/ Money, Travel & Leisure

You don’t have to be stupid to fall for a scam

Job advertisements in newspaper

Scams like fake careers, tickets and phishing are on the rise – and we’re all potential victims. But before writing them off as something only stupid people fall for, consider that one in 20 lost money to a scam last year.

If you’ve ever fallen victim to a scam – big or small – the default reaction is a mixture of rage, shame and embarrassment.

Trust me, I know the feeling. About two years ago, I ended up losing £90 when I bought concert tickets from a fake website. Plus I never got to see the concert.

Worse than that, I’ve seen close family members and friends conned by timeshare tricksters, boiler room bluffers and career-opportunity conmen. The fact is, no matter how savvy you think you are, scammers are often smarter – after all, it’s what they do for a living – and anyone can fall prey to a well-timed and well-executed con.

Scams on the rise

Recent figures from the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) show that more than 3.5 million adults fall victim to scams every year, losing a total of £3.5 billion. And, according to charity Age UK, it’s older people who are more likely to be targeted. The research reported that those aged between 70 and 79 made up a fifth of all victims.

In addition, the Financial Services Authority (FSA) recently wrote to 49,000 people whose names appeared on a boiler room hit list. The FSA said this was the biggest single document compiled by share fraudsters to date.

With scams on the rise and scammers getting ever more devious in their methods, the OFT has launched Scams Awareness Month today to help consumers recognise and reject scams.

So what are the most common scams? Landbanking schemes fool you into buying a cheap plot of land with the promise of planning permission, which is unlikely to materialise. Money-transfer scams involve unsolicited letters or emails asking for help getting money out of a foreign country. And we’ve all seen those too-good-to-be-true ‘work from home and earn hundreds’ ads – guess what? They’re often scams too.

Scams going unreported

These may seem obvious, but they’re easy to fall for – and there are many other common scams besides these. The real problem is that many victims don’t report scams to the police because they feel embarrassed. But we can only beat them if we work together – and share information about their latest tactics as soon as we see them.

The best way to beat the fraudsters is to get the word out to others and stop them becoming victims.

If you feel you’ve been conned, contact your local police or Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040.


I have to agree – The “I am a Nigerian Businessman” were very easy to spot – But a couple of months ago I had two on the same day that were very persuasive.

I would not on principle answer any unsolicited e-mail without independent checking

But I did report one to Virgin Media – and the other to First Direct

Someone once tried to scam me on a flat. When I first moved to London I found somewhere on Gumtree that looked great – a bit too good perhaps but not so good that I was suspicious. I sent them an email and arranged a viewing. The ‘landlord’ cancelled the day before the viewing but said if I sent her the first months rent and deposit via Western Union she’d hold the flat for me.

I had never heard of this scam before, and was pretty shocked that someone would think I’d send money on a flat I’ve never seen. But I can see why people might fall for it if they’re desperate for somewhere to live, especially as it can be so hard to avoid dodgy estate agents in London. Needless to say I forwarded her email to the Met police fraud people, but I never heard back. I just hope no one actually got taken in.

“But before writing them off as something only stupid people fall for, consider that one in 20 lost money to a scam last year.”
So one in twenty of the population are stupid. What’s your point?
“And we’re all potential victims.” No we are not, just the one in twenty stupid people.

No – you are wrong – It depends entirely on the scam – They are not just e-mails or letters many are very sophisticated.from double glazing onwards .. Until you experience the sophisticated ones I do hope we don’t have to say “I told you”


Shame on you for holding such a bigoted view.

Derek says:
3 February 2011

The biggest scam is in banking!

They lure the unsuspecting saver in with offers of 2.8% on ISAs and before you know it the interest plummets to 0.5% on that particular account but look we’re offering 2.8% on another account and you have to keep chasing them. What’s that if not a scam? Any respectable bank that wanted to keep customers happy would make sure that the rate would contnue without a ‘new’ offer coming out.

You can tell by my bitterness that I’ve fallen for this one.

Organist says:
3 February 2011

I agree with Derek that the banks are the biggest scammers with these high initial interest rates, which drop to insignificant rates after a year without any further notice. The bank I use at the moment (not for long though) did just that. Then they brought out a new account with higher interest rate, but do not allow existing customers to transfer! Surely that attracts new customers but equally drives away existing customers.

It’s time something was done about this massive scam.

Oxonjohn says:
4 February 2011

I agree that there are some sneaky marketing practices used by banks, insurance companies, even supermarkets, but there’s usually some small print where they come clean. The scams referred to by Nick are those where you get nothing for your money, basically you voluntarily submit to theft.

Considering that much more than 5% of the population at large might be considered “stupid” (believe me, I’ve worked at an exams board), the Which? community excepted of course, then the statistic that 5% have been victims of scams is actually not that bad. It’s true that you don’t have to be stupid to be scammed, but even if you are it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be. A bit of common sense is enough to protect yourself, no need for intelligence. The basic defence points are:

1. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.
2. Be wary of emails out of the blue from people you don’t know, no matter how much money is involved. Nobody gives money away to strangers, not even Bill Gates.
3. If you haven’t entered a competition, you can’t have won it, duh!
4. Be wary of emails starting “Dear valued Client”
5. HMRC don’t send emails inviting people to claim a refund
6. The internet is no different from any other market place, there have been rogues and thieves for a lot longer than it has existed. Even the Romans had a helpful phrase: Caveat emptor – buyer beware!

That should do for starters, I’m sure other correspondents will add to the list.

Bob S says:
4 February 2011

But we should have progressed to caveat venditor!

kate york says:
28 February 2021

This is all true and I agree. But, typically, people fall for scams because of emotional reasons, not intellectual reasons. i.e. They are in a vulnerable place EMOTIONALLY and their mind is both on other things and clouded and they are not thinking clearly. They are desperate for something in somehow because of their emotional state and what has happened to them. And they act a bit self-destructive. Emotions are the killers that constantly drive people against their best interests. So, what we need is to learn how to prevent emotions from clouding judgement. This is why I hate emotions.

That may be so, Kate, in many cases where there is a pre-existing emotional distraction, but there is no doubt that many entirely rational, fully-adjusted and emotionally composed people can be taken advantage of without any emotional causation.

It is the art and skill of the scammer to create the conditions for an uncharacteristic emotional response [urgency pressure, false jeopardy, imminent peril, credible lies] that makes scams so despicable. I am not sure it is possible to prevent emotions from clouding judgment or to become unaffected by emotions without destroying other valuable personal attributes

One way of defeating telephone scammers is to learn to use time as a means of delaying the reflex emotional response. Bear in mind that nothing is so urgent that it cannot wait; if you had not been at home and taken the call what would have happened? For anything genuine or vital the caller would try again.

The scammer has rehearsed the call, is ready for your response, has practiced it many times. For the target, the call is a surprise – you are unprepared, you cannot see the caller, you are tricked into a reaction because you have not had time to organise your thoughts, and the concern over an unwelcome event panics you into giving the other party control over your actions or your computer.

We are also educated and conditioned to being polite, respectful and engaging; we should not abandon those virtues because there are sometimes criminals on the line. We need to count to ten – out loud if it helps – when the call occurs. The pre-recorded message will have no personal greeting, no identification reference, no pauses; it is designed to propel you into pressing ONE. Don’t go there, not even for the ‘pleasure of stringing them along’ [which many people satisfy their ego’s with] or to ‘prevent them targeting someone else’ [oh, really?]; it is just a waste of your time and can confirm that your phone line is active and answered.

For people who do have real emotional vulnerability it is essential not to be receptive to random phone calls and not to let the phone become such a dominant element in their activities. Let it ring – the call history will let you catch up if necessary. Don’t call back to unknown numbers. What you are doing is more important than what someone you don’t know and can’t see wants you to do, so cut the call off, get back to what you were doing, and don’t worry about it.

Well put John. I treat all unknown callers as a possible scammer unless they quickly prove otherwise. If I’m having a bad day, I am more likely to give them a mouthful than fall for their sweet talk.

My mum always used to press a button to return missed calls because “It might be important”.

Not only did BT charge for that little convenience, she had no idea whether the call would incur further charges as it could be a premium rate number or even to abroad. I recently had a recorded message that gave a phone number in Germany to dial if I wanted the calls to stop.

I hope I have got her to understand that if the call was important, they WILL call back.

Yes, or leave a message, or call a mobile.

We make many decisions that are emotive, some that we come to regret. But without emotion we would be a very sad race.

I think we just must accept that sometimes we will make poor decisions, some people will get the better of us and that we must put some effort into learning, whether from other people or simply from experience.

We seem to see the internet and the phone as the purveyors of fraud. No doubt they have increased it substantially but it has always been with us. I remember when I was young my Dad wanting a car port constructed at the side of the house. He responded to an advert in the local evening paper, put down a deposit and…….. never heard from them again. I think what upset him most was that he had fallen for a scam – he, like the rest of us, thought he knew better – rather than losing the money.

I suppose there is a psychological condition of ‘missed call anxiety’ – a fear of missing a call that “might be important”. The chances are that it won’t be. Modern phones that let you store names and numbers have taken the mystery out of the telephone’s ring – you can recognise the numbers that matter, and for any others you can delay your response and just say “Yes?” [no name, no number] and ask what they want. If a recording starts to play, just terminate. You can even programme distinctive ring tones for people you do need to answer.

Remember there is always a criminal purpose behind a scam call – they are not wanting to protect your internet connection or stop you getting nuisance calls. They want something you must not let them have: personal details, or access to your computer. They don’t care about you and your feelings, they don’t care if they wipe you out financially, they don’t care what happens to you next. They are psychopathically ruthless.

Unlike with a traditional thief, there will be no forensic evidence of their visit to your home, their invasion of your privacy, their theft of your money. There’s no get-away car to trace; you won’t see them or have a description, and the police will not spend any time looking for them because it is a hopeless exercise.

So with all that in mind people don’t have to feel bad about not answering the phone, or cutting the call off. Once in ten thousand calls it might be a mistake, that’s all – nothing to worry about.

Sarah says:
4 February 2011

I lost over £20K on a so-called business opportunity. Many people lost between £5K and £50K on it (I won’t say exactly what it was). The sales people were very persuasive and are being investigated by the fraud squad. Unfortunatey, we don’t stand much chance of getting our money back.

Bob S says:
4 February 2011

Is the biggest scam of all the huge sign over Tesco stores saying “Saves you money every day”?
If so, millions fall for it.

I deal with victims of these scams on a daily basis and believe me the biggest problems at the moment surround Romance scams, the problem is massive and is netting the scammers (mostly West Africans predominantly Nigerians) massive amounts of money. The average amount lost of people I deal with is around £30K some lose considerably more. The next big problem is the inheritance scam it has been around for donkeys years but still people are falling for it. I have one person who has lost £250K so far and I say so far as they still don’t appear to accept that they are a victim after months of me telling them they are. They are happy to keep sending funds to Nigeria just in case!!

Others I see are the old 419 ‘bank official whose found $28.3 million in an old account etc etc’, Clairvoyant scams, Spanish Lottery scams which is making something of a comeback, job opportunity scams, puppy dog scams, HMRC scam, and a new one on the block the DVLA scam.

Boiler room scams still pose a problem as do the land purchase scams and the list goes on.

It is easy to say that those who get caught must be stupid, but the majority of people I come into contact are far from stupid, but are vulnerable in different ways. Yes some have the onset of dementia, but many particularly in Romance scams are lonely people who desperately want companionship and lower their guard when someone strats saying all the right things they want to hear.

special k says:
13 February 2011

With the `romance` scam these `lonely people` are invariably `social loners` too! The way to avoid this particular scam is to get out more and join any type of group meeting and as many as pos. That is a start to finding someone to love you. Sorry, I`m taken!!

noel harrington says:
6 February 2011

I recently took an offer from the web.It was for Cho-Yung tea to reduce weight.The offer was for a months free spply of tea . You had to pay post and packaging by credit card of 8.99.The tea arrived as promised.The next month 3 bags of tea arrived (not ordered) 68.91 charged t the credt card. I e-mailed them -no reply.Next month 6 bags arrived at a ost of 120.00.I had to get my credit card company to cancel the standing order,which they did after 21 days.

laurernce miller says:
7 February 2011

Neighbourhood Watch schemes are useful for tipping you off about local scams that are operating in your area. We get regular and up-to-date details by email/phone of quite a variety of cons.

I have read posts on discussion boards from people who have been scammed after advertising an item for sale. A scammer then pretends to be interested in buying the item, and for whatever reason sends you a cheque for much higher than the asking price and asks you to send him back a cheque for the difference. Even though the “buyer’s” cheque has been in you bank account for four working days and shows up as a cleared balance, apparently these people can still stop the cheque up to ten days later, and the money gets taken out of your cleared bank balance! I don’t know how this can happen, but it has happened to many people. The scammer then enjoys the money you sent him for “the difference.”

People here are talking about “stupid” people falling for scams, but this is a case where you may have quite reasonably assumed that a cleared balance was a cleared balance. So it’s not stupidity, it’s lack of knowledge but it’s the banks’ fault for not warning us about this possibility.

Re the advertising scam, the cheques are usually counterfeit ones and often are good enough to initially fool bank staff when presented, it is only when it has gone through the clearing process that the fraud comes to light. Sometimes the bank pick up on it, other times it is only when the genuine account holder of the fraudulently issued cheque discovers it on their account and they complain to their Bank that the Fraud is discovered. More often than not they are cheques drawn on business accounts, I often see cheques reproduced on local authority accounts. However, if you have paid such a cheque in to your account you will almost certainly be liable and will end up the loser.

The latest scam is an Email purportedly from the DVLA wanting you to update your personal details on a link they give and if you don’t, within a few weeks you will not be legal to drive. They are just after personal details for ID fraud so beware.

Parcel scam.

Letter telling you about a failed delivery on a parcel and to call a given number to arrange redelivery.

Premium rate number.

Easy to fall for as we approach Christmas, in which some purchases are made online.

My advice us to independently verify details if you are expecting a parcel.

I nearly fell for a business scam. Had several face to face meetings with the gang, in posh hotels and they were very convincing. What stopped me from being conned was that they were demanding £700 to start up, something that I could not afford.

And I’m not stupid, either; I have an IQ approaching near-genius level. My point is that anyone can fall prey.