08:54 20 May 2013
Pyramid schemes, overseas lottery wins, fake share deals and the chance to earn 'big money' working from home? It used to be easy to spot a scam from a mile off. Unfortunately, scammers these days are getting smarter and some are so convincing that you may not even realise you're being tricked until it's too late.
Phishing scams are still a firm favourite amongst fraudsters and, although they still employ a scattergun approach, many emails now look so authentic that even seasoned internet users can find them difficult to distinguish them from genuine ones.
But it's not just online fraudsters you have to beware of; criminals still use the tried and trusted methods of junk mail and cold-calling, while some fraudsters will even try door-to-door collections.
So, given that May 2013 is officially Scams Awareness Month, let's don the deerstalker, grab the magnifying glass and look at the ways in which you can spot a scam.
How to spot a scam
More than three million people in the UK are scammed out of hundreds of thousands of pounds each year, according to figures - and, as modern scams are so varied and sophisticated - anyone can fall victim.
Phishing scams: Phishing scams (in other word fraudulent emails) are potentially the most common of the lot and can vary from unlikely inheritance windfalls to emails requesting 'verification' of bank account details. The fraudster could even be posing as your own bank.
But both are equally unlikely. Firstly, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Secondly, no legitimate company will ever ask you for personal bank details such as passwords and PIN numbers - especially your bank.
There's smaller clues too such as the web address in your browser probably won't be connected to the link in the message. You can check this by hovering your cursor over the link in the email (don't click on it!) and the web address it's linked to will appear in a pop-up box. If these don't match, it's most likely a scam. The email itself may also look odd, have bad spelling and grammar and it could even threaten to close your account if you do not respond with the relevant information.
Free software downloads: Fraudsters also use malicious software, known as 'malware', to gain access to personal data stored on your hard drive, which could include everything from personal email passwords to online banking details.
This malware is usually sent in the form of a pop-up, email or social media message promising things such as free music downloads or movie clips and a clickable link to follow. Once the link is clicked, however, far from receiving free stuff, you'll be giving a virus free-reign on your system.
The way to avoid this is NOT to click on any suspicious links (again, hover your cursor over any links to check the web address) and remember that if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.
For more on the dangers of malware and how to protect your PC, click here
Telephone scams: Fraudsters love to use the telephone as this allows them to explain themselves, in a very friendly and personable manner and use every confidence trick in the book. And although there is a mind-boggling array of telephone scams out there, they should be easier to spot as the caller will either prey on your fears or make you an offer that's too good to be true in an attempt to make you hand over your details.
For instance, you could be called by a bogus debt collection agency over a defaulted credit card payment, or by a phoney 'Microsoft' support team warning of a virus on your computer system, and either problem can normally be 'solved' by handing over your credit card details - don't do it, just hang up.
Alternatively, you could be called by a bogus council official who explains that you are eligible for a council tax refund or rebate. They will then ask you to hand over your bank account or credit card details so that the money can be returned.
The best way to avoid falling foul of telephone scams is to never give out any details to cold-callers and remember that no bank, building society or debt collection agency will ever ask for passwords or PIN numbers.
Postal scams: If you're on the receiving end of a postal scam then you'll probably receive a letter telling you you've received money in a (fake) prize draw or that you've missed a council tax payment. In either case, there'll be an enclosed form you should return which, of course, requires you to enter your bank or credit card details.
Doorstep scams: Doorstep scams have been going for just about as long as people have had doorsteps and these types of fraudsters are so confident that they will openly lie to your face and even lie their way into your home in an attempt to relieve you of your hard earned cash.
These types of scams usually offer you a service that you probably don't need, such as unnecessary damp proofing or loft insulation, or home improvement services such as paving or tarmacking a patio area or replacing 'unsafe' roof tiles, and will ask for an upfront payment. Obviously, once you pay them, you'll never see or hear of them again!
More opportunistic crooks may pose as meter readers to enter your house and then steal anything of value you have lying around once in there.
And it's not just criminals you need be wary of, as Ofgem recently fined SSE £10.5million over door-to-door and telephone representatives misleading people on how much they can save on their energy bills.
The best way to avoid falling foul of the doorstep scammers is to simply ignore any unsolicited house calls, never hand over any details or cash and don't let any callers into your house.
What to do if you suspect a scam
If you suspect that you or someone you know has encountered any of the above scams - you need to also be vigilant on behalf of elderly relatives who are particularly susceptible to fraudsters - then you should disregard any correspondence and report your concerns to Citizens Advice (08454 04 05 06) and Action Fraud (0300 123 2040).
You should also contact your local police station, particularly in the case of doorstep fraud, on the non-emergency number, 101. And if you've received any phishing emails claiming to be from your bank then contact your bank's fraud team.
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