Getting online can make life easier in many ways, but also comes with the risk of scams and fraud. Online scams are becoming increasingly common, but you can protect yourself by knowing what to look out for, and what to do if you suspect a scam.

What are online scams?

Online scams are becoming increasingly sophisticated and many people are caught out, even those who are regular internet users. Every year in the UK, millions of people lose money to scammers or unknowingly share their personal information.

But there are ways to avoid being taken in by scams if you know what to look for. We explain some common online scams below.

Email scams

Scammers send bogus emails in the hope that people will enter their personal or financial details. They may direct you to a fake website, trick you into thinking you've won a lottery or prize.

Some emails, known as spam or junk, may also have a link or file attached for you to click on or open. Opening these links or downloading the files may harm your device.

Scam emails can look genuine and appear to be from official places, like HMRC or a bank, but you can often tell it's a scam. Look out for:

  • errors in the spelling or grammar, or an unusual style of writing.
  • requests for personal information, such as your username, full password or bank details - genuine organisations will never ask this.
  • threats that unless you act now, a deal will expire or your account closed.
Top tip

If you see a suspicious email, don't reply with your details or open any links or documents. Delete the email straight away. If the email claims to be from an organisation, phone them directly using the phone number found on their official website and ask them. Find out more about using email and avoiding scams.

Fake websites

Scammers create fake websites which look official, requesting you to provide personal or financial information. For example, a fake bank website may be set up asking you to update your account or security information. Often, they will look very similar and only a few details may be different.

There are also websites set up to look like a copy of a service offered by government websites. For example, websites which offer to help you apply for a passport renewal or a new driving licence. Although they are not illegal, these websites charge extra money if you use them, rather than going directly through the official government department where the service is free of charge.

Top tip

Visit your bank's website by typing their official web address in your internet brower – you can find this on letters from the bank. If you aren't sure about which website to use for a government service, go through GOV.UK, the Government’s official website, to find what you need.

Computer viruses

Computer viruses (sometimes called malware), are rogue programs that spread from one computer to another. You may be sent an email with an attachment, which when you click on it will release a virus.

Criminals can then use this to take control of your computer, or the virus may scan your computer for personal information. It can also slow your computer down, send out spam email or delete files.

You may even get a phone call from someone claiming to be from a well-known software company, like Microsoft, saying there's a problem with your computer and needing to get access to it, including your personal details. Legitimate IT companies never contact customers in this way. This is a common phone scam – hang up straight away.

Top tip

Use anti-virus and anti-spyware to protect your computer from viruses. Find out about protecting your computer, tablet and smartphone below.

Relationship scams

Scammers can use social networks like Facebook or dating websites. Once they’ve gained your trust they’ll start asking for money, often by telling you an emotional or hard luck story.

These tricks are hard to spot, so it’s always worth talking to a friend or relative about it, especially if things seem to be moving fast. Be careful if the person starts moving away from the chat room or dating site to communicating by email or text message.

Top tip

Never send the person money or give them your account details. If you arrange to meet, make sure it’s in a public place, tell someone else where you’re going and don’t give away information too quickly. Find out more about this type of scam.

Health scams

False and misleading claims may be made about medical-related products, such as miracle health cures, and fake online pharmacies may offer medicines cheaply.

However, the actual medicine delivered to you can turn out to be poor quality and even harmful to your health.

Top tip

Check if an online pharmacy website is legitimate by clicking on the ‘Registered Pharmacy’ logo on the website's home page – this should lead to the General Pharmaceutical Council website.

What should I do if I think I’ve been a victim of an online scam?

Scammers are constantly finding new ways to trick people and online scams are changing all the time. It’s not unusual for people to get tricked, so don’t suffer in silence and don’t be embarrassed to report it.

If you’re worried that your computer is not working properly or think that it may have a virus, then talk to a computer technician.

How can I protect my computer, tablet and smartphone?

It's second nature to keep your valuables stored safely in your home and out of sight of burglars. But it's equally important to keep your personal information safe from criminals when you're online. As well as being alert to online scams, there are simple steps you can take to protect your device:

  1. Keep your passwords strong. Setting up strong passwords is one of the simplest, most effective things you can do to stay safe when you're on the internet. Avoid passwords made up of common words, numbers or keyboard patterns (such as 'password' or '123456'), and don't include personal information, like your name, date of birth or any family member's details. Use different passwords for different accounts. Read more of our passwords tips.
  2. Install security software on your computer. Anti-virus software will look for and remove viruses before they can infect your computer, and anti-spyware software prevents unwanted adverts from popping up, and stops programs tracking your activities or scanning your computer for private data, such as credit card numbers or bank details. You can buy a package from a reputable provider (such as McAfee or Norton) either online or from a computer shop, or there are free security software programs available online, such as AVG, Avast and Microsoft Security Essentials.
  3. Protect your tablet and your mobile phone. You can check emails, shop and bank online on tablets and smartphones, so they need protecting too. Start by password-protecting any devices. You can download anti-virus and anti-spyware protection for tablets and phones and a lot of the apps are free. Some free, highly rated anti-virus apps are Avast mobile security, Kaspersky internet security, and Norton mobile security.
  4. Protect your wireless network. You need to protect your wireless network (also known as Wi-Fi) so that people living nearby can't access it. Read the instructions that come with your wireless router to find out how to set up a 'key' (a type of password) so that no one else can access the internet through your router.
  5. Keep your device updated. Every device has an operating system, which is the software it needs to function properly. Computers will use Windows or Mac OS, and tablets and smartphones use Android or iOS. Your device can be better protected from viruses if you keep the operating system updated. You should receive notifications when new updates are available, but you can also update your system manually.

A-Z of online terms

If you're coming across new words for the first time, our A-Z of online terms explains what they mean. Read our glossary of online terms

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