Offline Scams

Whilst the internet has enabled many new scams, con artists have been plying their trade since long before computers were invented.

Whether it's a door to door con artist, a phone call, or a letter through the post, there are plenty of scams out there. On this page we try to cover some of the more common ones; you could also read the great "Little Book of Big Scams" (pdf) from the UK's Met Police for more information.

Skip straight to the scam:

SPOTTING A SCAM

Despite the variety of scams to watch for, all of them are trying to exploit human nature and so have many similarities.

Learn what to look for and you can easily help protect yourself and your loved ones.


Courier fraud

Scam phone call

Many different variations of Courier Fraud exist, however ultimately they're all designed to try and persuade you into handing over a large sum of money directly to the criminals.

These scams start with a phone call, with the criminals posing as either the police or your bank, and asking for your help in either resolving an issue with your account, or with an investigation into some corrupt bank staff.

There's several variations of how this scam works:

  • The caller may ask you to withdraw cash from your local branch and pass it to a courier (hence the name of this scam) who'll visit your house so it can be used as evidence;
  • They may claim your bank cards are needed as evidence, asking for your PIN over the phone and instructing you to hand your cards to a courier (sometimes even after you've cut them up);
  • They may ask you to transfer the money to a "safe" account to test their systems;
  • Or they may ask you to purchase expensive items, such as iTunes gift cards, again handing them over to a courier.

The fraudsters suggest that money in your account could be at risk if you don't help, and promise that you'll be repaid as soon as their investigations are over.

How to avoid this scam?

If you ever get a call like this then hang up - it'll be a scam. The police and your bank will never phone to ask for your bank card, your PIN, or for you to withdraw cash out. Never give these out.

One of the tricks used to try & convince you they're genuine is to ask you to call back using the number on the back of your bank card. In reality, when you hang up, the call may not terminate so it won't matter what you dial - you'll still be talking to the same gang. To avoid this use a different phone to call with, or dial a friend or family member first to check the call has really ended.


ATM skimmers

ATM machine

Cash machine skimmers are devices that are attached over an ATM's card slot to steal your card details. They're designed to look natural & not arouse suspicion.

Often there'll also be a tiny camera to record your PIN too. The investigative journalist Brian Krebs has a number of great articles about ATM skimmers on his website, with lots of photos showing just how difficult they can be to spot.

How to avoid this scam?

Before using an ATM always do a quick visual check of the card slot to see if anything looks out of place - you could even wiggle parts of the reader if you're not sure (don't worry, you won't break any thing!).

Always cover up your PIN as you enter it, even if all looks normal.

If you ever find a suspicious device on an ATM then report it to the bank immediately - if you can't find any contact details then phone the police. Be alert as you do this since sometimes the fraudsters hang around in the vicinity after attaching a device.

I think I'm a victim; what should I do?

Some skimming devices are so good that they're almost impossible to spot. If you ever find suspicious transactions on your account then contact your bank straight away; they'll investigate & if appropriate reimburse you.


Tech support phone scam

The Technical Support Scam has been around for years, taking the form of a random phone call that claims to be from a well-known company (often Microsoft) whose monitoring systems have supposedly detected security issues with the victim's computer.

As a convincer, the caller will talk the victim through how to find these "errors" on their computer. What they're actually shown are ordinary system messages, but to anyone not familiar with the inner workings of a computer they can look like serious errors (especially as many may have red crosses or exclamation marks by them).

Normal computer errors

All computers have errors like these hidden in the operating system - they're perfectly normal - but fraudsters often use these to scare people into thinking there's something seriously wrong.

Ultimately the caller then offers to fix the issues for a fee, often with various other personal details (such as date of birth) requested in order to process the payment.

How to avoid this scam?

If you receive these calls then just hang up! Don't give them access to your computer, and don't hand over any bank or credit card details. If you already have though, or if you're helping someone else, then take a look at our dedicated page on this Microsoft support scam.


Door-to-door fraud

Door to door salesperson

Humans have been selling & haggling for as long as we've been on the planet. Whilst most traders are honest & hardworking, there are (sadly) plenty for whom morals don't seem to exist.

This includes those who go door to door selling stolen goods, others who exploit vulnerable customers to get them to buy something they don't need, and thieves who pose as tradespeople to steal money whilst in the victims house. There are countless other scams beyond these ones too.

How to protect yourself?

If someone comes to your door it can be difficult to tell who's genuine & who's trying to scam you.

  • Be vigilant: Always be suspicious & stay on your guard; never invite unexpected salespeople into your home, no matter how persuasive they are.
  • Go slow: Take your time and refuse to be pressured into any quick decisions.
  • Check ID: If someone claims to be an official, such as from your electricity company, always verify their ID before allowing them in. Phone the company up to check - don't use the phone number from their ID but go elsewhere to get this (such as online or by checking a previous statement).

If you are genuinely interested in anything being sold then take some details & call back later. If anyone tries any high pressure sales tactics though then be suspicious!

If the visitor is offering to do some work (such as on your house) then always ask to see some ID, get at least a second quote from someone else, and check any qualifications with an independent trade body first. Research the company online, and make sure any agreement is in writing - including the full cost - before proceeding with any work.

With many utility companies you can also agree in advance a password to be used by anyone they send round to your home so you can be certain of their identity.

If you have any relatives or friends who might be vulnerable then talk to them in advance. Let them know not to invite anyone into their home and to immediately call you (or another trusted person) if they ever have any salespeople visit.


Scam mail & offers

Mail on a doorstep

Despite the advent of the internet many scams are still carried out in a more traditional way using the postal service. These include investment scams, fake lottery or competition wins, and offers of goods that don't exist. Receiving formal letters can sometimes appear more authentic than any email can so always be on your guard!

We all get marketing letters, but watch for any that sound too good to be true or that involve competitions you've not entered (especially if you're required to send money first in order to claim your 'prize'). Many of these letters may be personally addressed to make them sound more exclusive, and include phrases such as "guaranteed win" or add a deadline to encourage you act quickly.

How to avoid these scams?

If you get any of these letters then bin them! If you respond to even one then you may be inundated with many more, as your details will make their way onto a victims list & be shared with other fraudsters.

If you have any elderly or vulnerable family or friends who may fall for these then talk to them about this scam to ensure they treat any unsolicited letters with suspicion.

In the UK, you can reduce the amount of marketing email you get by opting out of the open electoral roll, and registering with the Mail Preference Service. You can also ask Royal Mail not to deliver unaddressed junk mail to you by registering your details with them.

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) in the UK have a great website to help spot any investment or pension scams - check it out!


Crash for cash

Car crash for cash

Whilst the scams above cause financial and emotional harm, 'Crash for Cash' goes a step beyond by risking serious physical harm.

This is a scam that involves fraudsters deliberately causing a car crash to claim on the victim's insurance. Whilst driving in front of a car, they'll suddenly & without warning slam on their brakes, making it almost impossible for the victim to avoid running into the back of them.

This might happen on a slip road off a motorway, be just before a pedestrian crossing where there aren't actually any pedestrians, or happen at a junction where the fraudster suddenly pulls out in front of a car. As the driver who hits from behind is often deemed at fault, then the fraudsters will insist the victim claim on their insurance, often adding in a claim for injury too.

What to do in an accident if you think it's a scam?

If you are in a crash then adrenaline is pumping & it's not always easy to think straight. If you can however, then do try to remember the following:

  • Write lots of notes of what happened - if you don't have a pen & paper handy then use your phone. Include descriptions of everyone involved and exactly what was said.
  • Take contact details for everyone and look for any witnesses (but be aware these may be part of the same gang if the crash was a scam).
  • Take photographs of the scene and any damage to either car.
  • Don’t admit liability for anything, even if you initially think it is your fault or if the other driver tries to blame you.
  • Insist on calling the police if you're suspicious, but don't directly challenge the other driver with those suspicions.
  • Contact your insurer & tell them of your suspicions as soon as you can. If you're in the UK, contact the Insurance Fraud Bureau and report the accident to their Cheatline.

What else can you do to avoid this scam?

Many drivers are now installing dash cams to provide video footage in case of any accident. These can help insurers to establish true liability, and can provide evidence for the police if it is a scam. Even the presence of a camera (if the fraudster spots it) may prevent you from being chosen as a victim.

The AA have a few driving tips to help avoid these scams:

  • Look well ahead and try to anticipate possible hazards.
  • Allow plenty of space to the car in front, especially at junctions and pedestrian crossings.
  • Be wary of a vehicle in front driving erratically or slowing down for no apparent reason.
  • If you suspect that the car in front’s brake lights may not be working keep well out of their way.
  • Never assume that flashing headlights is a signal to proceed.
  • Don’t assume, when waiting at a junction, that a vehicle coming from the right & signalling left will actually turn. Wait & make sure.

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