Scam proof your life: How to help spot a potential trickster

5 min | 25 April 2022

Chanté Joseph

Online scammers and fraudsters have developed new ways to rope people into financial scams that cause irreparable damage. With fraud losses totalling £1.26B in 2020, we look at how scams are changing and what you can do to try to stay safe online.

There may be a stereotype that online scam victims tend to be digitally illiterate older people; some think of parents and grandparents unassumingly clicking links in dodgy emails or people who fall for PPI phone hacks. However, scams are changing, and they’re targeting even younger audiences. In 2020, people under 25 were six times more likely to fall victim to criminals on social media than those over 50. Unfortunately, nobody is above falling for online fraud, and it can completely turn your life upside down. Here are some scams to be aware of and how you can hopefully avoid becoming a victim.

Money Mules

Money Muling – also known as squaring – is a form of laundering where money is sent to someone to transfer or withdraw for a small commission. The money transferred is usually stolen and can be used to finance other criminal activity. A recent documentary uncovered how teenagers are recruiting their peers on social media into becoming money mules. The primary group targeted in this scam are those under 35, with people aged between 12 and 21 increasingly becoming victims of this type of crime.

Teenagers post pictures and videos with stacks of money, captioned: ‘who wants to make money?’ after which friends and followers reply. Unfortunately, criminals prey on those in need or who are too naive to understand the seriousness of this choice. The most insidious part of this scam is how it incriminates the victim. Even if you are not directly involved in the crime, you can become an accomplice to one. The repercussions if caught doing this can be harsh:

  • Your bank accounts could be closed
  • You may have issues trying to get loans and credit cards
  • You could be sent to prison for up to 14 years

Romance Scams

The recent TV series on a popular streaming service about a romance scammer has been the number one topic of conversation among my peers. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to about this documentary insists that this could never happen to them. We’d all like to believe that we are savvy and aware enough not to be caught out by a charming jet setter. However, romance scams like the one depicted in the infamous series are rising.

In 2020, victims lost over £18.5 million in bank transfer romance scams, with an average loss of £7,850 per person. Romance scams are very personal acts of fraud and happen when someone tricks you into sending money or gifts (such as laptops, phones, gift cards or vouchers) to them, through building a relationship. Fraudsters prey on the elderly, vulnerable and lonely, using intimacy to steal in a way that seems consensual but is based on deception. Romance isn’t always the correct phrase here, as it could also be someone posing as a friend online who suddenly needs money for medical treatment.

Impersonation Scams

According to UK Finance, in 2020, impersonation scam cases almost doubled; this coincided with the pandemic, which provided an opportunity for scammers to play on the safety concerns of individuals. For example, fraudsters posing as government officials providing COVID-19 relief support were getting people to fill out forms with their personal information and bank details. Scammers told people that they would receive a lump sum of money from the government and lured desperate people into applying for fake council tax reductions.

As well as impersonating government workers, delivery and courier companies have also been wrapped up in impersonation scams. Eighty-one per cent of text fraud cases imitate popular courier and delivery services. This scam caught vast numbers of people off guard by playing on people’s trust in services that they regularly use. For example, a British student shared her experience of losing “every penny” due to a delivery text scam. The scammers emailed her asking to pay a postage fee for a parcel she was expecting. When she paid, she fell victim to the ‘safe account scam’ where the scammers lured her into emptying her accounts by pretending to represent her bank.

Impact of being Scammed

Beyond the successful TV shows and documentaries, there is a human impact to being scammed. In a report on the effect of fraud by the International Public Sector Fraud Forum, they write that victims of these scams can deal with declining mental health and anxiety, depression, and suicide. Trying to get your life back on track after being scammed can be equally traumatic; you might need to repeat your story to law enforcement, banks, and credit card companies. A considerable part of this is the shame that victims often experience. Feeling ‘foolish’ after being scammed can lead victims to isolate themselves because of the embarrassment. Even if you can retrieve what was lost from a scam, the thought of being so easily susceptible can be challenging to shake.

How do you protect yourself from scams?

As scams evolve and become harder to spot, it can feel like there isn't much you can do. The national campaign Take Five to Stop Fraud (Opens in new window) however is available to offer advice on preventing and dealing with instances of fraud.

Take Five also have a scam-savvy quiz (Opens in new window) that made me – someone who feels relatively OK with discerning scams – aware of how much I didn’t know.

Ultimately when navigating online transactions, remember that if it is too good to be true, you feel rushed into making a decision, or you are unsure what or who you’re sending money to, then you should investigate further before sharing any personal information.

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