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Millions of people are targeted by scammers every year and some victims can lose thousands of pounds. Older people are often targeted by scammers. Read our guide, or share it with your relatives and friends, to help you keep one step ahead of the scammers.

On this page you can find information on:

1. What is a scam?
2. Who might be targeted?
3. How to spot a scam
4. What to do if you are worried about being scammed
5. What to do if you are caught out by a scammer
6. Getting your money back from a scammer

What is a scam?

A scam is a dishonest scheme used by criminals to trick people out of their money. Your personal details (such as name, address, passwords, account numbers, date of birth) are also high on scammers’ wish lists as they provide a route to your cash. Stealing personal details is known as ID fraud, which is on the rise. With this information, it's possible for fraudsters to take money from your bank, go on a spending spree with your cards, open new accounts in your name or make false insurance claims.

Scammers are convincing liars who use every trick in the book to make their scams sound plausible. They are ruthless and don’t care who they hurt along the way. If a scammer gets lucky – targeting the right person, in the right way, at the right time – anyone could fall victim to a scam.

Scammers might be individuals, but often they are organised gangs who work full time thinking up new and improved ways to con innocent people out of their cash. They might approach potential targets by phone, post, online or even by visiting them at home.

Who might be targeted?

More than 5 million people a year in the UK are victims of scams, according to Age UK ('Only the tip of the iceberg', published 2015). It claims that only 5% of scams are reported, so the actual number could be much higher. In addition, 80% of phone scam victims are over 55 years of age, according to 2015 research from the Financial Ombudsman, and the average age of a postal scam victim is 74 years, according to National Trading Standards.

Anyone can fall victim to a scam, but older people can be at greater risk because scammers tend to target people who:

  • Live alone
  • Are at home during the day
  • Have savings or valuables
  • Are more likely to talk to them.

Older people often fit the bill. Some older people might be suffering from dementia, which could affect their decision-making process or they might also feel lonely, which might make them more likely to talk to people.

If you have an older relative who lives alone, warn them about common scams. It's important to raise awareness of the types of scam and how to spot them (see below) as scammers can be very convincing. Many victims don’t realise that they are being tricked and believe that scams only happen to ‘other people’.

Types of scam

The main objective of a scammer is to trick someone out of money. They might try to do this by:

  • promising a gift, prize or ‘windfall’ of some kind, if you part with a smaller amount of cash
  • befriending you, then convincing you to part with cash to help them out of a tricky situation
  • selling a product or service that you don’t need, or that never materialises
  • tricking their way into your home so that they can steal cash or valuables
  • impersonating a trusted organisation – such as your bank, utility company, the police or a government department – to trick you into divulging personal information.

Scammers might get in touch using a variety of different methods:

Campaign to safeguard us from scams

Fraud is now at record levels, with more than five million scams costing Brits a mind-boggling £9bn each year. While there are sensible steps we can all take to protect ourselves and older relatives and friends, an unfair burden has been placed on the public. Which? is urging the government to take the lead and ensure companies safeguard us all from scams. Sign up to the campaign here.

How to spot a scam

Spotting a scam isn’t always easy. There’s a fine, and often blurry, line between a scammer and an unscrupulous trader. But scammers use some common tactics, which can give them away. If you spot any of these, alarm bells should start ringing.

Being contacted out of the blue

Whether you are looking for a new bank account, pension advice or local trader you should always be the first to make contact. Be suspicious of any company that contacts you out of the blue. At best it’s a sign of a pushy salesperson, at worst it’s an attempted scam – either way you probably don’t want to deal with them.

The deal sounds too good to be true

Scams often try to hook you in by telling you that you’ve won a large prize or can make lots of money by investing a small sum with zero risk. It's highly unlikely that someone you’ve never heard of will contact you with the ‘offer of a lifetime’. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

You are asked for personal details

Scammers will try anything to get your personal details – with this they can steal your money, access your accounts and even set up new accounts in your name. Be very careful who you share your personal details with. Read more about ID theft on the Which? Consumer Rights website.

You have to make a decision straight away

Scammers will often try to hurry your decision making. The more time you have to think about something, the more likely you are to realise something’s wrong. Always take time to think things through. A reputable company should always give you time to make an informed decision. Don’t trust anyone who tries to rush you.

Letters and emails full of grammatical or spelling mistakes

Scammers often use bad grammar and spelling. Legitimate organisations will rarely, if ever, make glaring mistakes.

Don’t tell anyone else

Being asked to keep something quiet should be a red flag. Scammers only say this to try to stop you from talking to friends and family who might alert you to the con.

Dodgy contact details

Scammers, understandably, don’t like giving out their contact details. If someone contacts you out of the blue, and asks for money, think twice if they refuse to give their own contact details or only have a mobile number or PO Box address. You should be suspicious of anyone giving inadequate contact information.

What to do if you are worried about a relative being scammed

If you’re worried that a relative could be vulnerable to scams, talk to them about common scams and how to guard against them.

If you think that your relative has already been targeted by scammers, use our advice to help them take the appropriate action.

Look out for these warning signs:

  • Your relative has unusual amounts of post or letters lying about the house
  • There is evidence of large unexplained cash withdrawals or cheque payments
  • Your relative seems short of money, when they shouldn’t be
  • They seem to get a lot of phone calls from strangers or companies
  • Your relative seems anxious or upset for no apparent reason.

Some scam victims don’t believe that they are being scammed. Your relative might believe this person is their friend or that they are just about to win a big prize.

Things can be even more difficult if your relative has dementia. They might find it harder to say 'no' to salespeople, be more likely to believe strangers or not realise what is happening. If your relative has dementia, you might find our article on Talking to someone with dementia helpful.

What to do if you're caught out by a scammer

Report it. Scams are a criminal offence under the Fraud Act and you should report them. It’s estimated that 95% of scam victims don’t report what’s happened to them. Some scam victims feel embarrassed or guilty, but there’s really no need to. The scammer is 100% to blame, not the victim.

The only way to stop scammers, and prevent them doing it again, is to report them. Report cases to Action Fraud. You can report the scam online or by calling 0300 123 2040.

The information you give will help the authorities to take action, and could save others from falling victim to the same scam.

Talk about it. Being a victim of a scam could leave you feeling upset, anxious, guilty or scared. Talk to a close friend or relative about your feelings – they should be able to reassure you. If you’re feeling low, talk to your GP, who may be able to refer you to a counsellor.

Safeguarding. If the scam victim is receiving care from the local authority, it’s worth reporting concerns to the Adult Safeguarding team. They can investigate situations where an older person may be at risk of abuse, including financial abuse caused by a scam. To find the contact details for the local authority in your or your relative's area, enter their postcode into our Care services directory and you will find all related local authority information on a tab at the top of the resulting page.

Getting your money back

Losing money to a scam can be extremely upsetting, and leave a big hole in your pocket. Financial losses from fraud are rising. In 2016, Britons lost £769m to financial fraud, up £14m compared with the previous year. The average victim of cybercrime loses £520, according to a 2016 survey by Get Safe Online. But, unfortunately, you can’t always get your money back.

Your rights to reimbursement depend on whether the transaction was:

  • Unauthorised: something you didn’t know about or approve; or
  • Authorised: something that you approved and willingly agreed to.

Banks and building societies are obliged, under the Payment Services Regulations 2009 and the Banking Conduct of Business rules, to reimburse unauthorised fraudulent losses, as long as they believe that you took all reasonable steps to protect your financial details.

But, be warned, if a scammer talks you into giving away cash or your account details, it is very unlikely that your bank will reimburse you. Currently, there are no rules surrounding authorised payments and banks don’t have to pay you back.

The Which? Consumer Rights guide offers advice on how to get your money back after a scam in various circumstances. It explains what action to take if you’ve lost money via a credit card, debit card, bank transfer, PayPal or wire transfer.

If you believe that your bank or building society has wrongly refused to reimburse losses that were a result of an unauthorised transaction, you can take your dispute to the Financial Ombudsman. Check out their advice online or call them on 0800 023 4567.

More information

Page last reviewed: May 2017
Next review due: November 2019