Phone scams are a common way for criminals to con people out of money using various tricks to get your personal or financial information. Be aware of some of the most common phone scams and find out what you can do to stay safe.
What is a cold call?
Cold calls are phone calls from companies trying to sell you something, even though they have had no business with you previously. Cold calls aren’t usually illegal and don’t necessarily count as a scam although they can be annoying, frustrating and even frightening.
Even though it won't necessarily block scammers, you can register for free with the Telephone Preference Service (TPS) to reduce the number of cold calls you receive.
What are some common types of phone scams?
It can be hard to tell the difference between a scam and cold calling. However, it's good to know some of the typical tricks that scammers use so you can be prepared.
Someone may call claiming to be from your bank telling you there’s a problem with your card or account. The caller will often sound professional and try to convince you that your card has been cloned or that your money is at risk.
They may ask for your account and card details, including your PIN number, and even offer to send a courier to collect your card. They may also advise transferring your money to a ‘safe account’ to protect it.
This is a common scam and your bank would never ask you to do this.
Computer repair scams
A scammer may call you claiming to be from the helpdesk of a well-known IT firm, such as Microsoft. They’ll tell you that your computer has a virus and will ask you to download ‘anti-virus software’, possibly at a cost.
This turns out to be spyware, used to get your personal details. Legitimate IT companies don’t contact customers this way.
Read our section about staying safe online for more tips and advice.
This is a call from a company asking about a car accident you’ve supposedly had claiming you may be entitled to compensation. Some of these could be genuine companies looking for business but others are scammers. Don’t engage in these calls. If you’ve had an accident, call your own insurance company on the phone number provided on your policy.
You may get a call from someone claiming to be from HMRC saying there is an issue with your tax refund or an unpaid tax bill. They may leave a message and ask you to call back. Again, don’t be fooled by this. HMRC would never contact you this way and would never ask you to reveal personal financial information such as your bank account details.
Scammers now have the technology to mimic an official telephone number so it comes up on your caller ID display (if you have one on your phone). This can trick you into thinking the caller is really from a legitimate organisation, such as a bank or utility company. If you’re in any doubt, hang up and call the organisation directly. If possible, call them from different phone as scammers can keep the phone line open, so that even if you hang up and call the organisation directly, the line may still be connected to the scammer. If it’s not possible to use another phone then wait for at least 10 minutes before you call.
Pensions and investment scams
This is a call about an 'unmissable' investment opportunity, or offering you the opportunity to access your pension cash earlier.
Nuisance calls about pensions are now illegal. If you receive a cold call about your pension, report it to the Information Commissioner's Office on 0303 123 1113 or go online here.
This is a call from someone claiming to be from a charity supporting scam victims, a company selling anti-scam technology, or from someone demanding money to renew your Telephone Preference Service registration, which is actually free. Be alert to all of these.
Check a charity’s registration with the Charity Commission to find out if they’re genuine
What should I do if I get a scam call?
Older people are often a target for scammers, so it's important to be aware of phone scams and how to handle them. Fortunately, there are things you can do to protect yourself:
Don't reveal personal details. Never give out personal or financial information (such as your bank account details or your PIN) over the phone, even if the caller claims to be from your bank.
Hang up. If you feel harassed or intimidated, or if the caller talks over you without giving you a chance to speak, end the call. It may feel rude to hang up on someone, but you have the right not to be pressurised into anything.
Ring the organisation. If you're unsure whether the caller is genuine, you can always ring the company or bank they claim to be from. Make sure you find the number yourself and don’t use the one provided by the caller.
Don't be rushed. Scammers will try to rush you into providing your personal details. They may say they have time-limited offer or claim your bank account is at risk if you don't give them the information they need right away.
How can I avoid phone scams and cold calls?
You can block or prevent some cold calls. Try these simple things:
- Register with the Telephone Preference Service – it's free and it allows you to opt out of any unsolicited live telesales calls. This should reduce the number of cold calls you receive but may not block scammers.
- Talk to your phone provider to see what other privacy services and call-blocking services are available, although you may need to pay for some of these services.
- If you have a smartphone, you can use the settings on the phone to block unwanted numbers. If you’re not sure how to do this, you could visit your local mobile phone shop for assistance.
- There are products to block some calls. Some local councils provide call blockers through their trading standards teams.
How can I report or make a complaint about a cold call?
There are privacy laws that protect consumers from direct marketing phone calls. If you’ve registered your phone number with the Telephone Preference Service (TPS) or if you’ve told the company directly that you don’t wish to receive phone calls, you shouldn’t receive direct marketing calls from the UK.
If you receive an unwanted telesales call, an automated message, or a spam message, tell the company that you don’t wish to be contacted again.
You can complain to the Information Commissioner’s Office or report spam texts by forwarding the text for free to 7726.
If you have received a silent or abandoned call, complain to Ofcom.
What should I do if I’ve been a victim of a phone scam?
Scammers are constantly finding new ways to trick people and phone scams are changing all the time. If you’ve been the victim of a scam don’t be embarrassed to report it. It can happen to anyone.
Report the scam to the police and also contact Action Fraud. The information you give to Action Fraud can help track down the scammer.
What should I do next?
Register your landline and your mobile phone with the Telephone Preference Service (TPS). To register your mobile phone, text 'TPS' and your email address to 85095.
Talk to your phone provider to see what privacy services and call-blocking services are available, although you may need to pay for some of these services. Ofcom has information about different phone providers’ services that block nuisance calls.