Scam mail uses fake promises to make you part with your cash. Maybe you or your relative have won a prize lottery, or inherited a large sum of money from someone you’ve never heard of. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
On this page you can find details about dealing with postal scams.
1. What is a postal scam?
2. How big is the problem?
3. Common postal scams
4. Things to watch out for
5. Taking action against postal scams
6. What to do if you're caught out by a postal scam
What is a postal scam?
A postal scam is a letter sent with the sole intention of gaining money through deception. Scammers grab your attention by saying that you’ve won a fantastic prize or have been chosen to take part in a great money making scheme. Perhaps there is a ‘secret’ deal that can make you rich, or a clairvoyant who can stop bad luck and direct good luck towards you. Or they might even resort to threats.
The bottom line is that, once they’ve captured your attention, they will ask you to send money or personal details. With these details they can do all sorts of things. Read about some of the most common postal scams below.
How big is the problem?
The National Trading Standards Scams team estimate postal scams could be netting criminals worldwide up to £10bn a year. It’s estimated that 70% of all scam losses come from postal scams.
As the techniques that scammers use get more sophisticated, it can be difficult to spot the difference between scam mail, junk mail and offers from legitimate companies.
Once a victim responds to a scam letter their name is put on a list – known to criminals as a ‘suckers list’ – which is then sold to criminals all over the world. This can result in some victims getting more than 100 letters every day.
Common postal scams
Scammers are always coming up with new ideas, but here are some well-known postal scams to look out for.
Lottery/prize draw scams
- The scam: you receive a letter congratulating you on winning a cash prize. If you respond to the letter, you’ll be asked to pay a fee before the prize is ‘released’.
- The reality: you won’t receive any prize, and you may be asked to pay further increasing fees or to call a premium rate number.
Psychic and clairvoyant scammers
- The scam: someone claiming to be able to see into the future tells you that they have important information about your impending fate. You must pay them money if you want to find out what it is.
- The reality: your pet hamster probably has more psychic powers. Their vision of the future is likely to be false.
Pyramid scheme scams
- The scam: you receive a letter telling you about a great business investment that involves huge profits with zero risks. You usually have to pay to join the scheme and you get financial rewards for recruiting other ‘members’.
- The reality: the product you are investing in is usually worthless or non-existent. Your money is not invested but simply passed on to the fraudsters. You might get small payouts at the beginning to convince you that this is a legitimate scheme and to trick you into investing more money.
Hard luck story scams
- The scam: the scammer writes to you with a sob story. They might be terminally ill and require an expensive operation to heal them. They might have lost all their money due to an unfortunate accident or event.
- The reality: these stories are completely fake. Don’t respond.
Advance fee fraud
- The scam: you get a letter asking you to help a millionaire in a war-torn country to transfer their millions into a UK bank account for safe keeping. In return they will pay you a substantial reward. The letter might be from an individual, a government official or a lawyer.
- The reality: if you respond, you’ll be asked to pay various fees or you may be asked for your bank details. In fact there is no money to transfer and the fraudsters will use your details to try to steal the money in your account.
Unclaimed inheritance scams
The scam: you get a letter from a ‘solicitor’ telling you that someone has left you money in their will. The letter may claim to be from a genuine law firm with a postal address, email or website that looks real.
The reality: it’s highly unlikely that someone you don’t know would leave you money in their will. You can check if a solicitor is genuine by contacting the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
Bogus debt letters
- The scam: you get a letter claiming to be from a debt recovery agency, chasing an unpaid utility bill, or something similar. They threaten to take legal action against you if the bill isn’t paid. Letters might be faked to look like they’ve come from other official sources, such as HMRC. It’s more common for these copycat scams to arrive as emails, but some do send letters too.
- The reality: this is an empty threat and no such debt or bill exists.
- Our advice: always check directly with the company in question (eg the utility company or HMRC) to see if a letter is genuine before paying anything. Contact the organisation using the number from their website or an old bill.
Things to watch out for
Postal scams use some common tricks, so be on your guard if you spot any of the following.
- They dazzle recipients with words such as: ‘Congratulations’, ‘Won The Lottery’, ‘Guaranteed Winner’, ‘Highly Confidential’, ‘Unclaimed Prize’ or ‘Time Sensitive Document’.
- They often address letters to you by name – to make it look more convincing.
- Letters often come from company presidents, lottery officials, solicitors or other people with impressive sounding job titles.
- They use false testimonials and smiling pictures of ‘previous winners’.
- They sometimes send small, low-cost prizes to hook people in and convince them to send larger amounts of money.
How to take action against postal scams
Take the following steps to protect yourself or a relative from common postal scams.
- Never respond to scam letters or junk mail – you are likely to get more, so just throw them in the bin/recycling.
- Don’t believe any stranger who writes to you out of the blue, telling you that you’ve won something or can earn high rewards for a low investment.
- Don’t trust any stranger that asks you for money – assume it is suspicious unless proved otherwise.
- Don’t believe any threats – the scammers probably live thousands of miles away and have sent the same threat to hundreds of people, so it’s nothing personal. These letters are designed to scare people into responding.
- If letters claim to come from a genuine source – such as a solicitor or a government agency – contact the organisation in question (using the correct details, NOT those in the correspondence).
- If you have received or are receiving something that looks like scam mail, talk about it to someone you trust, such as a friend or family member.
You can take steps to reduce junk mail, but this won’t necessarily stop scams getting through.
- Register with the Mailing Preference Service (MPS) – this can stop junk mail but the postal service has a legal obligation anything that is addressed directly to you.
- Put a ‘no junk mail’ sign on the front door.
What to do if you're caught out by a postal scam
If you or your relative is caught out by a postal scam, you can:
- 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.
- Report postal scams to Royal Mail: Freepost Scam Mail, firstname.lastname@example.org, 0345 611 3413. It runs a joint initiative with Trading Standards to investigate reports of scam mail and take the appropriate action.
- 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.
- Phone scams, Doorstep scams, Online scams: read about other scams and how to help you or your relative avoid being caught out.
- Which? Consumer Rights: read more about avoiding postal scams.
- Think Jessica: this site contains more information about postal scams and how they can affect older people.
Page last reviewed: May 2017
Next review due: November 2019