UK Refugee Sponsors Have Been Targeted By Scammers After Offering Homes To Ukrainians
People have the victims of scam attempts after trying to match with refugees
People in the UK offering to open their homes to Ukrainian refugees say they have been targeted by scammers seeking to steal money and personal information.
People signed up to the Homes for Ukraine sponsorship scheme have criticised the government for moving too slowly in matching sponsors with refugees, leading some to be targeted by scammers as they attempt to find potential matches themselves online.
The Homes for Ukraine scheme was opened last month and offered to match Ukrainians with no family links to the UK. More than 150,000 potential sponsors have registered their interest since the scheme opened.
But according to official figures, only 2,700 visas have been issued through the scheme, despite receiving 28,300 applications in the first 15 days.
The delays have led thousands of people to join unofficial groups on Facebook where both British people and Ukrainian refugees can post their details in the hopes of finding a match.
But the process has left some at risk from scammers who appear to be using the opportunity to harvest personal information and attempt to steal money from British hosts.
Liz, who posted in one Facebook group, said she had made her own attempt to match with a refugee after hearing "no real information" about how the Homes for Ukraine scheme was progressing.
"I registered on the government website as soon as it went live,” she told PoliticsHome.
“No real information was given about how to link up with a Ukrainian refugee so it seemed the best option was to join one of the Facebook groups dedicated to matching Ukrainians to British homes.
"We've all muddled through the process as a Facebook community. I advertised the room and what I could offer in the group. I received several messages from genuine people needing help, but I also had messages from scammers.
"The messages would start out with a heartbreaking story of them and their family, usually with a small baby, under fire in a basement. The messages were always written in Ukrainian. Once I said I could try and help they asked for my credit card details so they could book a flight.
"I told them that the flights should be free, or I would buy the ticket myself if not and they didn't need my credit card. After they read that message they blocked me so I couldn't contact them again."
Liz said she had been targeted in this way three times by people she believed to be scammers before she eventually matched with a genuine refugee, who is now awaiting a visa.
"I would click on their Facebook profiles and see that they were new accounts, with little information about them and no pictures of them or their family."
Ministers have promised that background checks would be carried out on all sponsors before refugees would be allowed to move into homes, while security checks will also be conducted on those attempting to come to the UK, but while the checks would lead some people not to be granted a visa, there is no safeguarding around scammers targeting potential sponsors on social media.
"The scammers are a small minority and there are lots of terrified genuine people out there but you do have to be mindful when matching with some," Liz added. "It makes me so angry that there are people out there taking advantage of the situation."
Glen, a retired civil servant in his seventies, also used Facebook to try and match with a potential refugee family because he felt the current government scheme is failing to move quickly enough to protect those who have fled Ukraine.
"My wife and I have two spare bedrooms in our house that we want to offer to people escaping from that hell. I'd registered for the Homes for Ukraine programme on the day it opened, but I don't know a single person that has been contacted," he said.
"I certainly feel a real sense of urgency to help that I don't think is reflected by our government to be quite honest."
Glen said he replied to a number of posts for Ukrainian refugees who had written posts asking for help, but found they were quickly matched with other members of the group.
He then posted his own ad with an offer to help one or two families, and explained a little about his home and his family's interests in walking holidays and theatre trips.
"I got about four or five messages over the next two days,” he explained.
“But one stood out to me that I received from a woman who said she had escaped from Kyiv and was now stuck in Poland. She claimed she was interested in our advert because she had other friends and family who had already matched with people in the local area and they wanted to move to a place nearby."
According to Glen, the woman said she and her infant son had been forced to flee with just a single bag of possessions.
"Both my wife and I were really upset by the thought of this poor woman and her child stuck in a hostel in Poland,” he continued. “We went to bed that night with a very firm conviction that we would do all we could to help them get to the UK safely."
Glen said he spoke with the woman repeatedly using the encrypted messaging app, Telegram, over the following days but had not begun filling out the Home Office sponsorship application because the woman claimed she was waiting for family members who had remained in Kyiv to send her copies of the documents required to complete the forms.
After several days of conversation, Glen said he received a "panicked" message from the woman, who said she had been the victim of an attempted sexual assault at their hostel and was desperate to flee further west to get her away from Poland and closer to the UK.
"She began asking me to send her some money, just a small amount, around £150 or so, to get train tickets for her and her son, as well as some basic things like clothes and food,” he said.
"The messages were becoming frantic, and I found it incredibly upsetting to hear about what she was going through."
Glen, who said he considers himself to be quite "switched on" and computer savvy, then received a further message from the woman saying her son was ill and she wanted him to send some extra money to buy some medicine.
"I was ready to send her some money, around £300 or so, through Paypal, which she said she had access to. But when I woke up the next morning, I had a gut feeling that something wasn't right," he added.
As a precaution, Glen told the woman he was happy to pay for the ticket and some of their other expenses, but wanted to pay for them directly, by booking the tickets in her name rather than sending her the cash.
"I took some advice from other people I'd made contact with on the Facebook group, and they convinced me this was a safer option, and if she was who she said she was, this would be an acceptable option for her."
When he made the offer, Glen said the women became "furious".
"She was accusing me of leaving her to be raped, or wanting her son to die. It was really vicious," he said.
But Glen said the response solidified his concerns, and he asked the woman to send her copies of their passports or speak with him on a video call to confirm her identity. She repeatedly refused and started sending more aggressive and abusive messages.
He continued: "I directly told her, or whoever I had been speaking with, I thought they were trying to con me. In response I got threats, they said I knew where I lived because I had shared my information with them. They all but admitted they were trying to scam me. I went back and deleted everything I could from our messages and then blocked them and deleted the thing."
Glen said he felt "shaken" by the incident, but was glad he took the precautions he had.
"I think if I sent the money that either they would have disappeared, or come up with some other fantasy about why they needed more,” he added. “We definitely dodged a bullet."
The couple said they had now removed their advert on the Facebook group, and were hesitant to use social media again to try and match with anyone.
"I think we are resigned to waiting for the Homes for Ukraine scheme to contact us, or we might try and use one of the charities who are helping match people. It will be much safer, even if it will take longer."
Glen said while he was "disgusted" by the attempted scam, they were still eager to help host a refugee family.
"It's not their [the Ukrainian refugees] fault,” he said. “This person likely lives half-way across the world and has never even met a Ukrainian. It's disgusting that people are trying to take advantage of people offering their homes to people, but they are also harming these poor people who are genuinely in an awful situation and could benefit hugely from matching with British people."
Others reported that while they had not been asked for money, they had sent copies of sensitive documents required to fill out the Home Office forms to alleged refugees – including details of their address, passports and financial documents – who had then either blocked them or deleted their accounts.
One person who sent a copy of their passport to a supposed refugee before being blocked now fears they could be a victim of identity theft or other fraud attempts by the people now in possession of their details.
"Both parties are having to place a huge deal of trust in each other. You are sharing very personal information with people you have only met online. I've had to warn my bank and insurance companies about any attempts, but I still don't feel entirely safe," one person told PoliticsHome.
"It's really scary, and I'd urge anyone involved in this to be vigilant."
Another posted in the group they feared criminals could be using the system to gather sensitive information which could then be sold on to criminal groups.
They said the process was "manna from heaven" for scammers because the application process requires one person to fill out the form for both parties, meaning people are forced to share their documents with each other.
"It should be designed so that people can fill out their own information separately. It's not a guarantee of safety, but it would make the process a lot more secure," they added.
While some of the groups are now sharing guides of best practice to their members, there is no guarantee they will stop more sophisticated scam attempts.
Others have said they are taking extra precautions, such as asking for video calls with potential matches to provide an assurance that they are speaking to a legitimate refugee.
Liz added: "My advice would be not to give out any credit or debit card details. If the refugee does need anything to be paid for like extra baggage allowance, you can pay for it yourself.
"Also add the refugee as a friend on Facebook and check their profile. Does it match the information they have given? Video calling is another good way of checking if someone is genuine."
She added: "Don’t rely on faceless messages. The person you are helping will also email their documents so you can fill out the visa application either with them or on their behalf."
A government spokesperson said: "No visa will be issued until Home Office checks have been completed – both on the Ukrainian applicant but also on every adult in a sponsor's household.
"The British public have been enormously generous in offering up their home to support those fleeing war and persecution, but for the protection of both Ukrainians and sponsors it is right that we do not issue a visa until these vital checks are finished.
"In addition to the Home Office checks, local authorities also run further DBS checks on sponsors, with enhanced DBS with barred list checks for those housing families with children or vulnerable adults."
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