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Top tips for keeping the scammers out

Scamming seems to be a growth industry and the techniques that scammers use can be overt or subtle. Shân Hughes provides a roundup of advice that you can pass on to older members of the family to keep them safe both in their home and online. And she offers some pointers to getting trusted help when it’s needed.

Update April 2020: The consumer champion group Which? has launched a free scam alert service, which could help to stem the flood of successful scams.

Each year millions of people in the UK fall prey to scammers. The UK Chartered Trading Standards Institute says that estimates of the total cost of mass-marketed scams are as high as £5 billion, and with reporting levels possibly as low as 5%, that could just be a drop in the ocean. Sadly, many scams are directed at the vulnerable and that means older people are being ruthlessly targeted.

Older people can be very trusting and want to think the best of people and they find it difficult to realise that not everyone has the same level of integrity and honesty. They often want to help others and there are numerous stories of pensioners being very generous with their meagre funds when they hear a plausible hard luck story. Or they feel pressured into handing over money for work done, without realising that either the work wasn’t really necessary or the price is exorbitant.

At the door

It can be difficult to get to know neighbours but joining a local Neighbourhood Watch group can provide a meeting place and the opportunity to meet local community officers who can keep an eye on your relative’s home while on the beat.

Whilst we all welcome some company, everyone should be wary of inviting strangers into their home without at least some preliminary checks. If someone they don’t know comes knocking on the door, they could leave the chain on and talk to them through the door. Get some stickers for the front door which say that they don’t buy from the doorstep – these are often available from their local library or Neighbourhood Watch.

If it’s a hard luck story at the door, the best thing to do is offer to call the police to help. It may be someone trying to distract the resident whilst an accomplice tries to get in round the back. Distraction burglars can invent all sorts of stories to get inside a house. By keeping a note of their local officer’s name and telephone number near the door or telephone, the resident can be ready with a helpful but safe response.

If it is someone offering to do work, the best thing to do is ask for a written quote and business card with name, address and telephone numbers and say something about discussing it with a friend/relative/local police officer. This gives the caller the benefit of the doubt without parting with any money on the spot or getting into any agreements. It may be that the work doesn’t need doing or that the final bill will be excessive.

Again, if it is someone selling something at the door, a safe response is to ask for details and defer any further conversation until a friend or relative has been consulted. Your relative could even suggest that someone else manages their money. Even if the salesperson says the offer is time limited and tries to exert pressure, it’s worth remembering that deals are always being offered and there is no rush to sign up.

If the caller is collecting for charity, the resident should ask to see their paperwork – they must have a licence from the local council which is valid for that date. There’s no obligation to give. Anyone feeling under pressure can simply say they have no cash on them or explain that they have already given to several charities recently.

Shutting the door while someone is still talking does seem the height of impoliteness, but sometimes it just has to be done or callers will never go away.

Through the letterbox

We all need to be careful of flyers and mailshots which land on the doormat especially if they’re not delivered by reputable organisations.

If someone is thinking of using the services offered on a flyer, a good thing to check is whether the company is part of a registered body before spending any money. Failing that, references should be taken up and checked for anyone who’s going to be invited into the home or wants to be paid for their services.

This is true for all manner of services. There has been recent concern about some unprofessional will writing services that create incorrect and therefore invalid wills.

Also in the news recently has been the deluge of charity appeals that land on some doormats. Charities rely on regular donations and have been in the practice of selling on contact details for added revenue unless all the right boxes have been ticked. Marketing literature is designed to tug at emotions and whilst they are good causes, it may not be appropriate to donate every time. Suggest your relative chooses a couple of charities that they want to support, maybe set up some direct debits, and stick to a budget with those.

Then of course there are the non-existent prizes, holiday homes and more that dedicated scammers will try to use to extract money from the vulnerable. The Jessica Scam Syndrome was named after one poor unfortunate who was brainwashed into giving money away and refers to those who are manipulated, bullied and frightened into handing over cash to ruthless criminals.

On the phone

Anyone can to some extent avoid unnecessary cold calls by registering with the Telephone Preference Service. Be aware that if your relative or friend changes telephone provider then they may need to reregister again. This will not stop calls which originate from abroad.

A useful option is a phone showing caller ID. An answering service can be enabled to pick up calls from unrecognised numbers. This will pick up those annoying calls from automated systems.

It’s vital to impress on family that they do not give out personal or financial information to anyone who calls them on the phone. Banks do not ask for passwords and will not send someone to collect cards if there is a problem. It’s probably worth pointing out that it’s not just older people who can be taken in, so there’s no need to feel bad about being duped.

Charities aren’t scammers but they can regularly call to ask for donations. If it is something that your family member wants to support, they can ask the charity to write or email.

If the caller says that you mustn’t tell anyone else about the call, that’s a red flag. Any relationship that has to be kept a secret is not a good relationship!

Being safe on the Internet

More and more we hear of silver surfers who are venturing into the world of the Internet who quite naturally want to take advantage of the varied benefits of shopping online and social media. However, this is a whole new arena which can bring a variety of new challenges. Notwithstanding the fact that we may get calls at 9.00pm on a Saturday evening asking for help in how to print an envelope, we have to encourage good security practices and avoid giving out unnecessary information.

Here are some of the rules and tips that we could usefully pass on to new users:

  • Don’t use the same password for everything.
  • Choose a password that is easy to remember but difficult for others to guess – words in another language are deemed to make stronger passwords.
  • Don’t post anything on social media that you wouldn’t put on the front door of the house for everyone to see. Telling the world that you are taking the grandchildren to Orlando for two weeks is not a good idea. Better to wait until your return and say what a lovely time you had.
  • When using a shared computer e.g. in an internet café or local library, make sure that all applications are closed down completely. Otherwise the next person could send emails from you.
  • Don’t open emails from people you don’t know – they could contain a link to a virus. If it is important they will contact you again. If you think you might know the person but the content is a bit weird then take care not to click on any links – any text underlined in blue is usually a link.
  • Learn how to unsubscribe from mailing lists so you don’t have lots of clutter in your mailbox.
  • Don’t skimp on safety – a virus protection package and a firewall are much cheaper than losing all your online information. Make sure that the software you install will automatically update.
  • Don’t disclose any information that might lead to someone defrauding you or stealing your identity. Be particularly careful when an email seems to come from a “trusted” source such as your bank, the Inland Revenue or a solicitor.

A great place to look for more information is Get Safe Online

And Snopes is a useful site to check whether stories they see online are real or not and how long they’ve been doing the rounds – although it does tend to focus more on US than UK tall tales.

Finding people to help

Of course sometimes work offers aren’t unsolicited. Your relative will actually need a local tradesperson to do repairs or other work.
Here are some suggestions for finding a trusted supplier:

  • Find a supplier through the local Repair with Care or similar service run by the local authority.
  • Alternatively look out for tradesmen who you see working locally. Those who have a clean vehicle proudly showing their company details are a much better bet than searching the Yellow Pages at random.
  • Try local listings but be aware that these are often advertising programmes rather than trusted referrals.
  • Don’t hand over any money before the work starts – if materials are needed, arrange to buy them yourself so that you know how much they cost and they belong to you.
  • Beware someone who insists on cash only – reputable tradesmen will take a cheque or credit card.
  • Check that the person is part of a registered body.
  • Remember that being trusted isn’t quite the same as being talented. Speak to someone who has already had work done by the trader and is happy with the results.
  • Get at least three quotes for the work so prices can be compared.
  • Don’t commit to any work without discussing it with someone else.
  • Ignore any special offers – if they are offering a “discount just for today only” then beware.


If you found this article useful you may like to read:
Protecting older people from tax scams
Banking scams, refunds and protecting the vulnerable

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