How to avoid being caught out by scams (and what to do if you are)
Money expert and Founder of Fairer Finance
Last reviewed 27th October 2023
8 min read
It can take a lifetime to build up a nest egg, and seconds to lose it. A growing number of sophisticated scams have seen thousands of people lose significant sums of money over the past few years – and in the very worst cases, victims have lost every penny of their savings.
But a little knowledge can go a long way when it comes to protecting yourself against scams. By staying vigilant, and following some simple rules, you can hold onto your money. And if you do get caught out, there’s steps you should take to maximise the chances of getting some or all of your money back.
The main types of scams
Fake Emails & Letters
One of the simplest and most common forms of scams these days is bogus emails. They may appear to be from a reputable source – such as your bank, HMRC or Apple – and will usually have a call to action that requires you to click on a link.
In the case of HMRC emails, they often tell you that there is a tax rebate waiting for you. Your bank may be contacting you to warn about fraud. Apple may be telling you that you need to reset the password on your iTunes account.
Avoid clicking on links in emails
Given it can be hard to pick out the genuine emails from the fake ones, it’s worth trying to avoid ever clicking on links in emails. If the emails are not legitimate, the links may take you to sites that download viruses on to your computer.
Or they may take you to what appear to be genuine login pages for HMRC or your bank, but which are really fake websites that get you to type in your personal details and passwords – setting up fraudsters with everything they need to get into your accounts.
How to protect yourself against fake emails
The safest way to protect yourself against fake emails is to treat all emails with suspicion. But if you want to check whether an email is genuine, there are a few things you can look at which usually give away the fakes.
- Don’t click links
Firstly, hover over – but don’t click on – any links in the email. This should bring up a web address at the bottom of your screen. In the case of scam emails, the link won’t go where it says it does.
- Check the sender
It’s also worth checking who the real sender is. The email name may say it’s from “HMRC” or “Apple” – but check exactly what email address the message has come from. You may need to click on the name of the sender at the top of the email to see the address. A genuine email from the government will end in gov.uk.
Emails from your bank should have the same ending as your bank’s web address – e.g. santander.co.uk or barclaycard.co.uk. But watch out for email addresses that look similar – e.g. santanderbank.co.uk. They may contain the name of the organisation who seems to be emailing you – but be slightly different.
- Contact the organisation
If you think a message is genuine and you want to follow through with what it’s asked you to do, then the safest way is to contact the organisation directly – without clicking on any links in the email. If it’s from your bank, call them on their regular contact number, and ask them if they sent you the email.
The other type of fake email or letter you may receive could be one asking for help, or letting you know that you’ve won or inherited money. The end result of these types of scams is usually that you’ll be asked to send some money to get access to a larger sum. If it looks too good to be true, it almost always is. Never reply to these emails.
Fake telephone calls
Another common type of scam to watch out for begins with a phone call from someone pretending to be from your bank. They’ll often centre around letting you know about a fraud on your account, and will end with persuading you that you need to transfer money to a new account to protect yourself.
These scams can be quite sophisticated and will use lots of tricks to make you feel like you’re genuinely talking to someone at your bank.
In reality, banks rarely call customers directly. But even if you think a call is genuine, the safest thing to do when your bank calls you is to ask to call them back on the number you normally use to contact them.
It’s safest to wait at least 20 mins to call them back – or call from a different line to the one you received the call on. This is because some scammers are able to keep telephone lines open even after you have hung up, and can make it seem like you’re calling your bank back when you’re actually still on the line to the scammers.
Whether someone claims to be calling from your bank, or any other formal organisation, you should never give out personal details over the phone, unless you’re sure that the call is genuine. And you shouldn’t give out your PIN or online banking passwords in any circumstances – not even to the police.
Fake home visits
Door to door sales, political canvassers and meter readers are some of the many people that regularly turn up on people’s doorsteps these days. But there’s very few reasons you ever need to let people into your home, or give them money on your doorstep.
Representatives of your electricity or gas companies may legitimately need to get into your property to read the meter, but they should always have ID. If it doesn’t look genuine, don’t hesitate to ask them to wait while you call the energy company and check their credentials.
There are plenty of scams in the world of investment - opportunities which sound too good to be true, and usually are. Unless you’re a sophisticated investor, you shouldn’t be investing your money without the advice of a professional financial adviser(www.unbiased.co.uk opens in a new tab). And when you’re picking your adviser, make sure it’s someone reputable with a good level of qualifications.
Chartered and Certified financial planners have higher levels of qualifications and are also required to do regular updates on their training and development.
Always check that your financial adviser is on the FCA register(register.fca.org.uk opens in a new tab). If they are, you’ll have better protections in the event that they give you bad advice.
If you’re unsure whether the advice you’re receiving is right, then don’t be afraid to pause and get a second opinion before you commit any significant amounts of money.
If you are investing on your own, make sure to use a reputable investment platform, and stick to mainstream investments like shares, corporate bonds and mutual funds.
What to do if you think you’ve been the victim of a scam
If you think you’ve been scammed, it’s important to get in touch with your bank as soon as possible. If you’ve transferred money to someone who you think may be dishonest, your bank may be able to get it back – but time is often of the essence.
The longer you wait to report a scam, the more likely the money will have been moved onto other accounts, and will be untraceable.
As well as reporting scams to your bank, you should also report them to the police. You can call the police on 101, and you can also report scams to Action Fraud(www.actionfraud.police.uk opens in a new tab), which is run by the City of London police.
If money has been taken from your debit or credit card without your consent then your bank has an obligation to reimburse you (as long as you weren’t negligent in protecting your cards and PIN).
If you’ve been a victim of a scam where you were persuaded to move your money to a scammer’s account, you still may be able to get the money back from your bank.
Some banks now guarantee to pay out if you’re a victim of these kind of scams – known as Authorised Push Payment (APP) Scams. Some banks have also now signed up to a code which commits to reimburse customers as long as it’s clear they were not at fault.
How to stay safe online
Here’s a few tips for staying safe online, to reduce the chances of you becoming a victim of a scam.
Regularly change your passwords and consider using a password manager. Keeping secure passwords for all your key accounts is important for keeping fraudsters and scammers out of your accounts.
Make sure you use strong passwords, with combinations of letters, numbers and special characters like @ and !. If you struggle to remember lots of different passwords, then you could consider using a password manager.
There are a number of different apps such as Dashlane(www.dashlane.com opens in a new tab) and LastPass(www.lastpass.com opens in a new tab), which help generate secure passwords and stores them securely so you don’t need to remember them.
- Use sites you trust
Never use websites that you don’t know or trust. If you’re buying from an online website, make sure the page you’re entering your card details on is secure. You should see a padlock in the bar where you type the web address.
- Have anti-virus software
Install good anti-virus software on any computers you use at home. This will protect you against attacks on your computer, which could steal your passwords and personal information.
- Have a secure wi-fi network
Make sure you protect your home wi-fi network by setting up a secure password for it – so that people can’t hack into your home network.
Action Fraud alerts
Action Fraud regularly update their website(www.actionfraud.police.uk opens in a new tab) with scams to be aware of. You can also sign-up(www.actionfraud.police.uk opens in a new tab) for free to their alerts services. You will then receive email updates from Action Fraud about scams in your area.