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Signs an email may be a scam

Holly Thomas / 17 September 2015 ( 27 February 2020 )

The internet has brought many positives to our lives, offering information, goods, services and interaction with friends and family. But it also offers another way for fraudsters to approach victims. Read our tips to help you spot, stop and avoid email scams:

Fishing hook dragging a credit card across a computer keyboard to represent cyber crime
Many people get caught out by scam emails which seek to extract personal information from us in order to get at our money

Many people get caught out by scam emails which generally seek to extract personal information from us in order to get at our money. The more direct approach seeks cold hard cash.

The most common type of email scam is 'phishing'. This is an email from a fraudster masquerading as an organisation such as your bank. They'll ask you to log on, confirm account details and passwords and then use these to plunder your account.

At first glance, these phoney requests can look plausible. But they’re not. Be on your guard because if you lose money, it’s not guaranteed you’ll get it back.

According to the Financial Ombudsman Service there is no legal obligation for banks to return money lost through email scams.

Here are some warning signs that an email may be a fake:

Is it unsolicited or unexpected?

Being contacted out of the blue should ring alarm bells.

Banks, building societies and official institutions such as HM Revenue & Customs say they will never ask for bank details or passwords.

Are you being hurried into making a decision or an action?

A time limit on an offer or request for details should also raise alarm bells.

Conmen will often try to hurry your decision making, so make sure you take your time to consider if it’s a genuine email.

Read about more scams that try to trick you into giving out your personal information

Is it too good to be true?

Something that sounds too good to be true is most likely to be a scam.

For example, ignore any email claiming you've won a guaranteed prize. You'll have to pay a fee to claim your so-called winnings and may have to call a premium rate number and provide financial information. In a nutshell: don’t.

You may also find offers to work from home in your inbox. If they promise lots of money for little work, these too are likely to be from companies looking for you to make an investment first – and then disappear into thin air.

Is it designed to worry you?

Some emails will look like they come from a trusted online shopping site, thanking you for your purchase - a purchase you didn't make, of course. In your panic to see what's been bought on your account, you click the link in the email, immediately compromising your online security.

If you receive an email thanking you for a purchase you didn't make, close the email, open a new tab and type the site address into the browser directly. Then log into your account safely to see if any purchases have been made. Odds are, they won't have been.

Does the email look professional?

Look out for spelling and grammar mistakes, as well as those who address you as 'Dear Client' or 'valued customer'.

Don’t be fooled by slick-looking emails. Always think of the context in which they’ve been sent and stay on your guard. If in any doubt at all: delete.

Fraudsters can be clever and use dates, such as tax return deadlines, to mock up emails from HM Revenue & Customs, or the beginning of an academic year to target university students with fake messages purporting to be from a student loans company.

Read five things that your bank will never ask you to do... but a scammer might

Example of a scam email

An example of a scam email

Top tips for avoiding email scams

1. Install quality anti-virus software on your computer and keep it up to date.

2. If you’re not sure whether the email is genuine, or comes from a company you do not recognise, do not reply or click on any link as this will indicate to the sender that your email is live and make you a target for more emails.

3. If a spam email is from a legitimate UK-based company, use the ‘unsubscribe’ link.

Worried you've been targeted by a scammer? Read our guide to what to do if you become a victim of identity theft.

Use Experian to check your credit report for unusual activity and any unauthorised credit that has been taken out in your name.


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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.