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The internet has opened up a world of new possibilities for scammers. It’s important that you or your relative keep your computer secure and know about the possible risks so that you can avoid them.

On this page you can find details about dealing with online scams.

1. What is an online scam?
2. How big is the problem?
3. Common online scams
4. Top tips for spotting an online scam
5. How to prevent an online scam
6. What to do if you're caught out by an online scam

What is an online scam?

More and more of us are connected to the internet and it can be a great way to stay in touch with friends and family, grab a shopping bargain and do things like banking from the comfort of your own home.

But it also opens up new opportunities for scammers. Online scams are when criminals use the internet to con people into giving them money or personal information. They usually do this through fake websites or bogus emails.  

How big is the problem?

Around 84% of households have internet access at home, and three quarters of adults use the internet every day, according to the Office for National Statistics. This means that millions of people are at risk from common internet and email scams every day. It's estimated that £670m is lost annually by victims of the most common online scams.

Common online scams

Phishing emails

  • The scam: fraudsters send you an email claiming to be from your bank or another trusted organisation, such as PayPal, Amazon or eBay. They tell you that your account has been compromised, or you have to verify your security details in order to keep your account open. There is a link in the email that they want you to follow.
  • The reality: the link directs you to a fake website (which can look exactly like the real organisation’s site) where you will be asked to login. The scammer now has your account details and passwords and can access your bank account or shop online.

Stranded traveller emails

  • The scam: you receive an email from a poor person who is stranded abroad – due to a mugging or some other disaster - and needs you to send them money for help. The scammers make the tale believable by hacking into real people’s email accounts and send the ‘help’ messages to people in their address list – so the message might appear to come from a friend.
  • The reality: you send them money, then spot your friend in the supermarket that very afternoon.
  • Our advice: if in doubt, don’t reply and contact the friend in question by phone.

Computer virus online scam

The scam: you receive an email from a stranger urging you to follow a link, or open an attachment such as a photo.

The reality: once you click on the link or attachment it releases a virus to attack your computer, giving access to criminals or scanning it for your private information.

Our advice: don’t open links in emails from people you don’t know, even if they do sound friendly. Keep your computer security software up to date.

Copycat websites

  • The scam: phishing emails can direct you to copycat sites. Scammers might also create duplicates of government websites, such as the passport office, the DVLA or HMRC that appear in search engine findings.
  • The reality: when you click on that site to apply for your new passport, driving license or EHIC card, you’ll be charged additional fees. Without a doubt, you’ll pay more than you would if you went directly through the official government departments.
  • Our advice: if you are in doubt about which website to use, go through GOV.UK, the Government’s official website, to find what you need.

Relationship online scam

  • The scam: a stranger starts ‘talking’ to you on a social networking or dating site. They make friends with you and gain your trust over time. They seem really nice and might even say that they are falling in love with you. Then they’ll start to ask you for money, often by telling you an emotional or hard luck story.
  • The reality: it could be a scammer who is after your money, not your friendship. Trust your instincts. If something feels wrong, it probably is.
  • Our advice: talk to a friend or relative, especially if your new friendship seems to be moving fast. Never send the person money or give them your account details. Be on your guard, particularly if a new friend that you’ve met online asks for money.
    If you arrange to meet, make sure it’s in a public place, tell someone else where you’re going and don’t give away too much information too quickly.

Health scams

The scam: you receive an email, or see an advert, promising miracle tablets – such as slimming tablets - or other medical cures that offer amazing results. Or you might see an advert for an online pharmacy that offers medicines cheaply.

The reality: once you’ve paid for your medicine it might not turn up. Or, if it does, it might be poor quality. Watch out as some can even be harmful to your health.

Our advice: a legitimate online pharmacy should display the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPC) logo. When you click on it, it which should take you to the GPC register. Or you can search for a pharmacy directly on the GPC site.

Top tips for spotting an email scam

There are hundreds of different email scams, but scammers use some common tricks that you can look out for.

  • The sender’s email address doesn’t match the organisation’s real website address.
  • The email uses a general greeting like ‘dear customer’ instead of your actual name.
  • There’s a sense of urgency, e.g. threatening to close your account if you don’t act immediately.
  • There’s a link that may look similar to the proper address but is in fact slightly different and will take you to a fake website.
  • You’re asked for personal information, such as your username or password.

How to prevent an online scam

Set up your email account to block spam (unwanted emails) - check your email settings or the help pages of your email account.

  • Make sure your computer is protected by the latest security and antivirus software. Ask a friend or family member to help or check out Which? advice here.
  • When shopping online make sure that a site is secure before entering payments details – a secure website address starts with https and should have a padlock symbol in the browser window.
  • Never follow links in emails from unknown senders – go to your browser and type in the real website address yourself.
  • Be wary who you give your personal details to, such as your name, address, date of birth.
  • Never reply to scam emails, even to tell them to leave you alone! This only lets the sender know that your email address is active and they are likely to send you more.

What to do if you're caught out by an online scam

There are various things that you or your relative can do if you are caught out by an online scam.

  • Report the fraud to Action Fraud.
  • If you think your computer might have a virus or harmful malware get it checked out by an expert. You can find details of your local IT repair shops in the phone book. Or ask friends and family for recommendations.
  • Report scam/phishing emails to the internet service provider (ISP) that sent the mail. They can close the account that the scammer was sending from.
  • If you suspect that a scammer has stolen login details for an account report it to the provider (e.g. bank, retailer or credit card company) as soon as possible so that they can take the necessary action.

More information

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.

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