Top WhatsApp scams to avoid

A devil behind a mobile phone being used by a potential victim, representing a WhatsApp scam

WhatsApp can be used in numerous ways to commit fraud. We highlight the different types of scams to help you stay aware and safe.

With tens of millions of people in the UK using WhatsApp, scams on the messaging app are increasingly common. And fraudsters are finding new ways to target unsuspecting victims.

This is why it’s so important to know how to spot a scam so you don’t fall foul of them. With around two billion active WhatsApp users, fraudsters have a huge number of potential targets. Here’s how to avoid becoming one.

WhatsApp scams – what do they do?

  1. Persuade you to hand over personal details, such as your name and address, that can be used in identity theft.
  2. Install malware (malicious software) on your phone which can spy on your activity. This collects information that can be used in identity theft or lock you out of your device.
  3. Charge you for services that should be free.
  4. Scammers pretend to be a family member and then request money.

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Table of contents

The most common WhatsApp scams

Impersonation fraud

Sometimes dubbed the “Mum and Dad scam”, this is where scammers use WhatsApp to impersonate family members in difficulty and – specifically – in need of money.

This type of scam has evolved from fraudsters impersonating a bank, police or HMRC. Now these scams play on the close relationship between family members, which is usually a particular vulnerability for people.

It starts with a message from an unknown number, claiming to be a loved one who has just lost their phone and got a replacement. It gives them a reason for having a different number and means they can just use a generic term like “Mum”, “Dad” or sometimes “sis” or “bro”.

The story they tell varies, but usually involves a claim that because they have a new phone they don’t have access to their internet/mobile banking app. As such, they need urgent help to pay a bill.

Any attempt to call to verify their identity – such as trying to call them or requesting a voice note – is often fobbed off with an excuse.

The bank details won’t match that of the person they claim to be. But they may say it’s because they can’t access their bank account, or that an organisation they owe money to needs to be paid directly.

Victims transfer money to an account thinking they’re helping out their loved ones. According to HSBC, on average victims lose £1,800 this way.

People have taken to social media to suggest personal safety measures:

WhatsApp verification message trick

An increasingly common scam begins when a criminal gets access to another WhatsApp account which is one of your contacts.

Pretending to be your friend or someone that’s a member of a WhatsApp group you’re in, the scammer will try to start a conversation by sending you what appear to be normal messages.

Around this time, you’ll receive a text message with a six-digit WhatsApp code that you weren’t expecting. This code is sent to you because the criminal has been trying to log in to WhatsApp using your mobile number.

This is a code you’d need to set up a new account, or log in to your existing account on a new device. Alarm bells should be ringing if you’ve not made this request. There’s a very high chance it’s a fraudster trying to log in to your account.

In the next step of the scam, you receive a WhatsApp message from a friend asking for the six-digit code. Because your account has already been hijacked, the message appears to come from a genuine friend.

The criminal will then claim they sent you their code by accident and ask you to help them by sending it to them. If you don’t spot that it is a scam, you’ll end up sending the access code for your own account to the scammer. Once the criminal has this code, they can log in to your WhatsApp account and lock you out.

They can then use the same tactic with your WhatsApp contacts to steal more accounts and use them to perpetrate fraud.

What’s worse is the hijacker can then message your friends, family and contacts and pretend to be you. They can access your group chats where they can see private information and try the six-digit code trick with new victims. 

One common tactic is for scammers to pretend you’re having a crisis and ask your contacts for money. There are concerns scammers are taking advantage of the cost-of-living crisis where people might already be asking family or friends for money to help pay their bills.

The free flights scam

Another scam circulating on Whatsapp is the free flights scam. People receive messages claiming Emirates is giving away free flights, with a link to claim the tickets. The scam message might state that it’s an anniversary giveaway.

The scam offers 5,000 free round-trip flights to Europe, Asia or domestic. As tempting as it might be to bag a free getaway, remember that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Emirates is doing no such thing, as it has confirmed to consumer magazine Which? Emirates has clarified that any competitions it runs are posted on its verified social media channels or on its official website Emirates.com.

It might be easy to fall for the scam when you see the Emirates logo on the message. If you ever receive this message and are unsure whether it’s a scam or not, take a look at the URL.

A screenshot of the fraudulent Emirates WhatsApp scam text

On this specific scam, the URL looks odd. It doesn’t include the brand name ‘Emirates’ which means it most likely isn’t taking you to the Emirates website. Instead it’s a combination of random words and numbers. This should be a giveaway that the message isn’t legit.

WhatsApp Gold upgrade

The ‘WhatsApp Gold’ scam claims to be a special version of the messaging app used by celebrities and rich people with access to hidden features. This scam first appeared in 2016 and reappears every few years.

While any chance of an upgrade seems like a good thing, WhatsApp Gold doesn’t exist. Be sure to ignore any messages like this. 

According to those who’ve been targeted, a message will drop into your inbox saying a special version of WhatsApp is available. The message reads along the lines of: “Hey, finally Secret WhatsApp golden version has been leaked, This version is used only by big celebrities. Now we can use it too.” A link will invite you to download WhatsApp Gold. However, in reality, these links can be riddled with malware that locks you out of your phone or steals valuable personal information. 

Social media users have recounted how the WhatsApp Gold hoax appeared with a video called the “Dance of the Pope” in an effort to persuade victims to open the link

WhatsApp does introduce new features all the time. But the popular app is very vocal about what it’s pushing out and when. Also watch out for the telltale sign of a scam: poor spelling and grammar mistakes.

Any updates will occur through updating the app itself – and not through clicking a link embedded in a message.

Supermarket WhatsApp scams

With shoppers trying to bag any discount they can right now, this is one to watch out for. 

Scammers send out fake Tesco, Asda and Marks & Spencer vouchers on WhatsApp. The messages look like they have been sent by a thoughtful friend and are designed to trick you into clicking on the link to claim the voucher.

One such example is: “Hi, ASDA is giving away a £250 free voucher to celebrate its anniversary, go here to get it. Enjoy and thank me later!” But the supermarket isn’t giving out any £250 vouchers at all. 

Often these types of messages will feature classic scam giveaways. There may be spelling and grammar mistakes, and you’ll see there’s no corresponding promotion on the supermarket’s official website.

How can you protect yourself from scams?

  1. Never hand over your security codes, a password or a PIN to anyone – not even friends or family.

  2. Be very wary of messages from your loved ones asking for money. If you’re in doubt, call your friend or family to check. If you can’t speak to them on the phone for some reason, ask them something personal that you know the answer to such as what their middle name is or what they call their dog. If you don’t independently verify the person’s identity before making a payment, you may not be due a refund under the Contingent Reimbursement Model Code.

  3. Set up the two-step verification option for extra security. This is how to do it:
    Tap Settings > Account >Two-step verification > Turn on.

  4. Never share your WhatsApp account’s 6-digit activation code.

  5. Beware of a sense of urgency. When you sense that there is an urgency or time limit to respond, or you’ll be charged a fine, take that as a red flag.

  6. Scam messages often have spelling or grammatical mistakes, so keep a lookout for these.

  7. Report spam messages or block a sender within WhatsApp. Press and hold on the message bubble, select ‘Report’ and then follow the instructions.

  8. The Take Five to Stop Fraud campaign advice is to pause and think in a timely manner before giving out any money or personal information, especially when you receive messages randomly

  9. Read WhatsApp’s guide to staying safe to find out more.

What to do if you’ve been scammed

Are you worried you may have given sensitive information, such as card or bank details, to scammers via a WhatsApp message which led to a fake website? You need to report this to your bank straight away.

You can do so via the Stop Scams UK website, or call its 159 hotline. Most of the major banks are part of this scheme. Alternatively, you can report it directly to your bank via its fraud hotline.

If you’ve been a victim of fraud or cybercrime, report it to Action Fraud or call them on 0300 123 2040, Monday to Friday 8am – 8pm. If you or someone else is in immediate danger or at risk of harm, dial 999.

Top scams to be aware of