How to stay safe from scams this Christmas

Man about to pay with card on laptop at South West Trading Standards, Sidmouth

Online scams are one of the most effective methods for fraudsters, resulting in £15.4 million lost to online cons over the Christmas period. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Scams are an ever-present threat throughout the year, but the festive season provides a window of opportunity for persistent fraudsters. 

In 2020, online scams alone cost shoppers a whopping £15.4 million, and over 28,000 people reported that they had been conned out of money – an increase of 61 per cent from the previous year. With such a rampant increase in these crimes, it is more vital than ever to familiarise yourself with the methods that fraudsters use frequently, and how to avoid falling into these traps.

We spoke to Janet Quinn, Scams Lead Officer for Heart of the South West Trading Standards Service, about identifying potential scams and how to report them. 

Christmas star lights outside house at South West Trading Standards, Devon

Buying gifts for friends and family is part of what makes Christmas so special, but it's important to double check the authenticity of goods that you purchase. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Q: What are the most common types of scams and their preferred methods of contact? 

A: The main methods of communication are phone, postal, online and text. 

One of the most common scams is authorised push payment fraud. Criminals can steal life savings by posing as bank employees to convince you that your account has been compromised and you must move your savings to a new ‘safe’ account. In reality, you are transferring your money to a fraudster.

We’ve seen an increase in Covid scams, as the continued uncertainty surrounding Covid-19 is exploited. These range from medical kits that claim to prevent or cure the disease, fake texts pretending to be from the NHS about paying vaccination fees, and more recently offers for a fake NHS Covid pass to prove vaccination status in exchange for payment.  

There has also been a rise in parcel delivery scams since the lockdown with more people shopping online and expecting deliveries. The best way to stay safe is to avoid clicking on any suspicious links and contact the business directly.

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Q: How do fraudsters adapt their approach around Christmas time?

A: Due to so much money being spent at this time of year, cyber-crime, in particular, becomes a major issue.

Popular websites may be cloned to look identical to real sites, but prices are much cheaper to entice people to buy. They may also be offering the most popular Christmas toys that are sold out everywhere else. These goods are of much poorer quality, or may not arrive at all.

Counterfeit designer goods like handbags, clothing and electronics may be listed on genuine seller platforms, such as eBay and Facebook, in order to make them seem genuine. Our advice is to take a step back and consider that if something sounds too good to be true, then it most probably is.

The ‘Friends in Need’ scam is ever popular over Christmas. This scam works via a text or email from someone pretending to be a friend in need that's requesting money. If you receive a message like this, always phone to check someone is who they say they are.

Q: Who is most at risk of scams, and how can I protect myself from them? 

A: Scams pose a risk to everyone, especially at prime times like Christmas. Some of us are more at risk than others due to conditions such as dementia or Alzheimer's, but we all need to stay vigilant.

Woman looking concerned at laptop at South West Trading Standards, Sidmouth

Always make sure that you take a step back before a transaction, and don't feel pressured by anyone to make a decision straight away. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Criminals know how to make people panic over the phone or pressure someone in person, and many of the fake texts seem genuine up until the final request for money. 

The best thing to do in these situations is to examine the email, text message or letter thoroughly for spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, as well as familiarise yourself with the protocol. Banks will never ask you for your pin number or password, and if calling over the phone, fraudsters will pressure you to make a decision quickly, so don’t rush into a decision in the heat of the moment.  

If you are in any doubt - Stop. Think. Call. Phone the bank or business on a number that you know to be correct. You can also call 159 which is a secure number that connects you directly to your bank if you think you are being scammed.

How to avoid scams at christmas - tips from Trading Standard Services in the South West

Scams can pose a risk to everyone, which is why it's important to remain vigilant and know who to contact if a fraudster attempts to access your money. - Credit: Heart of the South West Trading Standards

Q: Where can I go report a scam or suspicious activity?

A: You can report potential scams online at citizensadvice.org.uk or call their consumer helpline on 0808 223 1133, and your information will be passed on to Trading Standards. If you have fallen victim to a scam, call your bank or credit card company immediately, as they may be able to stop a payment or freeze your account to prevent fraudsters from accessing your money. You can forward a scam text to 7726 and a scam email to report@phishing.gov.uk

For more information on the types of scams out there and how to avoid them, visit devonsomersettradingstandards.gov.uk

Follow Heart of the South West Trading Standards on social media @tsconnected