Conned by phone fraud?

This guidance is for England, Scotland & Wales

Each year many people fall victim to criminals - sometimes operating from overseas - intent on stealing their personal and financial information. If you receive an unsolicited or unexpected telephone call be on your guard as it may be a scam. Scams take many different forms but a common route used by criminals to contact victims is the cold telephone call. The criminals sound convincing, professional and may claim to represent a business you know, such as your bank or an official organisation. They may pressure you to act quickly, either because they want to trick you into believing you will miss a golden opportunity to make money or that you will suffer some sort of loss.

Never give personal or financial information out to anyone who cold calls you on the telephone. Be cautious and if in doubt, hang up.

In all cases, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. It's important to remember that all scams are fraud and therefore a crime.

Scams take many different forms and some of them are listed below.

Computer virus scam

You may be targeted and telephoned by cold callers pretending to represent a well-known software company telephoning to fix a fake computer problem. The criminals' aim is to trick you into believing that your computer has a serious virus problem and that you need to act immediately or it will become unusable. You will be shown so-called 'errors' on your computer in the hope that you will be frightened into allowing the criminal to remotely access your computer to fix the problem.

At this point, the criminal takes control of your computer and then requests payment of a fee to carry out repairs. There is no genuine fault so you end up paying for an unnecessary repair or bogus software. You may have left yourself exposed to identity theft as your computer could have been deliberately infected with malicious software such as viruses and spyware. This could mean that the criminal can access your personal details (your passwords and bank account information for example). This can also lead to identify fraud and loans or other debts being taken out in your name.

Telecoms scam

Criminals may contact you by telephone, claiming to represent your telecoms provider. You may be told your account is in arrears and that you have to make an immediate payment to prevent your phone line from being disconnected. The criminals may even offer to demonstrate that they have the ability to disconnect your phone line using a 'disconnection' scam. This simple trick involves the criminal pressing the mute button. There is no dial tone and you cannot dial out because the phone line is still actually connected, although it appears that the line is dead. The criminal rings you back in the hope he has now proved he is a genuine telecoms representative, when of course he is not. The criminal will then require you to make a payment.

This 'disconnection' telephone scam is used by criminals claiming to represent other organisations - for example, your bank or utility provider - as a way of persuading you to give bank details, pin numbers and sometimes getting you to physically hand over cash and payment cards. If you decide to check whether or not the call is genuine, ring your bank, telecoms or utilties provider using the contact number shown on a statement of account or official document they have previously sent you. It is always wise to use a different phone to the one that you received the call on in case a disconnection scam is in operation.

Loan scam

The criminals may telephone you and invite you to apply for a 'guaranteed' loan with no credit history checks. You will be asked to provide your personal details, including your bank details and then asked to pay an upfront fee so that the application can be processed. However, the promised loan does not materialise - the criminal had no intention of providing it - and the fee you have paid may be lost.

See Avoid scams and unauthorised firms on the Financial Conduct Authority's website for more information.

Nuisance call blocker scams

The criminals may phone you and offer you a service to block all scam and nuisance calls. You will be asked to pay a fee for this service. You may then never receive the service or you could end up receiving a useless piece of equipment. The criminals could also gather personal information from you when asking for payment and setting up an account.

Vehicle matching scam

You may decide to advertise your motor vehicle online for sale privately. The criminals may ring or email you and claim that they have a buyer ready and willing to buy your motor vehicle. You will be asked for an upfront fee, usually around £99, before you can be 'matched' to the buyer. After payment you will discover that there is no buyer waiting or the so-called buyer has dropped out and the fee you have paid may be lost.

Council tax scam

You may receive an unsolicited telephone call claiming that you can benefit from thousands of pounds in council tax refunds. You will be asked to provide personal information, including your bank or credit / debit card details. The scam uses the lure of a promised refund to catch you off-guard and obtain your personal information with a view to stealing your identity and your money.

Private pension scam

You may receive an unsolicited telephone call asking you whether you are paying into a private pension. The criminals will say that if you are, you may be able to release a lump sum payment from your pension before you retire, transfer your pension to an overseas scheme to avoid UK tax or transfer your pension to another organisation, which will invest the money for you tax free. The criminals dupe you into paying a large set-up fee and/or transferring your pension. However, you may never hear from them again or worse still, you could put your entire pension in jeopardy as well as incurring substantial tax charges and penalties.

See Protect yourself against pension scams on the Pensions Regulator's website for more information.

This sort of fraud is on the rise and more people are being targeted by these criminals.

Premium rate phone scam

You may answer your telephone to discover that the caller is a recorded voice informing you that you are a 'winner'. You will be asked to ring a premium rate number to claim your prize. The prize, however, does not exist or is of little or no value. The criminals make their money from the costly premium rate call you have made, which can often last several minutes.

Bogus energy saving device scam

You may receive a telephone call from someone claiming they can sell you one or more plug-in energy saving devices that will dramatically reduce your electricity usage. The claims are inevitably false and all criminals want is the upfront payment.

How to avoid becoming a victim of a telephone scam
  • did the call come out of the blue?
  • stop, think and be sceptical. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is
  • do not give personal or financial information or pin numbers to anyone, however plausible they might sound. This applies even if they claim to represent a business or organisation you have heard of or where an approach is personalised
  • genuine businesses or organisations will never telephone you and ask you for personal or financial information
  • think about how much money you could lose responding to a potential scam; it's a risk not worth taking
  • if you receive a call that you suspect is bogus, speak to family or friends or seek advice from the Citizens Advice consumer service. To report a fraud call Action Fraud
  • ask your telecoms provider to set up call screening on your telephone so that you know who is calling your number before you decide to answer it. If the number is withheld it will be displayed as 'number withheld'
  • you can arrange with your telecoms provider to reject anonymous calls to your telephone or look to buy a call blocker
  • register with the Telephone Preference Service. This is a free service where you can register your preference not to receive unsolicited sales and marketing calls, although it may not stop overseas calls. You can register on 0345 070 0707 or online
  • be cautious and if in doubt, hang up
I gave out my credit / debit card details - can I get my money back?

If you gave your bank, building society, credit card or debit card details, or your pin number to a criminal, contact your bank, building society or finance provider immediately and seek their advice. If you have been the victim of a fraud they may be able to help.

If you paid for what turned out to be bogus goods or services by credit card and if the cost was more than £100 and less than £30,000, you are protected by the Consumer Credit Act 1974. Section 75 of the Act makes the card provider as responsible as the trader for a breach of contract or a misrepresentation. You are entitled to take action against the trader, the card provider or both. This does not apply to charge cards or debit cards. In the case of fraud you may have great difficulty recovering your money from the criminals but you may be able to recover it from the finance provider. If you are dissatisfied with the credit card provider's response then complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service.

If you used a debit card to buy what turned out to be bogus goods or services or if you used a credit card and the price of the goods or services was less that £100 (your rights under the Consumer Credit Act 1974 would not apply), you may be able to take advantage of the chargeback scheme. Chargeback is the term used by card providers for reclaiming a card payment from the trader's bank. If you can provide evidence of a breach of contract - goods are not delivered or the service was not carried out, for example - you can ask your card provider to attempt to recover the payment. Check with your card provider as to how the scheme rules apply to your card, whether internet transactions are covered and what the time limit is for making a claim.

If you use a debit card or a credit card to service an online payment system to buy goods or services, it is unlikely that you will be able to use either the Consumer Credit Act 1974 or the chargeback scheme to claim from your card provider in the event of a dispute. However, the online payment system may have its own dispute resolution process, which may assist you in getting your problem resolved.

If you have been tricked into agreeing to a continuous payment authority - where regular payments are taken from your credit or debit card - you have rights under the Payment Services Regulations 2009. Even if you have not asked the criminals for the payment to be cancelled, they refuse to do so or you cannot contact them, your bank or card provider must cancel the payment authority. If your bank or card provider does not act on your instruction to cancel, you are entitled to have any subsequent payments reimbursed, but you must report it as soon as possible or in any event within 13 months of the date the unauthorised payment was made.

I've been the victim of a scam - what can I do?

If you receive a scam telephone call, you can report it to Action Fraud. You can also report it to the Citizens Advice consumer service for referral to trading standards.

If you are conned into phoning a premium rate number, you can report it to the Phone-paid Services Authority (PSA), which regulates premium rate services in the UK.

If you enter a contract because a trader misled you or because a trader used an aggressive commercial practice, the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 give you rights to redress: the right to unwind the contract, the right to a discount and the right to damages. The 'Misleading & aggressive practices - your right to redress' guide gives more information. You can report complaints about unfair trading practices to the Citizens Advice consumer service for referral to trading standards. However, it may be difficult to take legal action against a criminal.

If you think your details have been shared unlawfully you should report it to the Information Commissioner's Office for further investigation.

If you have been the victim of a fraud you can report it to the police via Action Fraud.

If you think your identity has been stolen please follow the guidance given on the Action Fraud website.

How do I prevent someone I know from being scammed?

There are signs that will alert you to the possibility that the person may be a victim of a scam:

  • do they receive unexplained and frequent telephone calls?
  • are they secretive about the nature of the telephone calls or any paperwork they have?
  • do they sometimes refer to these callers as their friends?

Often people refuse to accept that they are the victims of a scam. Try to reassure the person that criminals are clever and scams are commonplace but that there are simple steps they can take to protect themselves. Share with them and discuss the advice in the 'How to avoid becoming a victim of a telephone scam' section above.

If you are having difficulty getting the person to understand and appreciate that they are the victim of a scam, seek help from the organisations listed in the 'I've been the victim of fraud - what can I do?' section above.

Other types of scam

See the guides 'Conned by dating, health, psychic or work scams?' and 'Conned by competitions?' for further information.

Key legislation

Last reviewed / updated: August 2017

Please note

This information is intended for guidance; only the courts can give an authoritative interpretation of the law.

The guide's 'Key legislation' links may only show the original version of the legislation, although some amending legislation is linked to separately where it is directly related to the content of a guide. Information on amendments to UK legislation can be found on each link's 'More Resources' tab; amendments to EU legislation are usually incorporated into the text.

For further information please contact the Citizens Advice consumer service, which provides free, confidential and impartial advice on consumer issues. Visit the Citizens Advice website or call the Citizens Advice consumer helpline on 03454 040506.

©2017 itsa Ltd on behalf of the Trading Standards Institute.