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Common online scams

Here are some of the most common online scams that you should be alert to. Remember to trust your gut instinct if anything seems suspicious.
4 min read
In this article
Phishing or twishing Stranded traveller emails Computer virus online scam Copycat websites
Relationship online scam Health scams Money mule scams How to spot an online scam

Phishing or twishing

The scam: fraudsters contact you via email (phishing) or social media message (twishing) 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 to keep your account open. There is a link in the message 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 log in. The scammer now has your account details and passwords and can access your bank account or online shopping account.

Our advice: never click on a link in an email or social media message, however urgent it might sound. Go to your internet browser and type in the full website address before logging in to your account.

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 who 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.

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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 who might be able to scan 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. Follow Which? advice about making your computer secure and finding the best antivirus software.

Copycat websites

The scam: phishing emails, instant messages or posts on Facebook and Twitter 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 results. Some scams involve emails claiming to be from HMRC, saying you are due a tax refund and giving you a link to a fake website.

The reality: when you click on that site to apply for your new passport, driving licence or European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), 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’re 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’re 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 pain-relief 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 should take you to the GPC register. Or you can search for a pharmacy directly on the GPC website.

Money mule scams

The scam: you see a job advert online (often on Facebook or Twitter) telling you about a brilliant job as a ‘money transfer agent’. All you have to do is provide your bank details for a legitimate bank transfer and you’ll be paid a handsome fee for your ‘help’.

The reality: criminals use your bank account to launder illicit money, which could land you in serious trouble. People found guilty could face prison and have their bank accounts closed.

Our advice: be very sceptical of unsolicited messages or job adverts offering easy ways to make money. Get online to check out any company that makes you a job offer and make sure their contact details are correct. Never give your bank account details to anyone unless you know and trust them.

How to spot an online scam

Read more tips on how to spot an online scam, and what to do if you've already fallen victim to one.

Further reading

Scams aimed at older people

Our guide on common scams and how to identify them. Share it with relatives and friends to keep one step ahead.

How to spot a scam

Spotting a scam isn’t always easy, but scammers tend to use some common tactics, which can give them away. Read our ...

Doorstep scams

Doorstep scammers will have a variety of tricks to scam you out of money. We explain how to spot a doorstep scam.

Last updated: 10 Jul 2020