action – forward suspicious emails or texts claiming to be from HMRC to or 60599, check GOV.UK for information on how to avoid and report scams, and check out our online guide if you think you’ve received an HMRC-related phishing/bogus email or text.


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