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Online scams

Read our advice about staying safe online and how to protect yourself from common internet scams.
4 min read
In this article
What is an online scam? How big is the problem? Top tips for spotting an online scam
How to prevent an online scam 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 such as 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 might make contact via bogus emails, Facebook, Twitter or other social media or messaging services. They might try to direct you to fake websites or trick you into downloading malware, which can attack your home computer.


How big is the problem?

According to the Office for National Statistics, 90% of UK adults used the internet in the past three months (May, 2018). This means that millions of people are at risk from common internet and email scams every day. It’s estimated that over £650m is lost annually by victims of the most common online scams.

Top tips for spotting an online scam

There are hundreds of different online scams – and scammers might approach you by email, instant message or via posts on Facebook or Twitter. However, there are some tell-tale signs and tricks you can look out for.

Checklist (ticks)
  • The message is from a complete stranger you are being offered something that is too good to be true.
  • The email contains spelling mistakes, obvious grammatical errors or sentences that don’t make sense.
  • The email claims to be from a trusted organisation, but the sender’s email address doesn’t match the organisation’s real website address.
  • The message uses a general greeting such as ‘Dear customer’ instead of your actual name.
  • There’s a sense of urgency, such as 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, password or account details.


How to prevent an online scam


Set up your email account to block spam (unwanted messages). Set your social media accounts to the highest levels of privacy and security to stop strangers from contacting you. To find out how to do this, check the settings on your account or go to the help pages.

  • Make sure your computer is protected by the latest security and antivirus software. Follow Which? advice about making your computer secure and finding the best antivirus software on Which? reviews.
  • When shopping online, make sure that a site is secure before entering payment details – a secure website address starts with https and should have a padlock symbol in the browser window.
  • Never follow links in messages from unknown senders – go to your internet browser and type in the real website address yourself.
  • Be wary who you give your personal details to, such as your name, address and date of birth.
  • Never reply to scam messages, even to tell them to leave you alone. This only lets the sender know that your email address, or social media account, 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 can do if you are caught out by an online scam.

  • Report the incident to Action Fraud. 

Action Fraud

UK’s National Fraud reporting centre, monitoring and investigating cases of fraud. If you’ve been scammed or conned, let them know.


Report fraud by speaking directly to specialist fraud advisers. They will also be able to give you help and advice about fraud.

0300 123 2040

Mon–Fri, 8am–8pm

  • 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 local 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. Read more about how to report a scam on Which? Consumer Rights.
  • Check the security settings on your internet browser and email account, and change them to the highest setting.
  • Check the privacy and security settings on your social media accounts. Make sure that you’re comfortable with the amount of personal information you’re sharing, and check who can see it.
  • If you suspect that a scammer has stolen log-in details for an account, report it to the provider (eg bank, retailer or credit card company) as soon as possible so that it can take the necessary action. Always check your statements to make sure there are no unusual transactions.
Stamp out scams
Fraudsters are stealing hundreds of millions of pounds every year from innocent victims in bank account scams. Enough is enough. Demand banks protect us from scams.

Further reading

Phone scams

Here, we describe some of the most common phone scams and offer advice on how to deal with them.

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.

Last updated: 28 Mar 2019