Phone scams: how to protect yourself - as fraudsters target Britons with 'increasingly sophisticated' calls

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Two out of every five people tricked into sending money to a fraudster aren't getting it back, new figures show, and young people are increasingly being caught out

Most people probably assume falling victim to a phone scammer is the realm of the elderly. But despite being only 28, one almost reeled me in last week.

I received a call from what looked to be a genuine UK phone number, and answered it. What followed was an official-sounding automated phone message, purportedly from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). It advised that I had missed some important payment or other, and HMRC was in the process of initiating legal action.

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For most people, alarm bells would probably be going off by now, but I'm a recent migrant to the UK - unfamiliar with what HMRC actually was. To me, it sounded suspiciously like what we call the border enforcement agency in my home country, and instead of alarm bells, my stomach dropped as I panicked that I had accidentally missed some vital payment related to my visa application.

Luckily for me, after being transferred to an "operator" who barely knew what the HMRC was himself, the jig was up. But new data from UK Finance shows Britons are losing hundreds of millions of pounds each year to scammers - and two out of every five people won't get that money back.

So with phone scams becoming more and more sophisticated, what can you do to protect yourself? And what is the UK government doing to crack down on phone fraud?

How do scam callers get your number, and how can you protect yourself?

Andy Donald, a spokesman for trade association UK Finance, told NationalWorld fraudsters are able to get your phone number and personal information in a number of ways.

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"This could include from data leaks, personal information being shared on your social media accounts, or through providing details through fraudulent links or websites," he said. "This is why it’s important to always think twice before providing personal details [online]."

Scammers sometimes also use methods like 'web-scraping', where bots or computer programmes are used to automatically extract huge amounts of data from web pages, while some didn't actually have your number at all - instead using auto-diallers that call random phone numbers until they get a hit. Sometimes your phone number might even be included in data sets sold to advertisers by websites you have actually signed up for.

The UK government is cracking down on phone scams, as fraudsters use increasingly sophisticated methods to swindle people (Photos: Adobe Stock)The UK government is cracking down on phone scams, as fraudsters use increasingly sophisticated methods to swindle people (Photos: Adobe Stock)
The UK government is cracking down on phone scams, as fraudsters use increasingly sophisticated methods to swindle people (Photos: Adobe Stock) | NationalWorld/Adobe Stock

Once your number is out there and you get a call from an unknown caller, Donald said you should be extremely cautious about giving out any personal information over the phone. There were three main things to be wary of, he said.

"Any calls you receive requesting an urgent request for your personal or financial information – or asking you to make a payment or move money" were a big red flag, he said, as well as calls where "you’re pressured to act immediately to provide details".

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"The caller pressures you to rush causing a level of panic, for example the criminal might say your money is at risk and you need to act to save it, or suggest you will get a reward if you do what they ask." Donald said being asked to transfer money to another account for "safe-keeping" should also ring some alarm bells. "Remember your bank will never ask you to provide your pin number or one time passcode on the phone."

Scams have been getting "increasingly sophisticated" as people wised up to common tactics, Donald said, but there were plenty of ways to check and stay alert to fraudsters. UK Finance had recently launched a campaign called Take Five to Stop Fraud, which included three simple steps - stop, challenge, and protect.

"Take a moment to stop and think before parting with your money or information," he advised. Then challenge it: "Could it be fake? It’s okay to reject, refuse of ignore any requests. Only criminals will try to rush or panic you."

To protect yourself, he advised people to contact their bank immediately if they think they have fallen for a scam, and report it to Action Fraud.

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Who are scammers targeting, and who are the most frequent victims?

Fraudsters typically cast a wide net, hoping to snare as many unsuspecting people as possible. Unfortunately, some of the most frequent victims are often some of the UK's most vulnerable.

Age UK has specific advice on its website for protecting the elderly, with pensioners who may be less tech savvy frequent targets for fraud, while vulnerable migrants are also a common target for scammers.

However, Donald warned that now more than ever, everyone was at risk of becoming a victim. "Criminals use sophisticated methods to trick their victims into providing information or transferring money and we have seen criminals change and adapt their methods to fit specific audiences," he said.

What should you do if you think you have been scammed?

If you believe you’ve fallen for a scam, UK Finance says you should contact your bank immediately - on a number you know to be correct - such as the one listed on your statement, their website, or on the back of your debit or credit card. They may be able to stop your money from being transferred to the fraudster's account.

Then you should make a report to Action Fraud. This is the UK's national reporting centre for fraud and cybercrime, where you should report fraud if you have been scammed or defrauded in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

You can make a report to Action Fraud either on their website, or over the phone on 0300 123 2040, from Monday to Friday, 8am-8pm.

You can also text Action Fraud on 0300 123 2050 if you are deaf or hard of hearing.

While I had felt a little silly for almost being sucked in by a phone scammer, UK Finance research shows I was not alone in my age bracket. "Whilst everyone is at risk of being approached by a fraudster, our research has found that younger adults are particularly at risk to impersonation scams - where the criminal impersonates a genuine company or organisation," Donald said.

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This was often due to them being less likely to check whether contact out of the blue was genuine, he said. But even then, 'spoofing' - where callers change their telephone number or Caller ID information to appear genuine using special software - is now incredibly common.

The Metropolitan Police were last year able to shut down iSpoof, a huge online shop which sold this software, The Telegraph reports. People would pay a subscription fee to Londoner Teejai Fletcher, then use his product to steal hundreds of millions of pounds from victims across the globe. Fletcher now faces criminal charges, in what police called the biggest anti-fraud operation in UK history.

How successful are phone scams?

Data released by UK Finance this week revealed Britons lost £485 million lost to authorised push payment (APP) fraud - where a person is tricked into transferring money to a scammer - in 2022.

The figured showed that 78% of APP fraud was initiated online, while telecoms - call or text-based approaches - made up a smaller 18% of these scams.

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Around two out of every five people tricked into transferring money to a fraudster last year were not reimbursed. UK Finance found that £285.6 million was returned to victims, representing about 59% of total money lost.

Unfortunately, people do fall victim to the fake HMRC cold calls that almost caught me. One co-worker told me a former flatmate of his, also a young migrant, lost around £3000 to the exact same scam last year.

The caller had spoofed real HMRC phone numbers, and threatened him with deportation if he did not comply. They also sent realistic-looking letters and documents via Whatsapp. My co-worker told me he was only able to recover some of his money.

What is the government doing to tackle the issue?

The government unveiled a new fraud strategy earlier this month, which will involve replacing the current Action Fraud service with a new £30 million fraud reporting system - and a new National Fraud Squad - within the year.

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The new system will provide a simpler route for reporting fraud online, with reduced waiting times and an online portal to allow victims to get timely updates on the progress of their case, Ministers have said.

The strategy will see cold calls on financial products like insurance or sham cryptocurrency schemes become illegal. Working alongside Ofcom, it will also use new technology to further clamp down on number spoofing - so fraudsters cannot impersonate legitimate UK phone numbers.

Other devices or methods commonly used by scammers to reach thousands of people at once will also be banned. This will include sim farms - devices loaded with hundreds of sim cards and controlled from a computer to send thousands of scam texts at once - while the use of mass-texting services will also be reviewed, to keep them out of the hands of criminals.

Under the plans, banks will also be allowed to delay payments from being processed for longer to allow suspicious payments to be investigated.

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak admitted that even he had received scam texts - in his case, fake delivery messages - personally, but told broadcasters he had not fallen victim to them, “largely because I don’t have time now to answer my phone anymore”.