In the 18 months that we’ve mostly been shut indoors, you’ve probably noticed a rise in a certain type of message or phone call. No, not your bored mates jumping on the latest Zoom quiz/Houseparty app train – scammers. According to Action Fraud, more than 146,000 reports of suspicious messages delivered via means other than email were received in the 2020-21 financial year, marking an 80 per cent increase compared to 2019-20. Over half of those related to phone calls and a third to text messages.
It can be hard to spot a scam, though, so we’ve rounded up the main ones doing the rounds right now and all the key signs to help you known when you’re being targeted.
You’ve added a new payee to your bank account
These scammers are after your bank details and they’ll try and fool you into handing them over by telling you you’ve either added a new payee to your account, there’s been a request to add someone or you’ve attempted to make a payment from a new device that needs approval. To make things more believable, they’ll give you the fictional payee's (very generic) name. It’s likely someone you’ve never heard of, let alone tried to give all your hard-earned cash to, securing the panic factor and making you click through to a site with a URL like 'error-site-payee.com' and give the fraudsters access to your account.
How to spot it: If you haven’t added a new payee to your account or made a payment from a new device, this should immediately ring alarm bells for you. The texts will likely come through from a standard mobile number and won’t have a bank’s name attributed to it in the contact information. Even if you get a message from a bank that you don’t have an account with, don’t think there’s been a mistake and you’re getting someone else’s messages by mistake – don’t click the link, report the texts and delete.
You’re eligible to apply for your COVID-19 vaccine
Yes, not even a global pandemic is off-limits to those looking to make a quick buck or steal our identities. You’ve likely received a text in the last few months inviting you to book your first or second dose of the vaccine, but not all of those messages will have been for our great NHS. Some fraudsters are using the vaccination rollout as their shot at scam success, sending out links to a fake NHS website that will ask you for proof of ID or bank details, all while setting up a fake appointment to get your jab.
How to spot it: We’re not in a dystopian future where we have to pay for healthcare yet so the big giveaway here is the ‘NHS’ asking you for your bank account details. They’ll also never ask for your pin or banking password, or copies of personal documents that prove your identity. If you get a text inviting you to book, it’ll come from NHSvaccine or your local health service – if you’re not sure it’s legit, don’t click any links and just head to the NHS website yourself.
You’ve been in contact with someone who’s tested positive with COVID-19
We all know the dreaded ping well by now – an app notification, text or call telling us we’ve been in contact with someone who’s tested positive with COVID-19 and must self-isolate. If you get a call or text telling you that you have to pay to take a test though – sometimes as much as £500 – that’s not a genuine ping. Tests, the delivery and collection of them, and receiving your results is always free.
How to spot it: Again, the Test And Trace service has no need to ask for your bank details or personal documents, so that’s an immediate red flag. Unless you’re getting one done through a non-NHS clinic, COVID tests are free of charge and anyone calling you asking for payment for one is almost certainly trying to rip you off. These tricksters might also ask you to call a premium rate number – i.e. on starting in 09 or 087. Don’t – it’s just another way to get money out of you and you’ll never receive the test you’re promised.
Your package has an additional shipping fee/We tried to make a delivery
This one’s a smart one given our increasing reliance on and love of online shopping. On any given day, you’re probably waiting for a purchase to arrive when someone claiming to be Royal Mail texts you telling you there’s an additional shipping fee on your package and if you don’t pay it, it will be returned. What’s £2.99 to get your latest present to yourself? Except this will cost you much more than a few quid after the people on the other end of the text steal your bank details and make off with your money.
Alternatively, you might get a text telling you that your local posty has tried to deliver something to you but you weren’t in. You’ll be asked to click through to a link to reschedule your delivery, where they’ll try and get you to hand over your personal details.
How to spot it: The links in the messages will likely be bit.ly URLs or won’t match who the sender says they are e.g. the text is from Royal Mail but the URL is for Parcel Force. The texts will also come from a standard mobile number rather than a five or six-digit figure that companies often use to text customers.
You owe HMRC money/HMRC owes you a rebate
Thanks to all their aggressive adverts come tax season, the idea of owing HMRC money is terrifying. No wonder, then, so many people fall for this absolutely classic scam that refuses to die. If you’re the target of it, you’ll get a call from someone claiming to work for the taxman telling you that you’ve not paid up all the money you owe. They might threaten you with legal action or a big old fine, but either way, they’ll want a payment then and there without giving you a chance to check your account yourself.
Sometimes, they’ll try a different tact and tell you you’re owed some lovely money instead. Great! That is until they ask for your bank details and, instead of putting cash in, take it out of your account.
How to spot it: HMRC will never call you about an issue they haven’t previously written to you about, even if you do owe them money. They’ll also never leave a voicemail threatening you with legal action or leave a message that doesn’t tell you the reason for their call. Some scammers have found a way to mimic phone numbers similar to those used by HMRC so if in doubt, hang up and call the number on the HMRC website.
Your National Insurance number has been compromised
We barely think about our National Insurance numbers most of the time, but you’d be pretty alarmed if you got a call telling you yours had been compromised. In this scenario, the call is automated and tells you to press one to be connected to an advisor. Once you’ve been put through, they’ll ask you for your personal details so you can be given a new NI number.
How to spot it: If the caller you’re connected to tries to pressure you into giving your personal details to them. It’s also best to always question any calls you receive out of the blue – if they’re genuine, the caller will have no issues with you hanging up and making a return call yourself.
A government organisation or police station calls you from a number very similar to your own
Maybe it’s just a strange coincidence, but you’re getting a phone call that’s almost exactly the same as yours. Then you pick up and hear it’s a government organisation or police station asking you to press one to speak with someone about fines or police warrants. Once you’re connected, you’re told you owe money or are suspected of doing something bad. There is one way to stop it though – you guessed it, hand over your bank or personal details.
How to spot it: Usually these numbers will match the first seven digits of your own number, so that’s a big first giveaway. Secondly, the government and police won’t contact you by phone or text about fines or outstanding warrants so you should know straight away you’re talking to a chancer.
I mistakenly sent you a 6-digit SMS code, can you send me? It is urgent
A friend WhatsApps you out of the blue asking for a six-digit code that they’ve accidentally texted you. There it is in your messages and, without a second thought, you copy and paste it and send it their way. Next thing you know, you’re locked out of WhatsApp. All your contacts – BFFs, colleagues, that Tinder date you never want to speak to again – are now receiving their own codes and WhatsApps purportedly from you. Now you have to not only go through the ordeal of getting your WhatsApp back in your control, but the embarrassment of everyone knowing you fell for a scam, and maybe lured them into one too. Nightmare.
What’s the point of it though? Well, through having access to your WhatsApp the scammers will be able to see all your conversations, including any private information you’ve shared with your pals – address, date of birth, bank details. Or they can pretend to be you and approach relatives and friends and ask them to lend you money.
How to spot it: If anyone tells you they’ve accidentally sent a code to your phone instead of theirs, take a second and think. Who knows anyone’s number except their own these days? Literally no one. To make yourself extra secure, add two-factor verification to WhatsApp, just in case.
Plot twist: you’re the fraudster
You probably think you’re a nice person, an upstanding citizen who pays their taxes and wouldn’t do anything that illegal. Then you get a text telling you actually you’re a fraudster and you’ve been making up your expenses for years. Panic! You can’t go to jail! Turns out you were a good person all along and that’s how they get you to hand over all your details – the fear of being bad.
How to spot it: HMRC will never text you threatening to take you to court or telling you about any illegal activity you may or may not have done. That information will only come via a scary letter in their traditional brown envelopes.
The key signs of a scam
If we’ve learnt anything from the above scams it should be: don’t trust unknown numbers calling or texting you. Always take a second to think about what you’re being told, who’s telling you it and what they want from you. Is the mobile number suspiciously similar to yours? Has the message or call come from a number that looks like a professional company’s or just some random person’s mobile? Is it out of the blue and is the person threatening you in any way? Does the website you’ve been directed to look legit or are you being asked for details you shouldn’t need to provide? It’s always best to be cautious and either hang up and call back using a number on an official website or find your own way to a company’s website, not through a link you’ve been provided.
What to do if you do fall victim to a scam
If you have fallen for a scam, don’t panic. It happens to the best of us and there’s plenty of help in place to make sure whoever’s conned you can’t use your details to their advantage. You’ll want to report the scam to the company you thought you were in touch with, as well as Action Fraud. If you’ve given out your bank details, check your bank statement for any unusual activity and call your bank – they can put a stop on your cards and send you new ones. You can also contact fraud prevention service CIFAS about protective registration that puts extra measures in place to make sure anyone using your personal details to apply for things like loans is really you.
If you want to get your own back on the scammers…
If you’re sure someone texting or calling you is a scammer and you’ve got a little time on your hands, you could do like these legends and have some fun with them. TikTokers have been sharing their conversations with fraudsters, making them think they’ve been signed up for a paying service that requires them to send messages (or photos of their face) to cancel.
One user on the platform has also created a sound that mimics a TV show airing a segment about scam artists. Sure, it’s very Canadian, but might give anyone pestering you on the phone a little fright.