How to spot a scam

Woman getting a scam call from a suspicious number on her mobile

Scams are becoming more sophisticated and harder to spot. But by being vigilant, you can protect yourself from being a victim of fraud. Here’s how.

In the first half of 2023, scammers were responsible for defrauding the UK population of £580 million. According to UK Finance, 1.4 million cases of fraud were perpetrated – the equivalent of one successful scam every 12 seconds.

With fraudsters becoming ever more sophisticated, how can we spot potential scams and protect ourselves from falling victim? Here’s how to identify potential scams and telltale signs that should set off alarm bells.

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Table of Contents

Sign #1: Have you been contacted out of the blue?

Scams are by their nature unsolicited. If you receive an email or message that is unexpected or a cold call from an unknown or withheld number, this is a red flag. And doubly so if you’re asked to give personal information or any payment details.

Legitimate organisations are unlikely to get in touch and ask for sensitive information, unless you’re expecting them to.

If you receive a suspicious call:

  • The best thing to do is not to answer. If the number’s visible, you can enter it into a site such as Who Called Me to see if anybody has reported it as suspicious. If the number is listed, it’ll usually have reports of the users’ experience. This is a good way of determining if the number’s legitimate or not.

  • If you do answer but are not convinced of the caller’s identity, hang up. You could then call the company they claim to represent directly.

If you receive a suspicious email or message:

  • Don’t follow any links.
  • Don’t give up any personal details.

If a company is legitimate and needs information from you, it’s always best to call or message them back using contact details from their official website.

Sign #2: Have you been asked to share personal or sensitive information?

Don’t give any personal details, sensitive or payment information to anyone who can’t prove that they’re a member of a legitimate organisation. This includes any of the following:

  • National Insurance number
  • PIN or passwords
  • Name of your primary school
  • Your mother’s maiden name
  • The name of your first pet
  • What city you were born in

Don’t reveal anything that’s used by organisations as security questions unless you’ve contacted them directly yourself. This information can be used to hack your accounts. This can lead to the theft of money or even your identity.

Sign #3: Have you been asked to transfer money?

Being asked to give payment information or to transfer money is a dead giveaway, especially if it’s suggested that you should do this as a matter of urgency. Also be wary of being asked to pay in an unusual way, such as using cryptocurrency, or a transfer company such as MoneyGram or Western Union.

What often catches people out is if the person contacting them claims to be a family member but with a new phone number, for example. If someone contacts you claiming to be your child, for instance, and saying that they’re in some kind of trouble, this can be very emotive.

However, you should confirm they are who they say they are, usually by contacting them via some other means. Send them an email or a Facebook message asking if it’s them.

Sign #4: Are you being pressured?

Being pressured into making decisions is a common scam technique. You should be able to make decisions in your own time, particularly ones which affect your finances. Legitimate companies will not try to rush you into signing on the dotted line.

Similarly, if you’ve been involved in a road accident, you may be contacted by third parties involved in the claim. Some may rush you into settling the claim, but it’s important to know exactly who you’re talking to. It’s always ok to ask somebody who they’re acting on behalf of. 

It’s also a common tactic of unscrupulous companies to speak too fast or use a lot of jargon. Alarm bells should ring if you feel like you’re being rushed or there’s anything you don’t understand.

Sign #5: Is it an offer that’s too good to be true?

If you’re contacted with an offer that promises some deal which is too good to miss – such as a really cheap holiday – this should be approached with scepticism. Anything which seems too good to be true invariably is.

Sign #6: Are the contact details vague or missing?

If you’re struggling to find the contact details on a website or the details are vague, these are indicators of a scam company. If a company only has a PO Box for instance, this is a red flag. Legitimate businesses will have a full business address, contact phone number and email address (or multiple email addresses for different departments).

If the company has a phone number, be wary of any beginning with ‘09’, as these are premium-rate numbers. Avoid calling these as it’ll add a big chunk to your bill.

Sign #7: Are there spelling errors or grammatical mistakes?

While the occasional error may slip through the net, by and large legitimate organisations won’t have grammar or spelling mistakes in their communications. Emails and similar messages are usually checked by teams of professionals, so the chance of mistakes getting through are greatly reduced.

If you receive an email or message on your phone claiming to be from a well-known organisation, but there are errors in the text, it’s an indication of a potential scam.

What are the signs that I’ve been scammed?

It’s worth knowing the signs of being scammed, so that you can limit any damage from there on in. If you’ve been scammed, this may be evidenced by one or more of the following:

  • You don’t get a receipt of your transaction.
  • Items you’ve bought online don’t arrive. Alternatively they do arrive, but are not as advertised.
  • You see suspicious or unexplained payments on your bank statement or credit card activity.
  • After you’ve paid money, the person or company you spoke to falls out of touch.
  • Financial services you’ve invested in won’t let you withdraw any money.
  • You’re rejected for credit, despite having a good credit rating.

What to do if you think you’ve been the victim of a scam

If you think you’ve fallen foul of a scam, first of all, don’t feel ashamed or beat yourself up about it. There are lots of sophisticated scams doing the rounds and the only people to blame are those perpetrating them.

The moment you suspect you’re being scammed, it’s vital to end all communication immediately.

The next port of call is your bank, so you can stop any suspicious activity on your account. Most big banks are signed up to the Stop Scams UK scheme, so it’s a good idea to call the 159 hotline first. You can check the list of the banks that participate. If your bank isn’t signed up to the scheme, contact them directly and ask to be put onto their fraud hotline.

Next, if you live in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, report the scam to Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040 or via its website.

For Scotland, report the scam to Advice Direct Scotland on 0808 164 6000 or via its website. Scams can also be reported via the 101 police line.

If it’s an online scam, it’s also a good idea to report it to the Advertising Standards Authority.

You can contact Citizens Advice in England and Wales, or Citizens Advice Scotland for further advice and support. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) also has a helpline on 0800 111 6768.

Tips for staying safe online

  • If you’re not sure about a company, you can check if they’re registered on GOV.UK. Also, as above, check out their contact details. It could be dodgy if they have no address listed or just a PO Box.

  • Don’t click on anything you don’t trust. Whether it’s a link in an email, message or on a website, don’t follow it if it’s in any way suspicious. And it’s a good idea to treat unsolicited messages as suspicious by default.

  • To find out if your email address has been compromised, pop it into Have I Been Pwned? This will tell you if it’s ever been involved in a data breach. If it has, you should change the password to all your online accounts straight away. It’s good practice to change them regularly anyway, or use a password manager.

  • If you decide to make a payment, you can protect yourself by using a payment service such as PayPal (a ‘push payment’), so the vendor won’t receive your payment details. If you do have to enter card details (a ‘pull payment’), it’s better to pay by credit card. This gives you section 75 protection, which means that you can claim money back from your credit card company if something goes wrong and you’re unable to claim back from the vendor.

Scams to look out for