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Scams: six of the most common tricks – and how to avoid them

<span>Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

Fake retailer websites

Where there’s a news story, there’s a fraud, and in August it was headlines saying that Wilko had gone into administration and was expected to shut stores that gave criminals an opportunity. Just days after the retailer collapsed, there were at least 10 websites claiming to offer discounted Wilko goods, many of which had been designed to look official.

Santander says these and other scam shopping sites resulted in more than 5,000 complaints from its customers alone in August, with people losing an average of £37.

How to avoid: Check the website address of any link you follow, and think twice if items look very cheap. These scam sites often put you under pressure by giving you just a few minutes to complete your purchases. Legitimate retailers don’t do this.

‘Hi mum’ text messages

You get a message claiming to be from a relative – often a son or daughter – who has lost their phone and is using a friend’s to get in touch. There might be some small talk, but eventually they say they need help to pay for something and ask you to transfer the money to the account that needs paying. This is the fraudsters’ account, and your money has gone as soon as you sanction the payment.

How to avoid: Never pay anything until you have spoken to the relative who is asking for money – even if they say the transfer is urgent. If it really is them, they will find some way to call you.

Missed delivery texts

Amazon delivery left outside house on the doorstep
If you are expecting a parcel, go directly to the website of the courier or retailer and track it there. Photograph: Kevin Britland/Alamy

A text – or sometimes email – arrives telling you that a courier is attempting to deliver a parcel, but you need to pay a fee or rearrange collection. It offers a link to a website where you can do this, or an app to download. The number could be “spoofed” and may look like it belongs to a legitimate company.

Sometimes the scammers are attempting to get you to install an app that contains spyware, which they can use to collect details including your passwords. Sometimes they seem to be looking for just enough details to call you and pretend to be from your bank’s fraud department. They will then try to talk you into moving money into a new account for safety.

How to avoid: Examine the URL of any link you click on to check if it is genuine – there will usually be something which gives it away. Do not download apps. If you are expecting a parcel, go directly to the website of the courier or retailer and track it there. If you are not expecting a parcel or any kind of tracked mail, your best bet is to ignore the message.

You can forward suspicious texts to 7726 – it goes to your mobile provider, which registers it as spam.

Paid-for government sites

You need to apply for a global health insurance card (Ghic) or update your driving licence, or you want to check if you have won on the premium bonds. You arrive on a webpage that offers to do just that – but there’s an extra charge, maybe upfront or in the form of a subscription fee that you inadvertently sign up to. One website collecting payments for the London Ulez scheme charges £17.50 for something that costs £12.50 when you go directly.

How to avoid: The listing on Google may say “sponsored” above the website address and title. This is how they get to appear high in the results. If you have clicked through, scroll right down to the bottom of the website – in the small print it may spell out that it is not an official site or affiliated to one, and that it will charge an extra fee for its “service”. If you can’t find that, check for a terms and conditions page, which should tell you who you are doing business with.

Car-selling scams

Aerial view of new and secondhand cars are seen for sale on a dealership forecourt
Beware of ads on online marketplaces for vehicles that do not exist. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Fraudsters post adverts on online marketplaces for vehicles that don’t exist and prey on those who want to buy. They will typically come up with reasons why you can’t view the car, and at the same time rush you into transferring a deposit, or even the full payment, to secure the sale. And then they disappear, taking your money with them.

Lloyds says there was a 74% rise in reports of this type of scam by its customers in the first half of 2023, and that those affected lost an average of £998 each.

How to avoid: Don’t pay anything until you have seen the car in real life. Or use an AA inspector to check it out – this costs £142, which is less than you could stand to lose in a scam. Pay using a credit or debit card rather than a bank transfer, as they have protections built in.

Student money mules

As the new university academic year begins, a warning has been issued about students being recruited as “money mules”. A money mule is someone who allows their bank details to be used to process criminals’ cash – a type of money laundering. This week, Barclays said new data revealed that cases of student money mules rose by 23% last October, so this month could well see a similar spike. In many cases, people are attracted by promises of gifts or cash in return.

How to avoid: Criminals will often set up fake profiles on social media and dangle the opportunity to earn some quick and easy cash. “Always be wary of people reaching out to you online with too-good-to-be-true opportunities, get-rich-quick schemes and requests to pass money through your bank account,” Barclays says. Ultimately, you could end up with a criminal record.