Fraud: how to protect yourself
It is important to protect yourself from fraudulent schemes that can happen through the post, in person or over the phone. Knowledge is power and staying alert and aware can give you the confidence to go about your business on your own terms.
Postal scams are not so common these days, but they still do exist—and some are more sophisticated and convincing than ever. Con artists can create mailings that copy logos, testimonials or other information that's designed to trick you into responding to their offers.
Common scams may come through the post in one of the following forms:
- lotteries or sweepstakes that promise large cash prizes (if you pay a fee to claim the prize);
- pyramid or insurance schemes that ask for an initial investment and then pressure you into recruiting others to do the same;
- property scam letters that try to convince you to sign your home over;
- letters that quote false information but claim that you owe money; or
- legal correspondence about an inheritance from a long lost relative or friend.
Citizen’s Advice says there are certain warning signs of a scam. For instance, if something shows up from out of the blue or comes from someone you don’t know, beware—especially if it sounds like it's too good to be true or you're told to keep it secret. No matter what happens, never share your personal information, especially since this can open you up to identity fraud.
Finally, do not respond to any piece of post that seems suspicious. Better still, shred any unwanted post that has your personal information—including old bank statements and any other unwanted documents that have your personal account numbers.
Here are some resources to help you protect yourself from postal fraud:
- GOV.UK: Tell Us Once bereavement register removes a deceased person's details from mailing lists (this reduces the chance of identity theft and fraud).
- Mailing Preference Service: MPS Online allows you to stop unsolicited mail or make a complaint.
- NI Direct: Protect your identity offers guidance on how to protect your personal information.
- Royal Mail: Send scam mail to FREEPOST SCAM MAIL along with a cover letter.
- Solicitors Regulation Authority: Check a solicitor's record for authenticity.
Face to face fraud
There are a few different ways that scam artists will try to get you to fall for their tricks. Often referred to as doorstep schemes, these scams happen when someone approaches you in person (often at your front door) to tell you about a situation (or opportunity) that sounds real but turns out to be fake. The scammers will use false evidence to trick you into believing the story so they can swindle you out of money or collect your private information.
Some common doorstep schemes (also known as distraction crimes) include:
- Aggressive salespeople who try to force their way in or distract you at your front door so another intruder can enter from a different door or sneak through a window. Under no circumstances should you allow the person inside, even for a short period. Consider putting up a sign that says "No cold callers" in your window to avoid this situation.
- Someone with a sad story (illness, broken car, need to make an urgent phone call) will ask you for help that will make you step away from the door, and in the meantime, the scammer will grab anything of value and disappear before you return.
- "Officials" in uniforms (police officers, utility workers, delivery people) will show false credentials to gain access to your home and help themselves to whatever valuables or information they can grab. Even one piece of mail can give a scammer enough information to try to mimic your identity. You can set up a code word with your utility companies or just call them to confirm if a visit is legitimate.
- Scammers pretending to offer repair work (like minor construction, landscaping services or other odd jobs) show up unannounced and spot something that requires their immediate attention. They take a large deposit or bank card details and begin work on the project, and then fail to return and finish the job (or complete it in a shoddy manner). Don't decide on the spot, even if the situation is "urgent" (according to them). Always get several quotes before deciding to do the work (which may, in the end, turn out to be unnecessary after all).
Remember this: it's best not to let any stranger through your door. If a situation warrants your consideration, Age UK offers the following advice: Stop, Lock, Chain and Check. Stop long enough to try to remember if you're expecting someone. If you are (or you can't recall), take the person's identification, close, lock and chain the door, and then check if the visit is valid by calling the company or organisation on its landline number (don't use a mobile number provided by the person at your door). Don't worry about making the person wait, especially since they are the ones who have arrived unannounced.
It's not uncommon for scammers to approach you at your home or even out on the street with other schemes designed to get your bank card details. Under no circumstances should you share that information.
Here are some resources to help you protect yourself from face to face fraud:
- Action Fraud: Report a possible scam
- Citizens Advice: Get free advice
- GOV.UK: Get information about a company
- GOV.UK: Look up and contact your local Trading Standards to report a doorstep scheme
- TrustMark: Find a trustworthy tradesperson
Just because callers have your personal information doesn't mean they are legitimate. For instance, you may get a call from a company claiming there is something wrong with your computer, there is a problem with your bank account, you've been involved in an automobile accident, you're eligible for a Council Tax rebate or you're linked to some other urgent scenario. The scammer will then try to sell you something or collect your personal information through a series of questions that extract innocent (but revealing) responses. Hang up on these callers immediately. The longer you stay on the line, the more information they can gather about you.
Meanwhile, if someone contacts you from an "official" organisation and you think the call is legitimate, request a landline phone number and call back at your own convenience. No call is so urgent that it can't wait five minutes!
Another option, if you have any doubt at all, is to ask for an email or letter instead. That way you can avoid dealing with a stressful situation over the telephone.
Urgency is at the core of a common scam that happens when criminals call you and explain there is a family member (often it's a grandchild) who needs money for some terrible reason (like getting money for bail or paying for a hospital bill in some faraway place). The caller insists you act quickly and stresses the importance of keeping the request secret. The scammer will state that this is what the grandchild requested, but in truth, it's a move designed to prevent you from contacting anyone else who might know the incident is fake—and reporting it to the authorities.
Here are five more telephone tips to keep in mind:
- Be wary of communication coming from an unknown source.
- Requests for money, claims that you’ve won a prize and messages requesting urgent action are almost always scams.
- Your bank will never call you, but if you do get a call that claims to be from your bank, get a second opinion (like your bank’s fraud helpline).
- Hang up on calls asking for financial or personal information (including passwords, PINs or other account details).
- If you're asked to phone an expensive number—starting with 070, 084, 087, 090, 091 or 098—do not call back!
If you'd like to take immediate action, you can sign up for a call blocking system or caller ID. You can also use an answerphone and screen your calls before picking them up.
These resources can also help you protect yourself from telephone fraud:
- Action Fraud: Report a possible scam.
- Ofcom: Stop spam texts and register complaints you receive on your mobile phone.
- Telephone Preference Service (TPS): Register telephone call preferences and log complaints with this free service.
Specialists claim that many cases of financial fraud go undetected, which can cause serious problems. So if you suspect someone you know has been scammed, you can get in touch with Think Jessica, a charity that deals with scams that target people in their own homes. Send an email to Think Jessica at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact them through the Think Jessica website.
Don't hesitate to report fraud to the authorities or to ask for help from family and friends. There is absolutely no reason to be embarrassed since your experience can help others!
The following websites will give you more information on how to report a scam:
- Action Fraud: Reporting fraud and cyber crime or call 0300 123 2040
- Citizens Advice: Report a scam or call 0345 404 0506 (England); 0344 477 2020 Wales; 0808 800 9060 Scotland.
- GOV.UK: Report Fraud to HMRC or call 0800 788 877
- Metropolitan Police: Report Fraud or call 101
Find more information about Scams online: how to stay safe by visiting Tech Talk.