Online scams: how to stay safe

Online scams: how to stay safe

Don't fall for these dodgy online traps.

John Fitzsimons

Rights, Scams and Politics

John Fitzsimons
Updated on 1 July 2016

July is Scams Awareness Month, a campaign from Citizens Advice and Action Fraud aimed at improving our ability to spot and avoid scams.

This week the spotlight is on online scams. They come in many, many different forms.

Phishing scams

All of us receive emails every day which claim to be from our bank, our favourite supermarket, the taxman or some other trusted institution. The emails will always contain a link – click on it and you’ll be invited to fill in your login or personal details.

This is of course a scam. The crooks want your details so that they can steal your identity or get control of your bank account.

No bank will ever ask you for your personal details by email – nor will the taxman. Always be suspicious of any links in these emails too. If in doubt, call the firm to check whether the email is legitimate.

Malware and ransomware

These scams works along similar lines. The scammers send out emails, claiming to be from a reputable source.

The email will come with some form of attachment which you are invited to download.

If it is a malware scam, then you end up with some nasty virus on your computer that tracks your details when you log onto your online banking or other account online.

Ransomware is perhaps even more nasty – you download a file which encrypts all the files on your machine and any server it is attached to. You’ll then be hit with a ransom demand to unlock the files, normally demanded in online currency Bitcoin according to fraud reporting body Action Fraud. Recent ransomware emails have been reported as claiming to be from British Gas, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice.

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Dating scams

You believe you’ve met your perfect partner online. They may be overseas, or at least live a long distance from you. Over time you build a relationship through emails, texting, perhaps phone calls too.

[SPOTLIGHT]Suddenly they will drop the bombshell that they desperately need money, and soon. Perhaps it’s to cover their travel costs to come see you. Or perhaps a family member that they care for is ill and they need to pay for medical treatment.

If you send them money, they will then keep coming back with reasons they need more cash. If you have sent them intimate pictures, they may blackmail you, threatening to send them on to your family or work colleagues if you don’t pay up.

Protecting yourself here means protecting your privacy, never sending money or giving your account details to someone you don’t really know or trust and being on your guard about anyone you meet online.

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Auction frauds

Millions of us use sites like eBay to buy or sell items. Unfortunately they are ripe for fraudsters. Frauds can range from buyers not receiving goods that they have paid for, sellers not receiving payment for items they have sold and goods being significantly different from the original description.

Always check the item’s description very carefully before bidding. And if the deal appears too good to be true, or the seller has little or no history on the site, be extra careful.

If you’re a seller, be careful about accepting payment by cheque. There is also a common scam where you are sent a cheque for a higher amount, and asked to refund the difference. According to Action Fraud, this scam only comes to light when the buyers’ cheque turns out to be stolen or forged.

Money mule scams

People are being fooled into making their bank accounts available for crooks to transfer illicit money through, before it is laundered or sent abroad. They then get a cut of the money that goes through their account.

Earlier this year the Financial Fraud Bureau warned that increasing numbers of people are being duped into becoming money mules, lured in by the promise of making some easy money.

Lottery win scams

Scammers frequently send out emails claiming you've won a prize in a lottery, often on the other side of the world. The simple truth is if you haven't played a lottery in America, then you won't have won a prize. This is an old scam but unfortunately people see pound signs and still get caught out.

If it sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is.

West African or 419 fraud

This is also an old scam, but people still fall for it. You’ll receive an email, often from someone claiming to be in a position of influence in Africa, asking for your help in transferring a huge sum of money out of the country. In return you’ll get a percentage of that cash.

You’ll be told that you need to keep this quiet, but also act quickly.

Of course, there is no money. But if you reply to the emails, you’ll be told that you need to pay all sorts of fees in order to release the cash. 

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