Is this phone call a scam?

When you answer a phone call, you may be slightly wary these days, and with good reason: there are a lot of scammers out there trying to get your money or your personal information over the phone, so it pays to be sceptical. Here are 20 signs the call is probably a scam.

Report internet and phone fraud to Action Fraud

Action Fraud is the UK’s national fraud and crime reporting centre. It provides a central point of contact about fraud and financially motivated internet crime.

After reporting a scam, you’ll get a police crime reference number and the case will be referred to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau for analysis by the City of London Police.

Not every report results in an investigation, but each helps build a clearer national picture of fraud.

You can also report phishing attempts where you have not lost any money or exposed your personal details.

When to call the police

Contact the police immediately by calling 101 if:

  • the scammer is in your area
  • you've transferred money to the scammer in the last 24 hours

If you feel threatened or unsafe call 999.

Common phone scams

You've been 'selected' to receive money

The caller says you've been selected to receive a grant for something from the government, but you need to pay a processing fee. This is never true: governments never charge fees to apply for a grant, and you must apply—you will not be 'selected.' Hang up and report the scam as soon as possible.

You've won a prize!

The caller may say you've won a free vacation or some other prize, but there's a shipping or handling fee, so they need your credit card information to send it to you. By law, legitimate contests are not permitted to charge fees, so if they do, it's definitely a scam.

Buy a ticket for this foreign lottery!

If you get a call from someone selling tickets to a big-prize lottery from another country, don't be fooled: not only will you never receive the ticket you 'bought,' but while it is not actually illegal for UK citizens to play foreign lotteries, it could be impossible to collect your prize, even if you do win.

You'll get a bonus or gift if you buy

Often, a caller trying to get you to buy something over the phone will offer a bonus or free gift if you purchase what they're selling right away. But since they called you, there's no way of knowing if they're trustworthy, even if they say they work for a company you know. Just say 'no thanks' and end the call.

They say you owe money on your income tax

This scam is common across the globe. The caller aggressively claims you owe money on your income tax, and demands you pay immediately or face prosecution or other consequences. But even if you do owe some income tax, the government will never call you to demand that you pay—they'll send a letter to inform you of your balance.

The phone rings once and then hangs up

Many of us have call display now, but if you miss a call from an unfamiliar number and it only rang once, don't call back out of curiosity. It could be a common scam that redirects you to a pay-per-minute number that plays a fake recorded message and keeps transferring you to keep you on the line and rack up charges.

They say you've been a victim of fraud

Some scammers will say that your credit card or bank is being investigated for fraud, and you need to wire your money somewhere else for safekeeping. When you hang up and call 911 or your bank, the scammer stays on the line and redirects your call to a fake number. This only works on landlines, but it's always a scam.

They offer to fix your computer

The caller says they're from Microsoft or another software company and that your computer's been infected with a dangerous virus or malware, or it's not running properly, but they can fix it for you if you share your screen with them. This is never legitimate: no software company makes unsolicited calls to computer owners. Just hang up on them.

They're selling an extended warranty on your car

A caller may tell you that the warranty on your car is about to expire, but they can sell you an extended warranty. They may demand a down payment immediately, use high-pressure sales tactics, or ask for personal information. Don't be fooled: these companies are rarely legitimate. If you're concerned about your warranty, call the manufacturer or your car dealership.

They won't answer your questions

No matter what the caller says, if they deflect or refuse to answer your questions, it's probably a scam call. Legitimate businesses and governments will answer any questions you have or direct you to a website where the information is available. Scammers will simply try to coerce or convince you to do what they're asking.

They're collecting for a charity you've never heard of

Charities do call to solicit donations, but they'll never insist on taking payment information over the phone. Rather, you can ask them to send you a letter or email or direct you to their secure website. Fake charities will insist on your credit card number. If you want to donate but have concerns, hang up and call the organization's listed phone number.

They threaten to have you arrested

It can be shocking when someone calls and says you'll be arrested or charged if you don't pay what they demand. Scammers count on fear and stress doing their work for them. But real organizations and governments simply don't use these intimidation tactics (and collection agencies aren't allowed to). End the call and always report these threats to the police.

They want your personal information

Real national insurance numbers can be just as valuable as cash to scammers because they enable identity theft. That's why you should never give them out over the phone, no matter who says they're asking or if they just want you to 'confirm' your number or other personal information, like your address, phone number, or birthdate.

They're collecting a debt you don't remember incurring

Phone scammers sometimes pose as debt collectors to intimidate you into paying, and often falsely use the names of actual businesses. You have the right to receive a notice by post that confirms the amount and type of debt owing, so ask. If they refuse, they're fake. Also, real debt collectors may not threaten anyone with jail time or physical harm.

They claim to have kidnapped someone you know

Some scammers now use social media to find the names and whereabouts of your friends and family members, and use that information to impersonate kidnappers and demand ransom money. It may sound terrifying, but it's most often fake. Definitely don't pay them anything. Instead, contact your friend or relative immediately, and report the scam.

They claim to someone you know need help with medical bills

Again using social media to find the names and whereabouts of your friends and family members, and use that information worry you into thinking that your friend has had an accident abroad and needs help with medical and transit fees. Contact your friend or relative immediately, and report the scam.

They want you to invest in something

Just like buying something over the phone, it's never advisable to invest in anything an unknown caller is promoting. They might tell you it's low-risk, and the returns are much higher than other investments, so that's why it's only available to you and others who answer the call. This sort of statement is a huge red flag for fraud.

They want your credit or debit card number

Never give out credit or chequing account information to a caller you don't know—even if they say they just want to 'confirm' the information is correct. This is the fastest way to be defrauded of your money and possibly your identity. Neither banks nor the government will ever ask you for this information on an unsolicited phone call.

They want you to make an immediate decision

No matter what the caller is asking you to do, purchase, or provide, one of the red flags of a scam is pressure to make a decision right away. Even if it's something you want to do, like donate to a charity or buy something, hang up and do your own research to make sure the situation is real.

The call looks like it's from your own phone number

Technology now exists to let scammers make it look like a call is coming from your own number. The caller counts on your being confused and picking up, then says they are from the phone company, your phone's been hacked, and they need you to verify your phone account number and security details, which of course you should never do.

They're too friendly

Scam artists will often act in an overly friendly manner to try to break down your defences and lull you into trusting them. They might take a personal interest in your life or try to have a pleasant conversation—until they get what they want, whether it's money or information. Be wary of unknown callers who seem really, really friendly.

Be safe and stay vigilant