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How do you know if someone is scamming you?

author: Adele Kitchen

By Adele Kitchen

Scamming is a fraudulent activity designed to trick victims into parting with their money. It’s been reported that as of May this year, 40 million people had already been targeted by scammers.

We take a look at the way fraudsters work, how you can tell if someone is scamming you, and what you can do about it.

What are the tell-tale signs of a scam?

Scammers use all sorts of tactics to convince their victims to part with their valuable personal information, or their money. If you receive unsolicited contact from a company or individual, even if you’re relatively sure they’re genuine, ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Do you know who sent it? It could be a scam if you have never heard from the individual or company before, and they suddenly contact you out of the blue.
  • Do they know who you are? Someone contacting you for genuine reasons should know your name. Scammers may simply address messages to you as ‘Dear Sir/Madam’, ‘To the Occupier’ or ‘Dear customer’, for example.
  • Do they use bad spelling and grammar? While not a foolproof way to spot a scam, receiving a message that’s riddled with mistakes or doesn’t make sense could suggest that it is not from an authentic source.
  • Is the company registered on Companies House? If they aren’t registered or only have a PO BOX address, this could be a sign that it’s not a legitimate business.
  • What phone number are they calling you from? Although some very small businesses and independent tradespeople may only have a mobile number, larger businesses that a scammer might pose as should have – and call you from – a landline number. If someone calls from a mobile number and says, for example, they are calling from your bank, this may well be a scam.
  • Are they asking for personal details? While it’s common to have to confirm some personal information as part of a company’s security checks, a genuine company would never ask you for details like the password to your account with them, or your bank account information.
  • Are they asking you to keep quiet? This could indicate that they are up to no good.
  • Are they putting pressure on you to transfer money? Pressing the urgency of a situation to rush you into making a decision is a common tactic scammers use. A company acting legitimately would not normally force you into acting quickly. 
  • Do they want you to transfer money using an unusual method? If you’re asked to transfer money via vouchers, or through MoneyGram or Western Union for example, instead of using a regular bank account or PayPal transfer this could be a sign of a scam.
  • Are they asking for administration fees? While sometimes administration fees are genuine and justified, they can also be a sign of a scam if they’re being charged on something that would not usually have them. Action Fraud states that they are not aware of any lotteries that request fees to be paid in advance. Similarly, banks don’t normally ask for fees to complete a credit application, so be wary if you are asked to send them money to process the request.
  • Does it seem too good to be true? It often is. Depending on the type of scam, fraudsters may try and draw you in using different techniques, such as claiming you have won a big prize, or by offering you another kind of reward, such as employment, concert tickets, or miracle medical cures.

Types of scams and how they work

Fraudsters use various methods to contact their victims. We look at some of the main types of scams in more detail. (Bear in mind that this list is not exhaustive, and fraudsters are always coming up with new ways to take advantage of people as technology changes).

If you know how scams work, then you should hopefully be more likely to spot them.

The National Trading Standards Scams Team has an initiative called ‘Friends Against Scams’, which aims to empower communities to stand up to scams. They run awareness sessions across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. You can find your nearest one on their interactive map.


This type of scam is carried out mostly by email, but also on the phone, when it’s known as “vishing”, or by text message - “smishing”. The goal of this scam, and how it gets its name, is to fish for personal information, such as bank details and security passwords. The communication is designed to lure the recipient in. 

For example, the scammer  might send emails asking you to click on a link or open an attachment, which takes you to a fake (but very convincing) website, or secretly installs malicious software onto your device to collect data for fraudulent purposes. Such scams also sometimes appear on social media sites, inviting people to click on links advertising special offers that don’t really exist.

It can be difficult to tell a dodgy email, text or phone call from a genuine one, as fraudsters can make them look very professional. Remember the questions above, paying particular attention to the spelling and grammar, how you’re addressed in the message, and whether you’re being pushed to act urgently. You can also check email addresses; it may appear to be from an organisation or person you know and trust, but checking the email address behind the sender name could reveal the scam. For example, if you received an email from HMRC, you’d expect it to come from an address ending “hmrc.gov.uk”. Anything else may not be genuine.

If you are still unsure whether a message you’ve received might be a scam, check out the Citizens Advice website, which has an online questionnaire you can fill in to give you a better idea.

Lottery and prize draw scams

In this type of scam, victims are targeted with a message saying they’ve won a prize – this could be something of value like a mobile phone or a holiday, or in the case of lottery scams, it could be cash. But, to claim it, they must first send a payment to the fraudster. They may even need to call a premium rate number – racking up a huge phone bill – to do so. When the payment is made, the prize is still not forthcoming, and the person they’ve been dealing with vanishes without a trace.

If you receive a message claiming you’ve won a competition, the key to identifying it as a likely scam is whether it seems too good to be true. For example, if you don’t remember entering any competitions, it’s unlikely you’ve won. How the message greets you, who it’s from (checking the actual email address, not just the sender) and whether they’re pressuring you to act urgently are all further signs that this probably isn’t a genuine competition or lottery win.

Romance scams

Romance scams can occur on dating sites, internet forums or messenger apps. Scammers gradually build  relationships with their victims using fake profiles, before requesting money. This is also known as ‘catfishing’.

These scams are difficult to spot because the fraudsters have gained their victims’ trust. But, nevertheless, the signs are there if you ask yourself the questions we listed at the start of this article. In this case, they’ll likely put pressure on you to transfer funds to them. They may do this by tugging at your heartstrings with a sob story such as a medical or family emergency. They may also want you to keep what they’re asking you to do a secret.

Other giveaways include inconsistencies in their story, asking for lots of personal information while revealing very little about themselves, using unusually poor spelling grammar while claiming to be a native speaker, and only using professional photographs on their profile.

Check the authenticity of their profile picture if you are not sure. You could also cross-reference the photos they put on the dating website against photos on their social media profiles (e.g. on Facebook and Instagram) to see if they match up.

Doorstep scams

Doorstep scams can include rogue traders, fake charities, and surveys. They are often aimed at the elderly.

The tactics these scammers use to lure victims in are wide-ranging. They may be rogue traders claiming to be doing other work in your area and offering their services. Or, they could be fake charity representatives urging you to donate to their cause. What they will likely have in common is the pressure they apply to convince you to part with your money. They may want to come into your home to discuss their proposition, or under the guise of needing to use the phone or the bathroom, then refuse to leave unless you agree to pay a deposit or make a donation. They might even become aggressive if you ask for time to think, or say you’ll contact them later.

To avoid falling victim to this type of scam, only let people into your home if you know them, or have invited them round beforehand. If you feel threatened by any visitor, expected or otherwise, call the police on 999.

Investment scams

Investment scams tend to revolve around someone contacting you out of the blue to offer you a once-in-a-lifetime investment opportunity. Some criminals will go to great lengths to convince their victims that both the opportunity and the company they claim to represent are legitimate, creating mock websites and reading material. However, in reality, neither the company nor the investment scheme exists.

Returning to the questions we listed earlier again, if you’re approached with something like this, then you should ask yourself if it sounds too good to be true, because if so, it usually is. You should also ask yourself whether you feel rushed into to this investment – a genuine organisation would never put you under any pressure to invest on the spot.

If you are unsure, you could answer this questionnaire by the Financial Conduct Authority to see if you have been targeted by a financial scam. You can also check the list of unauthorised financial firms and individuals that have been identified by the FCA.

Key dos & don'ts


  • Respond to someone you think is trying to scam you (otherwise it will validate your contact details and you are more likely to receive further contact in the future).
  • Give out any bank or personal details over the phone if they have called you.
  • Write your passwords, PINs or account details down.
  • Feel pressured into giving someone money or information about yourself.
  • Click on links or URLs unless you’re sure of who has sent them to you.


  • Check the business address on Companies House to see if it is registered.
  • Check the number they are calling from against the contact details for the company available online.
  • Check the email address. A legitimate business wouldn’t normally email you from Gmail, Yahoo, or Hotmail email addresses for example.
  • Delete any unsolicited emails or texts that look unofficial.
  • Have, and regularly update antivirus software on your computer.
  • Always log out of your online bank account, especially if you’ve accessed it using a public computer or Wi-Fi connection.
  • Make sure you use strong passwords that include a combination of upper and lower case letters, numbers and special characters.
  • Use different passwords for different websites.
  • Check your bank account and credit card statements regularly for any activity that you don’t recognise.
  • Check your credit report regularly for entries you don’t recognise.
  • Request a ‘no cold callers’ sign from your local council.
  • Trust your gut instinct. If you’re suspicious, play it safe.

How do I report a scam?

You can forward scam messages you receive to [email protected] for emails, or 7726 for text messages.

If you think you’ve fallen victim to a scam, report it to Action Fraud as soon as possible, and contact your bank or credit card provider if you’ve sent money to a fraudster or think your account may have been compromised.

If you’ve transferred money to a fraudster in the last 24 hours, you should also contact your local police on 101. And, remember, if you feel threatened or are in danger, call 999 immediately.

Read on to find out how to spot a delivery scam.

Disclaimer: We make every effort to ensure that content is correct at the time of publication. Please note that information published on this website does not constitute financial advice, and we aren’t responsible for the content of any external sites.

woman looking at her emails on her computer woman looking at her emails on her computer