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Thursday 2nd December 2021

How to protect yourself online and send the scammers packing

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

My sister-in-law was scammed recently. After a decorator completed some work in their house, she received an email with the invoice, paid it promptly, and thought nothing of it until a few weeks later, when the decorator called her chasing for payment.

It took a while to get to the bottom of what happened. A scammer hacked the email account of the decorator, looked for correspondence with customers, and forged invoices containing his bank details.

As she recounted the story, I guessed the ending pretty quickly. It’s a pretty common scam and one of several reasons why I don’t trust anyone when it comes to money matters.

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If you start from the assumption that you’re being scammed – and work hard to prove otherwise – you stand less chance of becoming a victim.

Of course, her bank refused to refund the payment. After all, she had authorised the bank transfer to what she genuinely believed to be the tradesperson.

On top of that, the decorator continued to chase for his payment, arguing that he was not at fault and was still owed his payment, which I found shocking. Anyone still relying on a webmail system like Yahoo or Gmail to do business in 2020 is asking to be hacked and exposes their customers to a risk of fraud.

In light of the ongoing coronavirus crisis, we’re seeing a surge in scams. Here’s the thing: scammers love a good crisis.

They know their potential victims make irrational decisions when otherwise stressed. COVID-19 is manna from heaven for these nasty fraudsters, serving as cover for their devious schemes.

My email inbox is a great example of some of the scams doing the rounds right now. There’s the email claiming to be from TESC0 (note the typo, big red flag) saying they are giving away free shopping vouchers. Just click the link and give them your details to claim.

Scams like this use some common techniques to hook us in, one of them by offering the deal of a lifetime.

We all love the idea of a good deal or getting something for nothing. FREE is an attractive proposition. It’s also an indication of a likely scam. If something is too good to be true, it usually is.

Martin’s top tips to staying safe online

Assume every email is a scam unitl proven otherwise

Check for typos or emails addressed ‘Dear Customer’ – they are tell tale signs of a scam email

The same applies for the email address. Look closely for typos and check if the email address matching up to the info on the company’s website

Always double check payment details but calling the company directly. Don’t just assume the payment details in the email are correct

NEVER click a link to a seemingly amazing offer or to “unlock your account” – the chances are these are scams

Never share personal details online

The scammers also like to piggyback on the credibility of others. It’s why we often see fake websites set up to imitate established insurance companies or fund providers. 

Going back to my email inbox, several scam emails feature the likes of Bear Grylls, Martin Lewis and Bill Gates, claiming their endorsements. It’s safe to say that Bear never appeared on daytime television backing a cryptocurrency trading scheme.

In fact, that’s another red flag. Anything that involves Bitcoin or another cryptocurrency, or day trading of any variety, will lead you straight to a huge loss of your wealth. Only fools trade crypto. 

Scammers are becoming so sophisticated that they are using the ‘deep fake’ technology adopted by the porn industry (where all the best tech goes to blossom) and creating videos that appear to be famous people talking up their schemes.

I’ve saved one client from losing hundreds of thousands of pounds to a clean energy scheme fronted by Bill Gates. “But look, here’s a video of him saying how he’s invested and it’s guaranteed to make money!”

The trouble is, we’re (collectively) not very good at spotting these scams. The number of my friends I see sharing scam posts on Facebook continues to disappoint me. No, that local car dealer is not giving away a brand-new Range Rover because they ordered too much stock. Take a second and weigh up what you’re reading.

Another one doing the rounds on Facebook right now is a copy and paste game, asking to share a variety of personal facts, all of which form the basis of social engineering designed to guess your passwords. Don’t share your childhood nicknames, pet names and school details on social media. It will come back to bite you. 

Have you heard the one about the crooks leaving USB sticks on the floor next to cars? A scarily high percentage of people take the sticks home, plug them into their computers to take a look, and give the scammers access to their personal data as a result. 

Or the one with the fake emails claiming to be from the school headmaster linking to a video of little Timmy doing something naughty? Click, and you’ve given the scammers access to your online banking. Curiosity killed the cat – and your bank account.

We fall for these scams because fraudsters no longer just scattergun emails randomly. Instead, they take time to piece together enough information about you and your life to make their messaging credible. 

And no matter how ‘scam proof’ you think you are, the truth is everyone needs to tread carefully online.

If it’s too good to be true, it usually is. If something is even slightly off about it, walk away. If you’re feeling stressed, tired or anxious, slow down before making a decision.

And finally, seek a professional second opinion before signing up for that Bitcoin scam with Bear Grylls (which is nothing to do with Bear Grylls).

Stay safe out there.

Martin Bamford

Mouthy Blogger

Martin Bamford is a Chartered Financial Planner and Director of Client Education at Informed Choice (www.icfp.co.uk). He's editor of money blog Finvincible (www.finvincible.co.uk) and host of the Informed Choice Radio personal finance podcast (www.icradio.co.uk).

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