There has been a shock fall in retail sales in the key December shopping period, sharpening the decline seen in recent months, official figures show.
Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said sales fell an unexpected 3.2%, despite Christmas and reported discounts offered by major chains and some positive reports by major high street outfits.
Not since the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, in January 2021, had retail sales fallen at such a level.
It has been a far worse performance than the 0.5% drop expected by economists and a reversal of the 1.3% growth seen in November when discounts got people spending.
Retail sales figures are important as household consumption is the largest expenditure across the UK economy.
The data can be indicative of overall economic growth.
The UK already had a quarter of economic contraction from July to September last year.
A second three-month period of economic decline would mean the UK is technically in recession.
A country is technically in recession after two-quarters of negative growth.
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The threat of fraud and cyber scams is a 365-days-a-year problem when it comes to online shopping.
But just as the rate at which retailers hit you with promo emails scales up at this time of year, so too does the risk of falling foul of criminals trying to access your bank account.
According to the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), shoppers lost more than £10m to cyber criminals over last year’s festive shopping period.
With Black Friday sales under way and Christmas on the horizon, Sky News enlisted some cybersecurity experts to offer advice on how best to stay safe and avoid scams this year.
Spotting a dodgy email
A favourite tactic of fraudsters is to draw you in with an email that looks remarkably legitimate, seemingly offering an exclusive deal at one of your favoured retailers.
It is, as Mike McLellan of Secureworks puts it, a “classic scenario we’d expect to see around Black Friday”.
An important thing to look out for is the domain name of the sender’s email address – is it a close match, but with something slightly off? Think @amaz0n.co.uk, for example.
“On smartphones, that kind of detail is usually hidden,” advises Mr McLellan. “So tap on it and check where the email has come from.”
You should also keep an eye out for misspellings and odd formatting.
However, the NCSC has warned that criminals are likely to use increasingly accessible AI tools to produce even more convincing scam emails, websites, and adverts than usual.
If you’re at all unsure, it’s good practice to go to the website directly, rather than click on any links in the email.
Some scams may direct you to a retailer’s login page to enter your account information.
It could look perfectly normal, and you go ahead and pop in your username and password, while in the background, criminals capture that information and use it themselves.
Chris Bluvshtein, of VPNOverview, says: “Every website should have a valid security certificate, and you can tell by the little padlock icon next to the URL.
“If a website doesn’t have one of these, then don’t give your bank details or valuable information.”
These can be some of the hardest scams to notice yourself, but banks have become very good at alerting you to “unusual logins” and flagging any subsequent dodgy transactions.
“If you suspect something bad has happened, consider changing your password,” Mr McLellan says. “And checking your bank activity.”
Text message scams
Another classic of the Black Friday scam genre is a text message suggesting you have a parcel waiting with DHL, Royal Mail, or some other delivery provider.
“Quite often you will be expecting something when you get these texts – but again keep an eye out for anything that doesn’t look normal,” says Mr McLellan.
A good indicator that something is amiss is if the text asks you for payment and includes a bit.ly link.
You should not click on these.
The rise of ‘Qishing’
An emerging threat over the past year is an extension of phishing using QR codes.
Secureworks has dubbed it “Qishing”, when criminals use them to direct unsuspecting consumers to fraudulent websites that could steal their personal information.
Director of threat intelligence, Rafe Pilling, says: “We’re so used to seeing ‘scan this code’ to register, view a menu, order drinks or food to a table, or even enter competitions via the big screen at events stadiums, that consumers are thinking less about what they’re actually scanning.
“As the hype around holidays like Black Friday drives more urgency in consumer actions, we can expect to see more cyber criminals taking advantage with Qishing.”
Password managers and mobile payments
Modern smartphones and web browsers offer some useful baked-in features to help you stay safe.
Both have password managers and generators, which will come up with randomised options for you to lock your accounts and then store those behind a master password – or even biometrics like facial or fingerprint recognition.
Consider multifactor authentication as well, says Mr McLellan, for an extra layer of security.
Apple and Google Pay are good payment options if the retailer accepts them, as they protect your bank details.
“It’s best to use them instead of your debit card,” says Mr Bluvshtein.
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Avoid shopping on public networks
Black Friday promotions will often try to entice you with limited time deals, alerting you to them via an app notification, text message or email.
If one arrives while you’re out and about, it could be tempting to jump straight to it.
But shopping on public wi-fi networks, like those you might find at railway stations and on trains, is a bad idea, according to Mr Bluvshtein.
“Public wi-fi rarely has safety protocols such as passwords in place, and hackers can piggyback and steal unsecured banking details and sensitive information without you knowing,” he says.
What to do if you suspect you’ve been scammed
Even with the best will in the world, there may come a moment where you suspect the worst.
But try not to fret – there are steps you can take to limit the damage, or prevent any from occurring at all.
“Keep an eye on bank accounts and if you see anything unusual, get in touch with them,” says Mr McLellan.
“Banks have got very robust fraud controls these days – and that’s why it’s best to use credit cards if possible.
“If you think any of your online accounts have been compromised, change the password, and try not to reuse them across different retailers.
“We do recognise that some of these have a technical bar to them, but if nothing else, at least keep an eye on what’s happening and be vigilant about your online activity.”
The UK economy shrugged off the impact of strikes to return to growth in April, according to official figures charting a pick-up in spending at the shops and in bars and restaurants.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) measured growth of 0.2% following a contraction of 0.3% in the previous month.
It reported growth over the three months to April was 0.1%.
ONS director of economic statistics, Darren Morgan, said of the performance: “GDP (gross domestic product) bounced back after a weak March.
“Bars and pubs had a comparatively strong April while car sales rebounded and education partially recovered from the effect of the previous month’s strikes.
“These were partially offset by falls in health, which was affected by the junior doctors’ strikes, along with falls in computer manufacturing and the often-erratic pharmaceuticals industry.
“House builders and estate agents also had a poor month.
“Over the last three months as a whole the economy grew a little, driven largely by the construction industries.
“The services sector dragged growth downwards, partly due to the impact of public sector strikes.”
The ONS update follows hot on the heels of upgrades in recent weeks to UK economic expectations by key international bodies such as the IMF and OECD.
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OECD chief explains high UK inflation
Both had initially predicted a recession during 2023.
However, there is no cause for celebration as the growth being widely talked for this year represents just a few tenths of a per cent all considered.
Confidence to spend and invest is being dented heavily by high inflation.
The Bank of England is widely tipped to act further on the pace of rising prices by imposing a further interest rate hike next week.
It is worried that so-called core inflation, which strips out volatile elements such as energy and food, remains stubbornly high.
Rate-setters would have also been concerned by wage data revealed on Tuesday that showed a sharp rise, building on worries that wage settlements to combat the impact of inflation will just intensify the UK’s price pressures.
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Leap in basic wage growth
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said of the ONS economic data: “We are growing the economy, with the IMF saying that from 2025 we will grow faster than Germany, France and Italy.
“But high growth needs low inflation, so we must stick relentlessly to our plan to halve the rate this year to protect family budgets.”
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His Labour shadow, Rachel Reeves, responded: “Labour wants to match the ambition of the British people – while the Tories would rather continue down a path of managed decline of low growth and high taxes.
“Despite our country’s huge potential and promise, today is another day in the dismal low growth record book of this Conservative government.
“The facts remain that families are feeling worse off, facing a soaring Tory mortgage penalty and we’re lagging behind on the global stage.
“Labour’s mission to secure the highest sustained growth in the G7 will make families across every part of our country better off.”
The immigration minister has declared that “Hotel Britain” must end, calling for migrants to be housed in “simple, functional” spaces rather than “luxury” rooms.
Robert Jenrick said that a “chronic shortage of acceptable accommodation” for “record numbers” of migrants has led to the government using expensive hotels, adding to the cost for taxpayers.
But, writing in The Sunday Telegraph, he suggested that more basic accommodation should be considered, such as disused student accommodation, defunct holiday parks, or even budget cruise ships.
Mr Jenrick said: “Human decency has to be accompanied by hard-headed common sense: illegal immigrants are not entitled to luxury hotels.
“Conditions in the UK are almost always better than in neighbouring countries, which helps explain why the UK is a destination of choice for economic migrants on the continent ‘asylum shopping’.
“‘Hotel Britain’ must end, and be replaced with simple, functional accommodation that does not create an additional pull factor.”
It comes as UK ministers are under fire over conditions at the Manston holding centre in Kent – at one point as many as 4,000 people were being detained at the site, despite it being designed to hold just 1,600.
It has also emerged that people at the facility will be vaccinated against diphtheria after 39 cases of the contagious disease were recorded among asylum seekers in England in the year to 10 November.
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The number of migrants who have crossed the Channel into the UK is thought to have surpassed 40,000 this year, after dozens more arrived on Saturday.
And the mayor of Calais was quoted in French media as saying that “around 500 people” were rescued after 14 attempts to cross the Channel in the previous 24 hours.
Mr Jenrick said that the UK needed to work closely with French officials to deter those “attempting to cheat the process”.
It has been reported in recent days that a new agreement with France – thought to be worth about £80m – is in its final stages.
He said: “With greater co-ordination between our respective security and law enforcement agencies, we can dismantle the evil criminal gangs masterminding these crossings and bring greater order both to our shores and to northern France.”
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Mr Jenrick also said that he would look at expanding the controversial Rwanda deportation scheme introduced by former home secretary Priti Patel.
The scheme, which sees migrants deported to the east African nation, whether their asylum applications are successful or not, has not yet been used.
But Mr Jenrick said similar agreements will be explored with other countries, adding that those travelling from “safe” nations must not view small boats as “a path to a life here”.