Scams no longer target just the easily-duped! But with more knowledge comes more power. Shop the right way and you're less likely to get caught out.
This quick guide shows what scams to look out for, helps you become a more powerful shopper – and saves you money before you’ve even opened your wallet.
25 tips for safeguarding your cash
If you've been sent details of an offer that's too good to be true, it most likely is!
Get free antivirus software
Web viruses don't just smash your computer. They can covertly help steal money or even use PCs to commit crime.
Solve this by keeping your web browser up-to-date and backed up with free anti-virus software.
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When is bbc.co.uk not bbc.co.uk?
Did you know a link may not be genuine? By simply ‘hyperlinking' text you can make the link say anything. For example, where does this link - www.bbc.co.uk - take you?
To find out, hover your mouse over it and read what it says at the bottom of the screen – though even that's foolable. For more like this, see Martin's Spam Spotter Rules blog.
Stop junk calls, texts and cold callers
While not always scams, junk mail, calls and emails can be annoying. You can stop legal junk mail in minutes.
However, occasionally, it'll contain a cracking offer, so stopping it may not be MoneySaving!
Call 'em back if they want personal info
If anyone calls claiming to be from a bank, insurer, utility provider, etc, NEVER give your personal or password details (for example, your mother's maiden name or place of birth). Simply say you'll call them back, but find the number independently.
Beware phishy links asking for your password
Most of us receive plenty of scam emails each year, such as "your bank security is broken, click here" or "we need your help to retrieve funds". This is known as phishing.
The emails disguise attempts to steal your passwords, bank codes and money. Don't click links in an email unless you know where they go. See the Phishing Scams guide for more info.
Reputable search engines doesn't mean reputable sites
Bogus websites are often set up to cash in on popular products such as Ugg boots (see our tips on When Is An Ugg Not A Ugg?), so be wary if it's an unfamiliar site.
Don't think that because it appears on a reputable search engine, it's a reputable site. Always check first, especially with sponsored links as these pay to appear at the top of search engines' lists.
Shred everything and protect bank details
Never give your bank account details or PIN to someone you don't know. If there's an unauthorised transaction on your account, contact your provider straight away.
You should try to shred all financial documents, including envelopes, as a branded letter from a bank shows you have a relationship that could be taken advantage of.
Protect and change your passwords
You should try to change your passwords regularly, and ensure they are complex enough so they're difficult to guess.
A complex password uses more characters and a combination of letters (upper and lower case), numbers and symbols.
Help if you care for an elderly person
Anyone can fall for a scam, but the elderly are often hit hardest as they can be over-trusting or afflicted by illnesses such as dementia. Many can lose their life savings, get into debt or have health problems.
If you care for an elderly person, look out for warning signs. Are they receiving a lot of junk mail or phone calls from strangers, or have they become secretive when discussing finances?
If you're concerned, visit ThinkJessica, a really useful site which shows how some elderly people can become serious victims of scam mail, even trusting it more than their families. It's worth a look, and we're proud it's supported by the MSE Charity, among others.
Fake tax refunds, and other scams to watch out for
Every year, millions of people fall for scams sent through the post, by email, phone, text, in person or, increasingly, online. Don't be fooled by professional-looking websites and marketing materials.
Scammers are good at making their scams look authentic. If you're asked to send money to someone you don't know or have won a competition you didn't even enter, stop!
Scams currently common in the UK
There are 1,000s of ways scammers try to catch you out. Common methods include:
- Calls from someone claiming to be from a government department or representative, talking about reclaiming bank charges or PPI
- pension 'liberation' (more info in our Release Pension Cash guide)
- pyramid selling schemes
- miracle cures
- investment scams
- deceptive prize draws and sweepstakes
- fake psychics
- get-rich-quick schemes
- HMRC tax refunds (plus, there have also been reports of council tax refund emails).
Free help if you've been scammed
If a scam's caught you out, don't be embarrassed. Speak to the Citizens Advice consumer service (tel 0845 404 05 06) or Victim Support (0845 30 30 900, Scotland 0845 603 9213).
Of the millions caught by scams each year, only a small number report it. You can also report a scam anonymously on the Action Fraud website.
Safer shopping tips
The best way to protect yourself from anything going wrong is to research before you buy. This is easier said than done, but a few quick pre-emptive strikes make all the difference. Here are our top tips:
Check the company's registered
All companies are listed on the official Companies House site, the Government's register of UK companies. Be wary if its records show a PO Box address or just an email.
Get full contact details, including a street address, or sorting problems could be a nightmare. You can also find out who registered the site, and when, on the Whois database, or study the site's worldwide web ranking on Alexa. Anything in the top 100,000 means it's reasonably big – a good, though not foolproof, indication of legitimacy if the site seems like it should be big.
Always read terms and conditions
Even if you don't read the legalese, always at least read the standard terms and conditions before you sign. Plus, always ask questions beforehand if there's anything you don't understand, in writing or by email if possible.
Check delivery dates and prices
Always get a price breakdown in writing and ensure it includes VAT. If the delivery date is important, check it, and all costs, before going ahead with a purchase. It's useful to take a copy of online orders. If you've had a late delivery see our Delivery Fight Back guide to see what to do.
Is it a trade association member?
If a company is a member of a trade association, it probably has to stick to a code of practice. It may be able to help if things go pear-shaped. See more in the Who's Who section of the How to Complain guide.
Google for complaints
The internet's a powerful way to hunt out other consumers' experiences. Easiest of all, do a quick Google search for the company name next to the word ‘complaints', eg, "Delboy Ltd complaints". Though always take one-off complaints with a pinch of salt, it could be a competitor, someone malicious or with a grudge. Look for trends instead.
Any botched jobs or missing orders should quickly show up. You could also ask a question in the MSE forum.
Grab customer references
If you're dubious about handing over your dosh to a firm, ask for references from happy customers and preferably speak to them in person. Most kosher companies will be happy to do this.
Pay by credit card
Pay by credit card for something costing over £100 such as flights, kitchens, or sofas, and Section 75 laws super-charge your consumer rights. Unlike debit cards, cheques and cash, pay in full or part (even just £1) on a credit card and by law the lender's jointly liable with the retailer. Though watch out for fees.
This means you have exactly the same rights with the card company as you do with the retailer, so if things go wrong, you can simply take your complaints there instead.
Protect purchases under £100
Section 75 doesn't apply to purchases under £100, but there's still an option which can help. It's not a legal protection but it's a good secondary back-up.
Spend on Visa, Mastercard and Amex credit cards (under £100) and most debit and charge cards (any amount) and if the goods don't appear within 120 days, you can ask your bank to reclaim the cash from the seller's bank.
See the Chargeback guide for full details.
Tips for buying abroad
If you're clicking for bargains from abroad, scour delivery times and costs. An easy rule of thumb is that the charges for delivery, customs and VAT can add around 30% to the list price, so unless it's over 30% cheaper it may be best to stick with the UK. Read the Cheapest Online Shopping article for ways to find the cheap goods in the UK.
You should also check the items are compatible at home, eg, DVD regions, and that you pay in the cheapest and safest way. More in the full Cheapest Travel Money guide.
Know when you have cancellation rights
Buy in a store and you're unlikely to have cancellation rights. But many people are surprised to learn you've more rights buying online from an EU-based business (or by telephone/catalogue) due to the Distance Selling Regulations, and from home, due to the Doorstep Selling Regulations.
These give a legal right to send most goods back within a week for a full refund (including outward delivery costs), even if there's no fault.
You'll usually need to pay for the return delivery (unless the seller doesn't say this in its T&Cs). You also have a right to cancel financial agreements within 14 days. Read the Consumer Rights guide for more info and exclusions on all of these rights.
However, ordering online is balanced by the fact that there's automatically a time gap between ordering and delivering – when the company has your money. So if it goes bust in that time, the distance selling rights don't help.
If you've no statutory cancellation rights there may be some from the individual company – although you may not get a full refund, depending on low long since your order or until delivery. Check the terms and conditions.
Check you can afford it first
If you're buying a big item, and paying by finance or credit card, use the Budget Planner to work out how much you can afford to pay and whether you can afford the long-term payments in advance.
Ensure the payment is secure
When you pay for a purchase, always check the site is secure. Although it doesn't guarantee the site isn't a scam, any data you enter is encrypted so it's hard for others to intercept.
It's really easy to tell as the web address will start with 'https', rather than just 'http'. Look for a security padlock (usually at the bottom of the screen).
What happens if a company goes bust?
Quite simply, its customers are immediately transformed into creditors. This hits hardest if you've ordered goods or tickets from them, and not had delivery, as then you are simply one of a line of people trying to get your money back out of the company's assets, and you usually get back much less than you paid.
Even if you've had delivery, if the company you bought from goes under and there's a problem with the goods, it can mean you've no comeback.
Sometimes there's no protection
Ultimately, there is always a risk that a company can go bust. If the above routes don't apply, you have to make a decision about whether you're willing to take the risk of parting with your cash.
Don't be overly scared of this. Every day we all make transactions based on trust, and this is part of that, but do balance the amount you're spending against the risk. Don't give large amounts of money to a company you're not sure of.