There's nothing more frustrating than being inundated with calls from withheld numbers or numbers you don't recognise. Whist some calls are simply nuisance calls from salespeople, others pose more of a threat and can be harder to identify. In particular, fraudsters have identified clever ways to contact unsuspecting individuals over the phone and con them out of their hard-earned money through what's known as a phone scam.
If you have ever received such a call, you are not alone. The Office of Communications (Ofcom) reported that between August and October last year, more than eight in ten people received a potential scam call or text — this equates to an estimate of almost 45 million adults in the UK. And whilst younger members of the population are more likely to receive a scam text, those over the age of 75 are more likely to receive a suspected scam call to their landline.
However, as scams continue to get more elaborate and convincing, even the savviest individuals can fall victim to a fraudulent call. So how can you protect yourself?
In this article, we'll cover all you need to know about scam calls, including how to spot them, ways to deal with a scammer and protect yourself from further calls, and what steps to take if you have been the victim of a phone scam.
A scam call is a type of fraudulent activity used by criminals to steal money or information from unsuspecting individuals. These scams can come in a variety of different forms, with some being much harder to spot. Having an awareness of some of the most common phone scams will likely help you identify a fraudulent call and protect yourself from scammers.
Below are some common phone scams so you can familiarise yourself with them and better identify whether a call is from a fraudster:
- Number spoofing
- Prize draws
- Compensation calls
- Charity scams
- Pension and investment scams
- Missed call scams
Often, fraudsters will impersonate actual companies and organisations, such as your bank or HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), using a technique called number spoofing. This allows them to change their caller ID to masquerade as someone else, tricking you into thinking they are calling from a reputable company — the caller ID can also be used to disguise a call coming from outside of the UK.
A scammer will contact you to tell you that you have won a prize, and they will insist that you need to pay money to claim it, such as taxes or registration fees. There is, however, no prize available which you will find out after you have paid.
Scammers may contact you about a supposed accident or claim you have encountered. Usually, this will not be relevant to you. However, if you have been in a car accident or similar, contact your insurance provider directly.
Fraudsters will often also pose as charities to evoke emotion from the individuals they contact. They may claim to be raising money for disaster relief efforts or animal charities and then keep the money themselves. If you are contacted by a supposed charity, don't feel pressured to give money over the phone, and if you do want to donate, use the official website and make sure the payment method is secure.
Pension and Investment Scams
Some of the more dangerous scams are pension and investment scams which can result in you losing your hard-earned saving or pension as well as being landed with a tax bill for withdrawing big sums of money from your pension account.
Scammers will offer 'unmissable' loan rates, cashback offers, or tax relief to convince you to send money for them to invest for you. The money will then be deposited into their account, and you will be left out of pocket.
Cold calls about pensions are now illegal, so if you receive one, report it to the Information Commissioner's Office:
- Telephone number: 0303 123 1113
- Report a nuisance call or message online
Missed Call Scams
This type of scam works by fraudsters leaving a missed call on your phone from an automated system which you may then call back. Calling the number will then likely result in you being charged for the amount of time you are on the phone, leaving you out of pocket. Be wary of missed calls from numbers beginning with '070' or '076' as they look like mobile numbers but are far more expensive to call. Also, avoid non-geographic numbers with the initial codes '084', '087', '090', '091' or '118'.
It's not always easy to spot a scam call, even if you have dealt with one before. Scammers are adept at gaining your trust and getting you to respond to their proposal quickly and often without you being able to properly consider the situation. There are, however, ways to identify whether a call seems legitimate. If you receive a call you're not sure about, consider the following as signs that the call might be a scam:
- Authority of the caller: often, fraudulent calls are from individuals trying to imitate companies and individuals such as your bank, HMRC, or a parcel delivery service. Even if you are expecting a call from such a company, it is safer to call the company back yourself.
- The urgency of the call: fraudsters will often pressure you with phrases like "24 hours to respond" or "immediately" to give you a time limit in an attempt to get you to respond without thinking.
- Threatening language: in addition to making the call urgent, scammers will also usually threaten you with fines or other harsh consequences. Also, be wary of messages that evoke fear or excitement over unrealistic outcomes such as competition prizes.
- Scarcity: another way scammers create a sense of urgency is by offering something that is in short supply, like tickets for an event.
- Current events: scammers may time their calls with events such as the end of a tax year to make it seem personally relevant to you. Unless you have requested a call, it's unlikely a company will call you, particularly from customer service or a help desk.
- Evading questions: scammers will often make you feel like you are at fault for asking for more information, and they will evade questions.
If you are still unsure whether the call you have received is from a reputable caller, you can also call the company back — if the call you have received is from a genuine company, they will usually not mind you doing this.
When trying to call a company, use the official contact details from their website and not one given by the individual in a voicemail or over the phone. Also, where possible, use a different phone to call the number, as scammers can keep the original phone line open even after you've hung up the call.
Finally, one of the most important things to remember is that no reputable company or organisation will ask for bank details, PIN numbers, banking codes, or passwords — even HMRC or the police. If you do need to provide any personal details, make sure you know who you are speaking to before you disclose anything.
If you get a scam call, the first thing to do is not give out any personal or financial information, as scammers can use this to access your accounts or impersonate you. Additionally, if you feel intimidated or harassed by the caller, simply hang up and block the number if there is one — you have every right to end calls that make you feel uncomfortable.
When you get a potential fraudulent call, and you're unsure whether it's a genuine company calling you, ring the organisation on their official number to check with them. This way, if there is an actual issue, you can get it sorted safely.
How do you report phone scams?
If you or someone else is in immediate danger or at risk of harm, call the police using the phone number 999.
If you have been scammed or conned, report it to Action Fraud which is the UK's national fraud unit that deals with internet crime. They can be contacted using one of the following methods:
- Report fraud online
- Report over the telephone: 0300 123 2040
Even if you have not lost any money to a scammer, you can still report it to Action Fraud for information purposes. This can provide crucial information that can help warn others of scams and prevent them from taking place.
Aside from making yourself aware of common scams, you can protect yourself against scammers by contacting your phone provider to see what privacy or call blocking services are available to you — it is worth checking if your provider will charge you to use them before you sign up to any.
Additionally, you can register with the Telephone Preference Service, which is a free service that allows you to opt-out of cold calls. This may not entirely block scam calls, but it will reduce the number of unsolicited calls you receive.
You can also make yourself a harder target for scammers by controlling the information you (and those close to you) post online. Criminals will often use information posted on social media or other online information about you to make their scam seem more legitimate. By increasing your privacy settings on your profiles and making sure not to post personal information, you will reduce the likelihood of scammers being able to target you convincingly.
If you have been the victim of a phone scam, there are several steps you can take:
- Report the crime: as previously mentioned, report the crime to Action Fraud so they have a record of it.
- Change your passwords: update and change any passwords that have potentially been compromised so that the scammer is less likely to be able to gain access to your accounts.
- Contact your bank: use the contact number for your bank or credit card company to let them know what has happened so they can monitor the activity on your account. Depending on the circumstances, they may also freeze your card or provide you with a new one.
Depending on how the money was paid, you may be able to recover money that you have lost to a scam. You will not be likely to get your money back if you paid in cash, but if you paid by card or bank transfer then you might be able to retrieve your money. Contact your bank immediately and let them know what has happened so they can attempt to stop the payment from going through.
When you receive phone calls you are not sure about, look out for signs they are not from a genuine company or individual. These include the caller pressuring you into providing private information, evading questions, using threatening language, and urging you to make decisions quickly.
When dealing with a call that could be from a scammer, the best way to deal with them is to:
- Not give out any personal or financial information — especially passwords, PIN numbers or bank details
- Hang up the phone
- Block the caller if possible
- Report the call
If you have been the victim of a scam, contact your bank so they can take the necessary steps to protect your account, as well as report the crime and change your passwords.