How to outsmart online scammers
Whether you’re looking for love, shopping or applying for a job online, there’s always a risk of getting scammed. Over £1.2bn was stolen through fraud in the UK in 2022, the equivalent of £2,300 every minute, according to UK Finance.
This figure is set to rise in 2023, with con artists looking for opportunities to make extra money as the cost of living continues to increase.
So, how do you spot a scam and what should you do if you think you’ve been conned?
What's in this guide?Five common ways scammers target you onlineTen warning signs you’re dealing with a scammer I think I’ve been scammed. What should I do?Can you get your money back?Who should you report a scam to?
Five common ways scammers target you online
Online scams range from the unsophisticated classics – like the Nigerian prince offering you millions to help him out – to the advanced and highly targeted. We’ve pulled together a list of five of the most common ones to be aware of.
Romance scams and fake online dating profiles
Romance scams involve criminals creating fake profiles on online dating sites or apps with the hope of preying on your vulnerabilities and creating a quick emotional connection they can profit off. For example, in military romance scams, fraudsters pretend to be stationed far away and unable to meet in person.
But that won’t stop them from quickly building an online relationship and telling you they love you. Once a scammer has you ‘hooked’ in an online relationship, they’ll start asking you to send them money, gift cards, or expensive gifts. If you catch on, they’ll delete their accounts and vanish.
Messages claiming to be from someone you know
Sometimes fraudsters will send emails, texts or social media messages claiming to be someone you trust.
The scammer might impersonate your boss and ask you to send them your work login information or they might pretend to be one of your children who has lost their phone and needs you to transfer them some money.
If you send money, that’s a quick win for the scammer. And sending information – like account passwords or credit card numbers – may allow criminals to steal your identity. Clicking on a link sent by a con artist may download malware or ransomware onto your device.
Online shopping scams
There are various types of online shopping scams, so it’s best to keep your wits about you before paying for goods, even from generally trusted platforms such as Amazon.
In one common type of online shopping scam, a seller offers luxury goods at a steep discount – usually over social media sites like Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat (often using hacked accounts to avoid detection). But even though you receive a confirmation email and payment is taken from your account, nothing shows up. Or if it does, it’s not what you thought you were paying for.
With tales of people becoming overnight millionaires after investing in cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin, the industry has become a rich hunting ground for scammers - nearly 15 scams are attempted every hour.
One type of cryptocurrency scam involves someone tricking you into giving them access to your online wallet and stealing your coins. Recently, there has also been a surge in fraudulent crypto recovery services, where scammers claim to help you recover lost crypto but really steal even more.
In other scams, you might get contacted by someone claiming to have insider information about something called a new initial coin offering (ICO). This involves you investing in a new coin, but after an initial rise in value, the coin’s worth plummets and you’re left out of pocket while the scammers get out at the top. Be especially careful if you regularly use Telegram, as crypto scams have been running rampant on the platform for years.
Social engineering attacks
Nearly every type of online scam relies on a form of social engineering.
Social engineering involves taking advantage of your emotions to manipulate you into giving up money or sensitive information that can be used for identify theft and fraud.
One of the oldest examples is the Nigerian prince scam. In this fraud, a ‘prince’ sends an emotional plea for help.
If you can help, he says he’ll be able to remove vast sums of money from his home country and he offers to reward you with a percentage. All you need to do is wire him money to cover the legal costs or pay for bribes.
Any message like this is a scam and should always end up in the trash.
Ten warning signs you’re dealing with a scammer
They use authority to build trust
Online scammers use organisations and names you trust to encourage you to lower your guard. Be wary of anyone who messages you out of the blue and claims to be from the government or a major company.
They prey on your emotions
Online dating scams are one of the best examples of a scam that preys on your emotions. A scammer will quickly tell you they’re ‘falling in love’. The same goes for veterans’ charity scams, where fraudsters claim to be victims in need.
They create a sense of urgency
Online scammers try to get you to act quickly before you realise what they’re up to. They’ll often create a sense of urgency so you don’t have time to check any of their claims.
They're threatening and aggressive
Threats are another way online scammers convince you to do what they say e.g. pretending to be from the police and claiming that you’ll be arrested if you don’t do as they ask.
They contact you unexpectedly
If you receive any messages, phone calls, or emails from someone you don’t know, check they are who they say they are by contacting the business/ organisation they’re claiming to be from directly.
They ask for sensitive information
If someone contacts you claiming to be from your bank and asks for your PIN or online password to ‘secure’ your account, the chances are it’s a scammer. Your bank will never do this.
They overpay for goods or services
It’s also possible to be scammed if you’re selling online. Sometimes, someone will claim to have mistakenly sent you more than you’re asking for. They’ll then send a fake PayPal receipt and ask for you to send back the overpayment along with their product.
They offer something that seems too good to be true
Scammers use our desire to find a good deal against us. If something seems too good to be true, there’s a good chance someone’s trying to scam you.
A loved one acts in an unusual way
Online scammers will sometimes impersonate friends or family. Don’t trust a message just because it comes from an account you recognise or appears to be from a loved one. If the person is acting slightly out of character and especially if they’re contacting you from a number/account you don’t know, stop and find a way to check the message is genuine.
They ask you to use unusual payment options
Most online payment options offer protection against scammers. If someone pushes you to pay them through an untraceable or non-reversible option, it could be a scam. This includes wire transfers, gift cards, and cryptocurrency.
I think I’ve been scammed. What should I do?
What you need to do depends on exactly what’s happened. But the three key things you need to do are:
- protect yourself from further risk
- check if you can get your money back
- report the scam
If you’re in danger
If you feel threatened at any point, report this to the police immediately by calling 999.
If you’ve given the scammer access to your computer
Sometimes scammers ask to access your computer so they can control it remotely e.g. they might pretend to be from your internet provider and say they need to deal with a technical problem.
The scammer might infect your computer with a virus, or steal passwords and/or financial information. If this happens to you:
- reset passwords
- let your bank know your financial information might have been stolen
- make sure you update your anti-virus software
You could also get an IT professional to check your computer.
If you transferred money to the scammer in the last 24 hours
Tell the police immediately by calling 101.
If you think your account details or PIN have been stolen
Contact your bank immediately so they can protect your account.
After you’ve told your bank about the scam, keep an eye on your bank statement and look out for any unusual transactions. Also check your credit report to see if there are any applications for credit you don’t recognise.
If you think your passwords could have been stolen
Change your passwords as soon as possible. If you’ve used the same passwords on any other accounts, you should change these too.
Make sure you create a strong password e.g. using numbers and special characters.
Some sites let you add extra security to your account. This is known as ‘two factor authentication’.
If you think one of your accounts has been hacked
If a scammer has stolen your passwords, they could hack into your email, social media or online bank accounts. If you’re worried about this, you can find out what to do from the National Cyber Security Centre.
Can you get your money back?
If you’ve lost money because of a scam, there might be things you can do to get it back. What you should do, and whether you’ll get a refund, depends on what happened.
Contact your bank immediately if there’s a payment you don’t recognise – this is known as an ‘unauthorised transaction’, or you’ve used your debit card and more money was taken than you expected.
Explain what’s happened and ask if you can get a refund. If you’re not happy with how the bank deals with your claim, you should make an official complaint to them. Find out how to do this by checking their website.
If it’s eight weeks since you complained, and you haven’t got your money bank, contact the Financial Ombudsman. You can also contact the ombudsman if you’ve had a letter from the bank saying it’s not going to take any action. This is known as a financial response letter.
If the ombudsman decides you’ve been treated unfairly, it’s got legal powers to put things right.
Sadly, not all money lost through scams can be reclaimed. If you’ve been left in debt following a scam, get in touch with us and we’ll help you with free debt advice and support.
Who should you report a scam to?
It’s a good idea to report a scam – even if you’ve got your money back – as it can prevent it happening to someone else.
Don’t be embarrassed about reporting a scam – scammers are clever and anyone can fall for a scam.
You can report the scam to Citizens Advice who pass all the information on to Trading Standards and they’ll decide whether to investigate or not. Depending on what they find, they can take legal action against the scammers or stop them operating.
All scams should also be reported to Action Fraud, the UK’s national reporting centre for fraud.
Action Fraud can get the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau to investigate scams. They’ll also give you a crime reference number, which can be helpful if you need to tell your bank you’ve been scammed. You can report a scam to Action Fraud at actionfraud.police.uk or call 0300 123 2040
If you receive a scam email, you should forward it to [email protected]. It will go to the National Cyber Security Centre and might stop other people being scammed.
Online scam adverts should be reported to the Advertising Standards Authority. You may also be able to report an advert directly to the platform hosting it e.g. Google, Facebook and Instagram.