Persistent phone calls from strangers are an unwelcome intrusion into home life. The caller might be a pushy salesperson or a criminal trying to scam you or your relative out of your money. We can help you identify common phone scams and take the necessary action.
On this page you can find details about dealing with phone scams.
1. What are phone scams?
2. How big is the problem?
3. Common phone scams
4. Things to watch out for
5. Nuisance calls
6. How to take action against unwanted calls
7. What to do if you're caught out by a phone scammer
What are phone scams?
A phone scam is where fraudsters call you on the phone (known as ‘vishing’), or send you a text message (known as ‘smishing’), to try and trick you into giving them personal information, bank details or money. A common trick is to impersonate a trusted organisation, such as your bank, utility company or major retailer.
Phone calls are particularly intrusive. A real person is harder to ignore than a letter, text or email, and they happen more frequently than doorstep scams. Once your phone number, or your relative's, has got onto a target list, it might be shared with numerous other scammers.
How big is the problem?
Phone scams by text message (smishing), are on the rise, according to the latest figures published by Financial Fraud Action UK. In 2014 it found that 58% of people had received suspect calls, a steep rise from 41% in 2013. Nearly £24m was lost to phone scams in 2014, which was treble the amount in 2013. Recent research from the Financial Ombudsman shows that 80% of phone scam victims are over 55.
Common phone scams
‘Vishing’ (voice) or 'smishing' (text) phone scams
- The scam: someone calls or texts pretending to be a person of authority – maybe a police officer or a member of bank staff. They might say that you have been a victim of fraud, or that there is a potential security issue on your account. If you’re worried you might not be thinking straight. The fraudster will then ask questions about your personal or financial details so that they can ‘fix the problem’.
- The reality: the criminal will use the details to access your bank account and take money.
- Our advice: never give out your bank details - or any personal details - over the phone. Contact your bank directly to verify any potential problems. Look up the bank’s phone number yourself, from a bank statement or official website, and don’t rely on any numbers given by the caller.
The hang up phone scam
- The scam: the scammer tells you that you need to transfer money or give bank details – then tries to gain your trust by telling you to call your bank to check that the call is genuine. They pretend to hang up while you call your bank. You dial your bank’s number and speak to someone who sounds very official and tells you that the original caller is genuine.
- The reality: the scam artist doesn’t disconnect the call, allowing them to stay on the line, without you knowing, for up to two minutes. So, when you put the phone down to call your bank, you are still speaking to the criminals, who of course tell you that everything is fine and to go ahead with the transfer.
- Our advice: thankfully, upgrades to the UK’s major phone networks have almost stamped out this scam. But, if you’re dubious about a call, wait at least five minutes before calling your bank for verification, or use a different phone. That way the scammer can’t stay on the line.
Microsoft phone scam
- The scam: someone calls up pretending to be from Microsoft, or another computer security company. They tell you that you have a virus on your computer or other serious computer problem. They offer to fix the problem by selling you software, or by taking control of your computer remotely to fix it there and then.
- The reality: they don’t know anything about your computer or even if you have one. They’ll take payment for the bogus software or, if you allow them access to your computer, they could steal your personal details, such as account numbers and passwords.
- Our advice: hang up.
The missed call phone scam
- The scam: you receive a missed call from a number beginning with 070 or 076. Scammers use these numbers as they appear to be calls from a mobile phone number. When the victim tries to call the number back, the call is immediately dropped or an engaged tone is played.
- The reality: the number is a premium rate number in disguise and victims are charged 50p, or more, for making the call.
- Our advice: if you get a missed call from an unknown number beginning 070 or 076, don’t call it back. Make a note of the number and complain to the premium rate regulator, Phone-paid Services Authority (formerly PhonepayPlus).
Phone scams: things to watch out for
It might be a scam if:
- you’re asked to authorise the transfer of money to a new account
- you’ve never heard of the company or person before
- you’re asked to hand over cash
- you’re asked to give your Pin or passwords in full (on the phone or via text). Your bank or the police will never ask you for this information
- the person says that they’ll send someone to your home to collect cash, bank cards or anything else
- you’re asked to send personal or banking information.
If you're contacted by anyone asking you for personal details or passwords (such as for your bank account number), you should take steps to check the true identity of the organisation. Ask the caller to verify their identity by asking them to give you details that only that company would know, such as details of your service contract or how much you pay per month.
If you still have concerns about the caller's identity, you should hang up and call the company back, and preferably from a different phone.
Never disclose the following details:
- your four digit card Pin, not even to your bank or the police
- your full password or online banking codes
- your personal details, such as your address and date of birth, unless you are sure who you are talking to.
Nuisance calls and taking action
It can be difficult to tell the difference between a nuisance call and a scam. Nuisance calls are unwanted calls from legitimate companies trying to sell you a product or service. If you tell them you’re not interested they will often go away. But, some salespeople can be very persistent, and will go to great lengths to convince you, or will keep calling back, which is annoying.
A reputable company should not be pushy. Take time to think about your answer and don’t be pressured into buying something you don’t want or need. If they won’t go away, hang up.
For more information, read our consumer rights advice on how to stop nuisance calls.
How to take action against unwanted phone calls
You can’t stop unwanted phone calls completely, but you can reduce the risk by taking the following steps:
- Sign up to the Telephone Preference Service (TPS).
- Invest in a caller ID service from your phone provider, and only take calls from numbers that you recognise.
- Consider buying a nuisance call blocker.
- Remove your details from the public phone directory.
- Sign up to the Which? campaign to stop nuisance calls and see also the Which? campaign to Safeguard us from scams at the foot of this page.
- If you are plagued by calls from the same number report them to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO).
- If you receive silent/abandoned calls report the problem to Ofcom.
If all else fails, hang up! If an unwanted call does get through, and the caller won’t go away, don’t be afraid to put the phone down. You’re not being rude – they are!
What to do if you're caught out by a phone scam
- Report the incident to Action Fraud. You can report the scam online or by calling 0300 123 2040. Remember that anyone can become a victim of a scam and reporting it could stop others falling victim to the same scam.
- If you, or your relative, have been tricked into giving your bank details to a scammer over the phone, report it to your bank immediately. They will take the necessary action to stop the scammers using your cards or gaining access to your account.
- Read our Scamming older people guide to find out if you’re able to get your money back following a scam, and what steps to take.
- Check out information and advice from our Useful organisations and websites for scams and older people page.
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.
- Block nuisance calls: discover how the latest technology can help.
- Call blockers: read Which? reviews of two popular call blockers to find out if they are any good. Which? members can also read reviews of the best call blockers for home phones.
- Postal scams, Doorstep scams, Online scams: find out more about other types of scams that affect older people.
Next review due: November 2019