Phone scams and how to avoid them

Chris Torney / 27 December 2017 ( 04 March 2020 )

Phone scams make up a huge chunk of UK financial fraud. Find out more about the current phone scams and read our comprehensive tips showing you how you can avoid them.



How do these phone scams work?

The most common type of phone scam involves a caller pretending to be from your bank with some important news, and asking you to confirm some security details at the start of the conversation.

Their aim is to get hold of online banking passwords and PIN numbers, as well as account details and personal information such as your address and surname.

Other cons can be more sophisticated: in some cases, conmen encourage victims to hang up and dial their bank direct. But by staying on the line, they can intercept the follow-up call and pretend to be bank staff.

They ask for the victims’ permission to take over the computers remotely to fix non-existent faults and secretly install viruses. The criminals then demand cash to remove them.

The fake tax demand scam

One of the most pernicious cons involves criminals calling people to say that they are getting in touch on behalf of HM Revenue & Customs. The fraudsters claim you owe HMRC thousands of pounds in taxes and ask for your bank details.

One 85-year-old woman was threatened with arrest if this supposed debt was not settled. The call was made even more frightening – and convincing – by the fact that the conman knew the victim’s address.

Luckily, the woman in question decided to contact her accountant rather than handing over any information.

On other occasions, fraudsters may claim that you’ve been sent a number of reminder letters, which you have, apparently, ignored.

Protect yourself from the fake tax demand scam

HMRC says it will never contact taxpayers by phone to obtain unpaid taxes. If someone contacts you claiming to be from an official body (or a bank), tell them you will call them back – but use the number on its website or on official correspondence, such as a tax reminder.

Make a note of the call details and number if possible, and report any suspicious activity to the police’s Action Fraud service on 0300 123 2040.

The missed-call scam

Fraudsters call your mobile, but hang up as soon as it starts ringing. This then shows up on the phone as a missed call. Many people will ring back, in case it’s urgent.

In fact, the number used by the criminals incurs premium-rate charges that can be sky high, according to the police. These payments can be applied just for connecting the call, regardless of how long you stay on the line. But, in some cases, you will also hear a long recorded message to keep you on the phone for as long as possible so that the charges mount up.

The too-good-to-be-true investment opportunity scam

Criminals cold-call people whom they believe have large sums of money to invest – typically those approaching retirement or current pensioners. They’re taking advantage of new Government rules that allow easier access to pension savings to persuade you to invest in assets – for example, foreign property or fine wine – which they promise will increase dramatically in value.

These assets either don’t exist or are hugely overpriced – and you lose some or all of your cash.

Protect yourself from the investment opportunity scam

Even if cold calling in this way was banned, some criminals would no doubt continue targeting people. So you should never agree to any sort of financial deal with a cold caller. As soon as you realise that someone is trying to persuade you to make an investment, just hang up. No genuine financial firm would market their services in this way.

The stolen card scam

You get a call from someone claiming to be a police officer. They say they have found a stolen bank card that appears to be yours, and ask you to confirm your account details.

You are then told to call another number, supposedly your bank’s anti-fraud team, in order to prevent any losses. You’re asked for more information on this second call so that eventually the fraudsters have all the details they need to raid your account.

Alternatively, the fake anti-fraud team will tell you that you should move your cash to a ‘safe’ account – which is actually controlled by the criminals.

Protect yourself from the stolen card scam

The police would never call suspected crime victims to ask them to confirm their bank details. If your bank card has genuinely been stolen, contact your bank on an official number – one you obtain from its website or a recent bank statement, for example.

The post-accident text message scam

British police have uncovered a scam in which individuals receive a text message on their mobile phone – it comes from an unknown number, but appears to have been written by a close relative, typically a son or daughter.

The message says that the sender has been involved in an accident and is now in hospital, but has had to borrow a mobile phone to let you know.

You’re asked to respond to the message urgently, then you’re asked if you can pay for credit for the sender’s mobile phone so that the ‘accident victim’ can make a voice call. However, the entire thing is of course a hoax and the criminal gets a free mobile top-up.

Protect yourself from the accident text message scam

According to Action Fraud, anyone who had really been involved in an accident would never be forced to pay for mobile-phone credit simply in order to speak to a close relative.

In fact, any text message you receive from an unknown number that claims to be from someone you know should ring alarm bells. Call your relative’s actual phone number to check that their mobile genuinely is out of action.

The bank-transfer scam and how it works

Victims receive a mobile phone text message that purports to be from their bank. The message warns that some sort of fraudulent activity has been detected on their account and asks the recipient to transfer all of their money to a ‘safe’ account while the matter is being investigated.

The text message provides an account number and sort code for the transfer, and adds that the customer will be contacted once the matter has been resolved.

Needless to say, the message is bogus and the safe account belongs to the criminals who sent the text – who now can vanish with the contents of their victim’s current account.

Protect yourself from the bank-transfer scam

It’s important to understand that a bank would never ask its customers to move their money to a different account for security reasons. If fraud genuinely is suspected, it is well within any bank’s powers to suspend activity on an account until such issues are dealt with.

It’s possible of course that you may receive a genuine text message related to fraud. But the safest course of action is to call your bank on a publicly available number to find out if there really is a problem.

How to filter calls on your landline

BT customers can sign up – free – for Call Protect. It automatically diverts calls from numbers on BT’s blacklist of nuisance callers, allows you to create your own blacklist, and to choose certain calls to send straight to junk voicemail, such as international numbers, withheld and unrecognised numbers. For more info, visit bt.com and search for Call Protect.

Older people at a risk of falling victim to “vishing”

Criminals will use often use persuasive or aggressive tactics over the phone to trick consumers into believing there are protecting their money when it is actually being stolen.

Older individuals – and those living alone, or with dementia or cognitive decline – can be particularly vulnerable.

What exactly is “vishing”?

Vishing – or “voice phishing” – is where crooks fool consumers into thinking they are talking to their bank, or the police.

Callers will, for example, often claim to be from the bank’s fraud department, and tell people they need to move their money urgently, using an online transfer, to keep it safe.

In some cases, victims then transfer money into bogus accounts set up by fraudsters - or give them access to their financial information.

Read our guide to dealing with nuisance phone calls

The sad fact is, if you do fall victim to vishing, there may be little you can do to get your money back, as banks are often reluctant to refund customers who are caught out.

Worse still, on top of the financial loss, phone scams can also cause huge mental anguish.

With this in mind, it is important to familiarise yourself with the risks.

Find out how to stop spam text messages

Tips to help you avoid falling victim to phone scammers

* If you’re contacted out of the blue, be suspicious. Never respond to unsolicited calls, texts, WhatsApp messages, emails or social media messages such as Facebook Messenger.

* Don’t give out passwords or PIN numbers over the phone. Your bank would never ask for them. They will also never ask you to key your PIN into the phone keypad.

* Be mindful too that banks will never ask you to send any personal information via text or email. They will also never provide banking services through any mobile apps other than the bank’s official apps.

* Your bank would also never ask you to hand over your card to a courier. This is another common scam, so don’t fall for it.

* If you think your bank genuinely wants to speak to you, call it directly using a publicly available number – either one given on your statements or one on the bank’s website.

* Bear in mind that if you hang up your home phone, but the person you were talking to does not, they can stay on the line and intercept your next outgoing call.

To check this isn’t happening, phone a friend or relative before calling the bank. Alternatively, use a different phone – a mobile, for example.

* If you receive a call on your smartphone from either a withheld number, or from a number you don’t recognise (often with a random town or city location on your phone display while it rings), just ignore the call.

Genuine callers wouldn’t get in touch with you this way, and it’s highly likely to be a scam. Don’t answer it at all, and let it ring until it stops, as annoying as that may be at the time. After the call ends, go to your smartphone received calls button, block the caller and then delete the number.

And as a rule of thumb, never call a number back just because it called you. If a phone call is genuinely important, the caller should leave you a voicemail message.

* If you receive an unexpected call from a computer support worker, ask if there is a fee for their services: if the answer is yes, hang up. Or preferably just hang up straightaway, before any conversation begins at all.

* Don’t assume a caller is genuine because they have information about you, such as your account details.

* Never give out personal or banking information when answering an incoming call, and don’t always rely on the 'caller ID' for identification.

* If you’re not convinced that a caller claiming to be from your bank or the police is genuine, hang up. If you’re still uncertain, call back using the phone number printed on your account statements or debit or credit card – or on the company website.

Ideally, use a different phone, or wait for at least five minutes before making the call to ensure you’re not speaking to the same conman.

* Always check who you are dealing with before handing over any cash.

* Don’t listen to anyone who tells you to transfer money from your account for fraud reasons. Neither the police nor your bank will ever ask you to do this.

* Don’t trust anyone who claims to have been sent to your home to collect cash, your PIN, payment card or chequebook. Banks will never do this.

Read our guide to avoiding cash machine scams


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.