In an ideal world, you would not receive spam or scam calls. They’re both unwanted and are more trouble than they’re worth, but we still get them.

Both have negative reputations, and rightly so. Not only are they a nuisance, but they can have dire consequences if we fall for the scammer's lies.

Although the words’ spam’ and ‘scam’ look and sound similar – and many people use them interchangeably – there’s a distinct difference between them.

In this article, we’ll explain the difference between spam and scam calls, showcase some examples of each, and describe what to do if you receive one of these calls.

A spam call is when you receive unwanted or irrelevant calls intended to sell you a product or service, such as a marketing call. Spammers aren’t focused on stealing your information or deceiving you, they simply want to spread their message to as many people as possible.

Scam calls can seem like spam but are done with malicious intent to get you to disclose personal or financial information; they will actively try to deceive you. This is the main difference between the two. It’s important to be careful with both since most scam calls will seem like spam calls on the surface. Let’s explore these in more detail.

Spam calls are those that are irrelevant and unwanted but are sent to a large number of people at random. There is no specific target with these calls; they are simply sent out to as many people as possible.

You’ve most likely received spam emails from a person or advertising company that is trying to sell you something completely unrelated to you or your interests, and you have never signed up for their email list. But, they somehow have your email on file and sent out the same cookie-cutter email to everyone. Well, a spam call is exactly like that, but in the form of a phone call.

Most email providers, such as Gmail and Outlook, have efficient spam filters for these types of bulk messaging marketing materials. They can use information from the subject line, the email address it’s sent from, and the contents of the email itself to determine if it’s a spam email or not. It will go straight into your spam/junk folder if it's deemed spam. However, with calls, it’s not as easy.

Typically, a spam call will be from a telemarketer trying to sell you a product or service. Although the person on the line may be a representative from a legitimate business, you didn’t ask for the call, and it’s unwanted – this makes it spam. Usually, the spammers don’t even know who they’re calling; they simply have a list of thousands of phone numbers that they’re working their way through.

Something increasingly common is spam robocalls. Instead of a real person calling you, you will hear a pre-recorded message from a ‘robot’. This form of spam call is increasing in popularity due to how easy it is to set up. Spammers can create a program on a computer that will automatically go from calling one number to the next without any input from a human, making it much more efficient.

Scam calls are much like spam calls in that they are unwanted and unsolicited, but they are typically done with malicious intent. They are a fraudulent schematic trick created to coax you into revealing sensitive or financial information.

This is especially prevalent in emails. Many online scams are initiated with a spam email, which, if the user interacts, usually results in them having to provide sensitive information such as their name, date of birth, address, or financial information such as their bank account and credit card details. Scammers then use these in identity theft or to steal money.

Scam calls work the same way. You will receive a phone call from someone who will pretend to sell you a product or service, warn you that you are about to be fined, or inform you that you are eligible to win a prize. Normally, they will then ask you to reveal your personal or card details to verify if they are speaking to the correct person. Once you reveal your information to them, they will use it for fraudulent or scam behavior.

As you may have noticed, there is quite a bit of overlap between scam calls and spam calls. The main difference is their intent. However, many scammers use spam calls to find a target, which is why engaging with spam calls of any kind can be dangerous.

Most spam and scam calls follow a certain format to get more information out of you. Once you know these, you can identify them and prevent yourself from falling victim.

You don’t recognize the caller ID

The first way you can identify if it’s a spam or scam call is to check the caller ID to see if you recognize it. If you don’t, there’s a strong possibility that it’s spam. However, you can’t always trust caller IDs. We’ll explore why further down.

They are calling from an unknown business or company

If you receive a call from a business or company that you’ve never heard of, you could be on the receiving end of a spam call. You can always ask them to repeat their business name just to make sure, and if it still doesn’t ring a bell, it may be a spam call.

You receive a call from a government agency

Typically, government agencies never call to discuss important matters. Agencies such as the HMRC understand that spam and scam callers impersonate them to target victims.

Therefore, they usually use other forms of communication, such as sending a letter by post. If the caller begins to ask for sensitive information such as your National Insurance number or bank details. In that case, this is a red flag, and it’s best to hang up.

You are rushed to make a decision

A legitimate business will never rush you into making a decision; you will be given time to discuss their offers and deals. Sure, sales teams can be told to push for a sale on the same day, however, they will not force this.

On the other hand, many scammers have one shot at finding a target and will try their hardest to complete their scam at that moment. They may go to extreme lengths by saying that their offer is only valid for this phone call, that you could be arrested, or they will begin to threaten you. This is a sign that you are on the receiving end of a fraudulent phone call, so don’t get pressured into making a decision.

Scams come in various forms, but scammers have a few go-to types of calls with which they have the most success, which can include the following.

Impersonating a government institution, business, or bank

As mentioned earlier, a common technique that scammers use is to impersonate government institutions, respected businesses, and banks. By pretending to be someone of authority and someone you trust, they will inform you of a problem that can only be fixed by providing them with information.

They will say things like you have an unpaid tax bill, your bank account has been suspected of fraud, and its details need verifying, or you owe money for some reason. Always keep your guard up if you receive these kinds of calls, as they can easily trick you into disclosing information.

Investment scams

Scammers often call offering an investment opportunity that's guaranteed to bring in big profits. This is easier to recognize as a scam than someone calling from a supposed bank, for example. However, many scammers may pretend to be a close friend or family member to deceive you.

Charity scams

Another popular type of scam call is from a charity. Scammers will try to take advantage of a person’s charitable nature and pose as a charity to ask for donations. While their cause may be just, it’s important you don’t make any donations over the phone. Take your time to research and verify if the charity exists and if your money will go where they claim it will.

Winning a prize

This is a common technique to scam people. The caller will inform you that you’ve been selected to win a prize or that you have won the lottery. You will then be asked for personal details to verify your identity or your card details so they can ship the prize to you. In the excitement of their 'win', many people reveal this information to the caller without thinking that it could be a scam.

Compensation scams

Scammers will impersonate a claims company and inform you that you are eligible for a sizeable payout. They can pretend to be calling from an accident claims, insurance claims, or tax claims company, among others. If you’ve not had an accident recently, this scam call will be easy to identify. Even if you have had an accident, it’s good practice to be sceptical of these types of calls. You can always hang up and call their official phone number from their website just to be sure you’re speaking to a representative and not a scammer.

Loan scams

Scammers try to target desperate people, and one way they do this is by offering people with poor credit history guaranteed loans. All that would be required from you is a fee to be paid up-front.

Legitimate lenders never make promises like that, particularly if you are someone who has a poor credit history. If you are on the receiving end of a call like this, there’s a good chance it’s a scam call.

Hang up

This is the best thing you can do to avoid getting scammed. Even if it’s a spam caller trying to sell you something, simply hang up. By hanging up immediately, you increase your chances of being removed from their call list as someone who won’t fall for their bait.

Don’t blindly trust the caller ID

We mentioned earlier that the caller ID could be an indicator of who’s calling. But these days, spammers and scammers are using a technique called spoofing. Spoofing is when the caller uses a program to change the name and number on the caller ID. So you may get a phone call from a government agency number, but in fact, it is a scammer on the line.

Never disclose your information

If you are even slightly suspicious of the person calling you, never give out any sensitive information. Don’t give them even the tiniest bit of information that could potentially be used against you.

Call blocking

Nowadays, most phones and network providers have a list of known spam and scam numbers and will instantly block the call should you receive one from such a number. Also, you can download apps that add an extra layer of security. However, spammers and scammers can use spoofing to change their numbers, but having a call blocking measure on your phone won’t hurt.