Don't be reeled in by text scams: We reveal how to avoid being caught

Don’t be reeled in by text scam bait: From bogus ‘Royal Mail’ parcel charges to unpaid tax threats, fraudsters plague us with fake messages and calls. In part two of our vital series, we reveal how to avoid being caught hook, line and sinker

  • Millions have reported getting fake messages that appear to be from Royal Mail
  • Fraudsters are capitalising on the online shopping boom since start of pandemic
  • Scams are sophisticated, convincing and can cost victims life-changing sums

A tidal wave of text scams is sweeping Britain as fraudsters seek to cash in on an online shopping boom.

Millions of people have reported receiving a fake parcel delivery text in recent months, with one of the most common mimicking Royal Mail. And victims caught out by these convincing messages can lose anything from a few pounds to life-changing sums of money.

Recipients are typically asked to pay a modest charge or shipping fee for the delivery of an item, and directed to an online form where they can enter their details.

But in reality, the websites are fake and have been set up by crooks to harvest victims’ personal data, which they can then exploit to steal even more money.

This might involve posing as your bank to trick you into handing over your savings, or stealing your identity to take out loans in your name.

Millions have reported receiving a fake parcel delivery text recently, with one of the most common mimicking Royal Mail (pictured) which can cost victims life-changing sums of cash

Professional criminals operate fraud factories, churning out scam messages to random mobile numbers at speed and in bulk. It costs them little, but makes them hundreds of millions of pounds a year from victims.

These scam texts come in all sorts of different guises. And it is a constantly evolving threat, with crooks adept at keeping up-to-date with current events, such as news emerging about the pandemic.

Text messages will typically copy genuine communications sent by organisations to customers. And the bogus subject matter can cover anything from parcel deliveries to vaccinations and Covid passes.

What to do if you fear you’ve been caught out 

IF you think you have been scammed, contact your bank straight away.

Ensure you use a telephone number you know to be correct. This could be found on one of your statements, the bank’s website or on the back of your debit or credit card.

You should also report fraud attempts to Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040 or at actionfraud.police.uk.

Those in Scotland should call Police Scotland via 101 or Advice Direct Scotland on 0808 164 6000.

Fake parcel delivery scams are the most common text frauds, according to UK Finance. And three in five people are estimated to have received one in the past year, according to research by consumer group Which?

Others imitate PayPal, TV Licensing, the DVLA, your bank, Amazon, the taxman and other official bodies. Any organisation is considered fair game — so much so that experts advise you to trust no one in a text.

M embers of the British public filed more than 146,000 reports of suspicious messages with Action Fraud in the latest financial year.

This is an 80 pc increase compared with the previous year and is thought to be only the tip of the iceberg as so many go unreported.

More than a third of reports related to text messages, with the majority of the remainder linked to phone calls. But fraudsters often use both methods in the same scam, starting with a text then moving to a phone call. This call may follow the text message, but not always immediately after.

Fraudsters often imitate your bank and raise suspicions about suspected fraud on your account.

And once they have won your trust, he or she will try to convince you to shift money to a ‘safe’ account.

An account that actually belongs to criminals. The crooks will withdraw or transfer the money almost immediately, making it hard for banks to trace.

Sarah Sinden, manager of the Take Five To Stop Fraud campaign at banking trade body UK Finance, says: ‘We have a trust reflex when we think we’re communicating with an organisation or someone authoritative.

‘We don’t have the same level of suspicion we’d have if someone asked for the same details in the street.’

Text scams are sophisticated and convincing as fraudsters capitalise on online shopping boom

Katherine Hart is lead officer on scams for the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, a consumer protection organisation.

She says: ‘Scams are forever evolving and scammers jump on any opportunity. Renewing passports could be the next big thing among fraudsters, along with texts about energy-saving grants.

How to block menacing landline pests at home

Thieves routinely strike fear straight into the sanctuary of home.

Armed with a story and a commanding tone, they hound people on landline phones.

Most are initially robocalls. An automated voice warns of your imminent arrest for non-payment of tax, or of your impending disconnection from the internet.

You might be instructed to ‘press one’ to avoid whatever crisis is supposedly unfolding. Ultimately you are connected to a person ready to lie and steal your money.

Other calls are ‘live’ from the outset, dialled by a criminal or sales pest.

Callers imitate BT, broadband providers, and even the police — quoting rank and fictional badge numbers.

They spin yarns about Amazon Prime memberships or flog dodgy pension deals.

Tens of thousands of nuisance calls are reported by the public each month. 

These are recorded by the Information Commissioner’s Office — the UK’s data protection watchdog. Complaints more than doubled in the first six months of 2021 compared with the same period last year.

The ICO monitors companies that break communication rules, rather than chasing fraudsters.

But it’s not easy to tell the difference. Katherine Hart, from the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, warns the calls always sound urgent.

She says: ‘It will put you into some sort of panic mode. Just put the phone down.’

If you are worried about whether a call is legitimate, hang up and call the organisation yourself.

Use a number from a trusted online source or directory enquiries.

To contact your bank, use the number printed on the back of your debit or credit card.

Consider calling from a different handset too, such as a mobile. Some landline providers offer free call-filtering tools, which block scammers.

To opt out of legitimate sales and marketing calls, register with the telephone preference service at tpsonline.org.uk.

‘The text might suggest clicking on a link to save money on energy bills or to find the best energy grant for home improvements.’

Another emerging trend is impersonation scams. A fraudster messages pretending to be a relative or friend saying they have a temporary new number and need you to send them money.

The Trading Standards Institute issued a warning last month about it. In a real-life example, a woman called Alison had a text addressing her as ‘mum’, saying: ‘I dropped my phone down the loo (sad emoji) this is my new number.’

Alison replied, asking if the message was from her son Will. Naturally, the fraudster said yes.

The next day the fraudster asked Alison for £2,600 to pay a loan shark. Alison tried to call the number she believed was Will’s, but was told he couldn’t take the call. 

Fortunately, Alison didn’t complete the transaction properly and soon found out her son was not in strife.

Ms Hart says: ‘The person in the text says they need urgent help. The first thing any parent reading such a message will do is try to protect their child. It exploits a person’s emotional vulnerability.’

Professionals fighting financial crime refer to this as a ‘hot state’. It’s the moment of panic where something so unsettling makes people leap into action without thinking rationally about financial security.

Ms Sinden says: ‘Criminals are experts at what they do. They will look at what measures the banking industry puts in place and think of ways round them. They will work using scripts, and there is an answer for everything.’

Treat any request in an unsolicited text with extreme caution, and never click on links or reply.

Sending a message back demonstrates your number is in use and that you will engage.

Ms Sinden says: ‘Criminals take advantage of the fact we don’t like to say no or appear impolite.’

Report suspicious texts for free by forwarding them to 7726, which spells out ‘spam’ on a mobile keypad. ‘It takes a few seconds,’ adds Ms Sinden.

‘And it allows phone companies to build intelligence, block the fraudsters, and help stop other people from becoming victims.’

Those relating to HM Revenue and Customs can also be forwarded to 60599, charged at your network’s rate.

The taxman says it will never send a text about a rebate or penalty. Nor will it ask for personal or payment information in a text.

Similarly, banks will never ask you to transfer money out to a ‘secure’ or ‘safe’ account. Consider downloading anti-virus software for your mobile phone. Anti-virus apps from McAfee, Norton, AVG and Bitdefender can be downloaded via your phone’s app store.

If you have been contacted by a new number by someone claiming to be a family member, take steps to verify their identity.

Ms Hart says: ‘Try to call their last known number. Be very cautious if money is asked for.’

Visit takefive-stopfraud.org.uk.

I lost £3,500 to bogus bank scam 

Married father-of-two Steve Friend, 52, received what he thought was a text message from Royal Mail in March.

Like many people in lockdown Steve shopped online. So, a demand for £2.50 to deliver a parcel seemed plausible.

But after clicking on the link and making a payment, he was called a week later by a woman claiming to be from Lloyds Bank who wanted to discuss suspected fraud on his account. This included transferring money via online banking to a safe account.

Steve, who owns the company Lexden Builders and lives in Colchester, Essex, says: ‘It makes your blood run cold when you think about how you’ve been done over.’

The fraudster told him to call his bank to finalise the process. Only then did he end up speaking to the real Lloyds Bank. He was told all previous conversations were a scam. ‘It bamboozled me,’ adds Steve. ‘I didn’t know who to trust.’

Some £5,000 of Steve’s money was recovered, but he lost £3,500.

And Lloyds Bank refused to refund the remainder because he had ignored online banking security warnings. Steve says he only did what he thought the bank was asking him to do.

He has referred his case to the Financial Ombudsman, which settles disputes between financial companies and customers.

A spokesman for Lloyds Bank says: ‘Your bank or a proper company will never ask you to move money to a different account. If anyone does, it’s a scam.’

Susan Carmichael was almost caught out

£1.80 Post Office fee scam almost caught me

Fraudsters used both text messages and emails to snare Susan Carmichael.

The 67-year-old retired teacher from the West Midlands had ordered goods from Switzerland earlier this year.

One parcel had duly arrived, but Susan was anxiously awaiting the delivery of a second — a gift for her niece.

When she received an email from Royal Mail in February, explaining she owed £1.80, it seemed to solve the mystery of her missing package. She paid the fee with her bank card.

A text message followed asking her to click on a link and submit further information for the release of the parcel. This text raised Susan’s suspicions so she called the company she originally ordered from.

Susan says: ‘It uses FedEx, not Royal Mail. I also looked back at the original email and noticed a spelling mistake. I called my bank right away to cancel my card.’

Susan’s bank wanted to know if she had clicked on the link in the text. Sometimes this can trigger a download of malicious software onto a person’s phone without them knowing. Fraudsters can then access sensitive information stored on the phone.

‘I don’t want to think about what that link could have led to,’ adds Susan. ‘I still feel foolish and thought I was quite savvy. In a certain set of circumstances, I think a lot of people could fall for this scam.’

Pictured: Emmeline Hartley became the face of fraud text scams after losing £1,000 through the Royal Mail scam sweeping the nation

Cruel trick that cost me every penny I had

Emmeline Hartley became the face of the fraud text epidemic when she reported that she had been ‘scammed out of every penny’.

The young actress, 28, made the mistake of responding to a text supposedly from Royal Mail asking her to pay a £2.99 ‘postage fee’.

Two days later she received a call from a scammer pretending to be from her bank — claiming her account had been compromised.

Terrified, she followed instructions to transfer all the cash she had — around £1,000 — to a ‘safe account’.

It was only when the scammer asked her to move her overdraft too, that she realised she had been conned.

Barclays agreed to refund Emmeline after the scam in March. And after her story went viral, she says she has received hundreds of messages from scam victims asking for advice.

Yet she still gets at least one call a month from a scammer pretending to be from her bank plus bogus texts.

Emmeline, from Birmingham, says fraudsters have taken advantage of the nation’s vulnerability in the virus crisis — and the online shopping boom.

She says: ‘If you are caught off guard it is so easy to be emotionally manipulated. I was in a hurry, I didn’t take enough care.

‘Not only was everyone ordering stuff online, but also everyone was in a bad place with their mental health and more likely to be caught off guard.’

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