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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 elderly relatives, to help you keep one step ahead of the scammers.

On this page you can find information on:

1. What is a scam?
2. How big is the problem?
3. Types of 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. How to get your money back from a scammer

What is a scam?

A scam is a trick used by criminals to con people out of their money. 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.

Your personal details (such as name, address, passwords, account numbers, date of birth) are also high on scammers’ wish lists – as they are a route to accessing your money. ID fraud – using your personal details for monetary gain – is on the rise and fraudsters can do all sorts of things with this information, such as take money from your bank, go on a spending spree with your cards, open new accounts in your name or make false insurance claims.

How big is the problem?

More than 3 million people a year in the UK are victims of scams, and only 5% are reported, so the actual number could be much higher. Recent research from the Financial Ombudsman showed that 80% of phone scam victims were over 55.

Scammers target people that they think are most likely to:

  • Live alone
  • Be at home during the day
  • Have savings or valuables
  • Talk to them.

Older people often fit the bill. Some older people might suffer 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.

Which? research found that 54% of members have been personally exposed to a scam in the last two years, or have a friend or family member who has. If you have an elderly relative who lives alone, warn them about common scams.

Types of scam

The end result a scammer is looking for is to trick you out of money, or trick their way into your home so that they can steal cash or valuables. There are a number of approaches that they might use:

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, then 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 straightaway

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 because it helps them to trap the most vulnerable people. 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. Think twice if someone who has contacted you out of the blue and asked for money refuses to give their own contact details or only has a mobile number or PO Box address.

What to do if you are worried about being scammed

If you’re worried that you or 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, use the third tab in our Care services directory.

How to get you money back from a scammer

Losing money to a scam can be extremely upsetting, and unfortunately you can’t always get your money back. According to a 2013 survey of Which? members, the average amount lost to a scam was £1,500, so this could leave a big hole in your pocket.

Banks will only reimburse fraudulent losses if they believe that you have taken all reasonable steps to protect your financial details. Be warned that if a scammer talks you into giving away cash or your bank details, the bank probably won’t reimburse you.

More information

Page first published: July 2015
Next review due: May 2017