How to avoid falling victim to online, email and phone scams

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Stop and think

Fraudsters will try to make you move money quickly by pretending your cash is at risk or that you are about to miss out on a once- in-a-lifetime deal.

They create a sense of “urgency, authority and scarcity” to put pressure on victims, says Paul Maskall, the fraud and cybercrime prevention manager at UK Finance. Their schemes often work “because we are distracted, for example on the school run or at work”.

The financial trade body has an anti-fraud campaign called Take Five, which advises consumers to stop and think before handing over any money or personal details.

If you feel under pressure to make rapid decisions, take a moment to assess the situation – just pausing for a few minutes can help you identify a fraudster.

Taking your time to reread a message can help you spot a potential scam: a fraudulent text may include spelling mistakes, while an email may be from a slightly different address to that of a legitimate person or company.

Your bank will never call you to ask you to move money into a new account, so resist any pressure from a caller to do so.

If sky-high investment returns advertised on social media seem too good to be true, they probably are. There is always time to look into a company before you trust it with any of your cash. The Get Safe Online website has a checker tool to help you quickly find out whether a page is likely to be legitimate. You can also search the Financial Conduct Authority’s online register of regulated investment firms.

A recent trend has been fraudsters pretending to be family members on WhatsApp and asking to borrow money. If you get a message like this, instead of transferring the cash, you can check whether it is genuine by taking time to contact the actual family member via another channel.

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Do not click on links in texts or emails, even if the message appears to come from a company or person you trust. Unfortunately, there are always new scams to be aware of as con artists regularly update their tactics to trick victims.

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Fraudsters often latch on to current affairs, which is why there was a surge in parcel scams and fake NHS test-and-trace texts in the pandemic. Maskall says there has been an increase in scams associated with the cost of living crisis, for example those pretending to be the local council getting in touch to give you the £150 council tax rebate.

You should ignore any messages you are sent via text or email asking you to click on a link, even if it is not a scam you recognise, until you are sure it is legitimate.

View image in fullscreenCall back on an official phone number if you are unsure about a caller’s identity. Photograph: Kittidej Chanprasert/Alamy

Call back

HM Revenue & Customs, your bank or another financial institution may occasionally call you out of the blue, but it is unusual and should set alarm bells ringing.

Fraudsters can override caller ID, so even if you get a call from a number you recognise it cannot necessarily be trusted. Number spoofing also allows them to take over text chains with your bank.

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If you were not expecting a call and cannot be 100% sure who you are speaking to, hang up immediately and find the official phone number to call them back.

Similarly, if anyone ever asks you for money over text or email, or tells you their payment details have changed, even if it is someone you know, you should call them on a trusted number before making a payment.

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Check security settings

Most scams happen at least partially online so it makes sense to toughen up your security settings.

If hackers access your emails or social media profiles, they can get personal information to help them convince you the scam is legitimate. These tactics are used by invoice scammers, who hack emails to intercept messages to a trusted party, such as a solicitor or builder. They can then take over the email thread and mimic the style of writing to convince someone to transfer a large sum of money to a new bank account.

Make sure you’ve got strong passwords on your email and social media accounts, and do not use the same one on more than one account, to avoid them being compromised. Use a password manager if you struggle to remember passwords.

View image in fullscreenUse strong passwords on your email and social media accounts. Photograph: NetPhotos/Alamy

Pay carefully

If you have decided the person you are dealing with is legitimate, you should still be cautious before handing over any money or personal information. You could, for example, transfer £1 first before calling the intended recipient to check whether it has reached their account.

Many banks will alert you if the account details you are sending money to do not match up with the information they have on file, which can help you avoid losing money. This is called confirmation of payee and is designed to stop fraud and mistakes.

“Banks provide warnings, don’t just click through them,” says Patrick Hurley, lead ombudsman and director of casework at the Financial Ombudsman Service.

If you use a credit or debit card when online shopping, you can ask your card provider for a chargeback if you find you have been scammed. Credit card users may be able to make a claim under the Consumer Credit Act for purchases of between £100 and £30,000.

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When you are shopping on an online marketplace – for example eBay – use the official payment method provided by the platform to make sure you are covered if something goes wrong. Do not be persuaded to pay with a bank transfer.

Have a plan

Know what to do if you accidentally end up falling for a scam – the faster you act, the more likely you are to get your money back.

Ring your bank immediately as it may be able to block money from leaving your account if the payment has not gone through yet. Banks can try to get your money back from the fraudulent account before the con artist moves it on.

Most big UK banks including HSBC, Lloyds, Barclays and Nationwide are signed up to the contingent reimbursement model (CRM) code, which provides rules for when consumers should get their money back if they are a victim of authorised push payments fraud. If your bank is not signed up, it will have its own rules on reimbursing customers who have been conned out of their cash.

If your bank will not refund you, even after you have followed its complaints procedure, contact the Financial Ombudsman, which will investigate the issue and decide whether you should get a refund.

According to Hurley, four in five cases escalated to the watchdog are decided in favour of the consumer.

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