New government figures have revealed a sharp uplift in fraud cases since lockdown – the biggest rise in any crime category since the pandemic struck in March last year.

According to the annual Recorded Crime in Scotland survey cases have risen by 63 per cent from April 2020 to March 2021, compared to the previous year.

The statistics revealed that there were 17,818 fraud cases in the last 12 months, up from 10,957, despite an overall reduction in the level of crime by seven per cent since Covid struck.

Government statisticians said ‘some care’ must be taken before attributing the increase to Covid-19 as there has been a general upwards trend in fraud over the last five years and also there was a change to the recording method made in April 2020.

Before then, the figures didn’t include crimes with a victim in Scotland and perpetrator outside of the UK. That has now been changed and a “significant” amount of the 6,861 rise is thought to be due to that fact, said a police source. The Scottish government is due to release a follow-up report in September.

Detective Superintendent Dave Ferry, of Police Scotland, said: “Fraud is a despicable and cowardly crime, and we have seen a marked increase in the number of cases, as criminals become more sophisticated and people spend more time online. Over the past year, as people have stayed at home, more of our daily activities have been carried out online than ever before, from work to social engagement and shopping.

“Defrauding victims in this setting is a ‘faceless crime’ and highly organised groups of criminals have used this opportunity and advances in technology to exploit people, persuading them to part with personal information and money. Many of these people thought they would never fall victim, but fraudsters are finding more innovative and conniving ways to catch them out.

“We have seen a rise in the number of phone scams, contacting people from genuine numbers claiming to be from legitimate organisations and making threats of legal action, which can be very convincing. It has also been particularly disappointing to see attempts to fraudulently offer members of the public the Coronavirus vaccine in exchange for payment.”

The government report said: “Prior to the 1st April 2020, these statistics excluded any crime with a victim in Scotland and a perpetrator who was confirmed by the police to be outside the United Kingdom when the crime took place. Following a recommendation by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspectorate for Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) to review recording practice in this area, the Scottish Crime Recording Board approved a change so that from the 1st April these crimes are now included in the statistics. It should be noted that those cases with only a suspicion or insufficient evidence to confirm that the perpetrator was outside the UK were always included.

“This change is likely to have led to additional crimes of fraud being recorded, with a similar impact possible for other types of crime which could be committed using digital technologies. At this early stage we are unable to say to what extent this procedural change has increased levels of recorded fraud, though the 2020-21 National Statistics (to be published in September 2021) will provide users with an estimate of the number of additional crimes that were recorded as a result of this change.”

Scottish Conservative Justice Spokesman Liam Kerr said: “These figures are hugely concerning and confirm what many have feared about increasing fraud levels.

“It is appalling that many criminals have used this crisis to prey on our elderly and vulnerable. They deserve to be severely punished, and the police must be given the necessary resources to bring them to account.

“The Scottish Conservatives are pledging to introduce a statutory aggravator which will bring tougher sentences against those who carry out these callous crimes. We first proposed this measure in 2018 but the SNP have failed to put it into practice.

“We will stand up for victims of crime through our Victims Law and put an end to the soft-touch attitude that has been in place under the SNP over their 14 years in charge.”

The report also highlighted an increasing trend in recorded fraud over a number of years, up 73% between 2014-15 and 2019-20, which “may be continuing”.

There is not a detailed breakdown on the figures to indicate what proportion of the crimes recorded were internet-enabled, for example phishing email scams or ransomware.

According to the Scottish government, the statistics on recorded crime are a “simple count” of the number of crimes and offences, for each local authority, which the police have recorded.

However, the Recorded Crime in Scotland, 2018-19 bulletin, included a topical analysis of police recorded fraud, whereby a random sample of 500 crime records from 2018-19 were reviewed.

As part of that research, it was revealed the most common types include fraudulent use of a bank card, failure to pay for products or services, fraudulent selling and phishing-type frauds. An estimated 28% of cases were cyber-enabled.

The average amount defrauded for each crime of fraud was £150. This was higher for cyber-enabled frauds (£490) than for those that weren’t (£80).

Victims were more likely to be male (56%), and had an average of age of 48-years-old. Victims of phishing-type frauds tended to be older, with an average age of 60 years old.

A Scottish government spokesperson said: “The restrictions put in place to limit the spread of Covid-19 have had an impact on the number of crimes and offences recorded by the police, including fraud. However, police recorded fraud has also been increasing in recent years and a procedural change from April 2020 is likely to have led to additional crimes of fraud being recorded, with a similar impact possible for other types of crime which could be committed using digital technologies.”

More than 6,000 cases of Covid-related fraud and cyber-crime have been recorded by the UK’s police forces during the pandemic. The Action Fraud team said £34.5m had been stolen since 1 March 2020. However those UK-wide figures include England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but not Scotland.