A guide to identifying and avoiding online scams

Online scams are becoming increasingly common, however there are several key ways you will be able to identify unusual behaviour, and take action should you feel you may be at risk of being scammed. We have teamed up with Age UK Oxfordshire to help you understand how to avoid scammers online.

Written by

Sheila Frampton

According to an Age UK report, scams amount to approximately "40% of all crimes" that take place in the United Kingdom, so it's no surprise that courses in Scam Awareness are becoming increasingly popular - we have seen several such talks take place in the communal lounges at our developments over the past few years. 

Online scams are of particular concern, as ActionFraud recently reported, in 2023, as much as £1.3million was lost from hacked email and social media accounts in the UK alone, highlighting the importance of securing your online accounts. 

We have written a series of blogs on the subject of identifying and avoiding scams, including over the phone, on the internet and on your doorstep. Read on to discover our guide to spotting online scams, written in association with Age UK Oxfordshire

telephone scams
A credit card on a laptop
An elderly gentleman speaking to a woman

What information is a scammer looking for?

A scammer could be looking for any personal information.

All it takes is your name, date of birth and address for a scammer to start stealing your identity or defrauding you of your savings. They try to access the following:

  • Email accounts and contact lists
  • Financial assets
  • Bank accounts
  • Personal information including current and previous home addresses
  • Facebook page and other online account passwords

For a scammer, the ultimate aim is to know enough about you to gain access to your bank account number, your PIN codes or your National Insurance number. They can use this information to take money from your accounts or even create another ‘you’ and use it to open bank accounts, take out credit cards, loans and mobile phones in your name or even apply for benefits in your name.


How can I tell if my email address has been included in a data breach?

A data breach is when information held by an organisation – such as an airline or bank – is stolen or accessed without authorization.

Scammers will then use this information when creating scam emails and text messages, which appear legitimate. Several data breaches have happened over recent years.

You might then receive a message claiming to be from the organisation that has been affected by the data breach and the message could ask you to log in and verify your account because of the fraudulent activity. The message will link to websites that look genuine, but which will store your real details once you’ve typed them in. The website could install viruses onto your computer or steal any passwords you enter. It’s not just emails – it’s also texts and, if your stolen information contains your phone number, you might receive a call.

To check if your details have appeared in any public data breaches, there are a number of websites you can use to figure out which passwords will need to be updated. 

If you find that your email address has been included in a data breach, take a look at www.ncsc.gov.uk for advice. You should:

  • Contact the organisation affected through their official website or social media. Don’t use the links provided in any message. Ask if a breach actually occurred, how you are affected and what you need to do.
  • Be alert to suspicious messages which may be sent anytime after the breach occurred.
  • Change your passwords on accounts and for advice on strong passwords visit cyberaware.gov.uk.
  • Check your online accounts to check there’s been no unauthorised activity – you may have a problem if you:
    • Can’t log into your account
    • There have been changes to your security settings
    • There are messages or notifications sent from your account you don’t recognise
    • There have been log-ins from strange locations or unusual times

If you’ve lost money, contact Action Fraud and tell your bank.  Action Fraud is the UK’s reporting centre for cyber crime and the details are listed at the end of this blog.

A clip board that has been marked as a scam
A person using a laptop
An older person using a mobile phone

What email scams should I be aware of?

Email scams are some of the most common forms of scam – they are called ‘phishing emails.’   

This is an easy way to target both individuals and businesses. Their aim is to lead you to unsafe websites, to steal your personal data or attack your devices with malware. The email may direct you to an unsafe website – for example, those that purport to be from the Royal Mail telling you it is necessary to pay for your parcel and directing you to link that does not direct you to the Royal Mail but to a different or perhaps even similar looking site. 


How to avoid email scams

Look carefully at the email display name and address. It may look like it’s from a genuine business or someone you know but the display name cannot be trusted.

There may be an additional letter or a hyphen in a different place to that of the genuine business. Using a product such as Office 365 with the Defender product, your Outlook will automatically highlight the unrecognised sender email addresses.

  • Check the spelling and grammar of the email – many phishing emails come from foreign countries, and this is fairly easy to spot.
  • Do not click on any links or open any attachments – they may allow malware to download onto your device...
  • Don’t reply to the email – even if you think it may be legitimate.
  • Block the sender so they can’t send you any more emails from the same domain.
  • Secure your device with anti-virus software.


How to report email scams

  • You can report the scam to Action Fraud
  • You can contact CrimeStoppers on 0800 555 111 or complete the online form at crimestoppers-uk.org


What investment scams should I be aware of? 

An investment scam involves you being invited to invest in things that have no value or simply don’t exist.

The scammers may pose as a company you’ve heard of and trust, but the scammers can create fake websites and send genuine-looking documents to convince you.

It can be difficult to check on investments but if you are promised tempting returns that sound too good to be true, that is, much better interest rates than elsewhere, if they call you repeatedly and keep you on the phone for long periods, if they suggest this is a one-off, time-limited offer or that you are the only person being offered the investment, then be extremely wary.  


How to avoid investment scams

  • Take your time to respond – don’t feel rushed by a pushy email, especially if they call you too
  • Block their email address or stop the phone call if you feel pressured
  • Be wary of companies based overseas
  • Check adverts very carefully
  • Don’t commit – seek financial advice from a verified expert before making any investment decision
  • Above all, trust your gut instinct – if it seems too good to be true, it probably is


How to report investment scams

  • Contact Action Fraud
  • Contact the FCA 
  • Report adverts to the Advertising Standards Authority - see the website asa.org.uk

A Gmail inbox
A man using a mobile telephone
Stocks and shares on a mobile phone

What courier scams should I be aware of? 

The scammers pose as delivery couriers requesting payment for undelivered parcels or send fake delivery notifications with links or email attachments that enable them to put spyware on your devices and steal your financial information.

Some scammers intercept genuine parcels and reroute them to fraudulent addresses. Package delivery services don’t need you to provide your personal or financial information.

There is something known as ‘brush scamming’ where sellers send unsolicited packages to people to create fake transactions on e-commerce platforms to boost their sales and products ranking. 

If you receive a parcel you did not ask for – possibly from abroad – containing something like cheap jewellery, it could be a sign that your personal information including your name and home addressed has been compromised – there may have been a data breach or the scammer might have bought your details in an illegal marketplace – so do report this.


How to avoid courier scams

If you receive a text, email or sometimes a card through your letterbox about a parcel you did not order, details about where the package is from and what it contains will generally be vague.

It may contain spelling or grammatical errors. Remember, Royal Mail and genuine delivery companies do not ask you to pay a fee in this way.

Take a look at www.royalmail.com at ‘typical online scams to look out for.’


How to report courier scams

  • To report a parcel delivery scam received by text, forward it for free to 7726.
  • If a scam parcel delivery email has arrived in your inbox, take a screenshot and send it to report@phishing.gov.uk
  • Report mail fraud to the Royal Mail (see website above)

A person with a clipboard and information
A wallet with cards inside
A box left outside someone's home

What are relationship scams and how can I spot if I am being scammed?  

Relationship scams are heartbreaking. You might think you’ve met the perfect partner online, but they are using a fake profile to form a relationship with you.

They gain your trust over weeks and months and you begin to believe that you have a caring relationship but their aim is to defraud you of money or access your personal information.

Be wary if you have contacted someone online and they declare their love for you very swiftly. Many fraudsters claim to be overseas, working in the military or medical professions. Many scammers create fake facebook profiles and contact you asking you to accept their friend request.

Often the profiles of such scammers have religious messages or photos of the person with a pet or at work in uniform. Their pictures will be too perfect and are often stolen from actor or model sites. They may make up excuses why they can’t meet up in person or have a video chat and try to move the conversation off the dating site or facebook or wherever you ‘met’ them.

If they ask for financial help, say they have a time-critical emergency, it will probably be a scam and they may get defensive if you decline help.


How to avoid relationship scams

  • Challenge the person – are they really who they say they are?
  • Ignore or reject any requests for financial or personal details. Scammers will try to rush or panic you.
  • Never part with money or information.
  • Be careful, even if the relationship seems ‘real’ and you have met them. Some scammers work on their victims for months before taking sums of money – small at first and then increasing amounts. It is not unknown for such scammers to be in relationship with their victim and later, it turns out they are married with families.
  • Take a look at the new guide to spotting a romance fraudster – a romance fraud e-booklet developed by Thames Valley Police’s Economic Crime Unit in association with Dr Elizabeth Carter, Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Forensic Linguist at the University of Roehampton. See the Thames Valley website for details of how to download the guide.


How to report relationship scams

A match on a dating site
tinder app on a phone
A person looking at paperwork

Have you been affected by a scam? Here’s what you should do next…

If you're from Oxfordshire and have been affected by scams and would like to discuss a one-to-one visit with Age UK Oxfordshire, or would like to organise a group talk to raise awareness of scams please get in touch by emailing scamsupport@ageukoxfordshire.org.uk or call 0345 450 1276.

You are also able to find information about your local Age UK Office here, who will be happy to support you.

Age UK also run their “Age UK Advice Line” on 0800 678 1602, a general telephone line with operatives who will be able to give you advice, and direct you towards resources to help you. The line is open 8am to 7pm every day of the year.


How can I get in touch with Action Fraud? 

Action Fraud is the UK’s national fraud and internet crime reporting unit. The telephone number is 0300 123 2040 and you can contact them online on www.actionfraud.police.uk.


Discover the other blogs in our 'Scam Awareness' series

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