Email and online scams

The internet has been a boon for scammers, enabling them to contact potential victims around the world while staying anonymous. As older people become more confident and accustomed to using the internet, their risk of becoming a victim of online scams increases.

There are dozens of different types of online or cyber fraud. Fraudsters have invented scams for all manner of products and services, including loans, dating, holidays, business opportunities, clairvoyants, pharmaceuticals, lottery prizes, even recovery of money lost to fraud!

According to Which?, 62% of people say they have been targeted by online scammers in the last 12 months.

Many scammers use email to target their victims with fraudulent offers or requests for personal information, but this is not the only way that fraudsters operate online.  Here are some others:

  • Fake pop-ups in your online banking window.
  • Retail websites offering fake goods.
  • Links in email or social media messages that, once clicked on, will infect your computer with a virus or malware that deletes or steals your data.
  • Providing fraudulent wifi connections in public places.

Older people are judged to be particularly at risk of certain types of online scams.

Email scams

  • 419 emails: Similar to 419 letters, you are offered a share in a large sum of money in return for helping to transfer it out of the country. Once you have given the scammers your bank account details, they empty your accounts.
  • Phishing: An email from your “bank” designed to trick you into revealing your personal information and passwords. REMEMBER: your bank will NEVER contact you out of the blue to ask for your PIN, full password or to move money to another account.
  • Pharming: Pharming is another email scam, this time directing you to a website which spoofs a legitimate website in order to access your personal details.
  • Impersonation of UK official websites: For example HMRC, with an email message claiming you are due a refund and requesting your bank account details or directing you to a website link.
  • Impersonation of UK officials: Criminals impersonate a UK official to obtain personal information and steal money, often claiming that you are due a refund or must make an urgent payment. Examples of this scam include the HMRC Tax Rebate Scam and the Council Tax Scam.
  • Investment scams and pension scams: Emailed offers of worthless, overpriced or non-existent shares, or a time-limited opportunity to convert some or all of your pension pot into cash. Click here to find out more about these.

Signs that you’ve been sent a scam

  1. The sender’s email address doesn’t match the website address of the organisation it says it’s from. Roll your mouse pointer over the sender’s name to see its true address.

  2. The email doesn’t use your name – it says something like ‘Dear customer’ instead.

  3. There’s a sense of urgency, asking you to act immediately.

  4. There’s a prominent website link which may look at first glance like the proper address, but has one letter missing or is spelt wrong.

  5. There’s a request for personal information.

  6. There is poor grammar and spelling mistakes.

  7. The entire text of the email is contained within an image rather than the usual text format, and the image contains an embedded hyperlink to a bogus site. Again, roll your mouse pointer over the link to reveal its true destination.  But don’t click it!

Other online scams

  • Romance scams: Bogus online dating or chat room accounts where relationships are established in order to steal money from groomed victims. Sometimes victims are asked to pass money from another country through their account – this may in fact be money laundering.  Click here to find out more about romance scams.
  • Ponzi scams: These offer get-rich-quick schemes with high financial rewards for low-risk payments. Receiving and passing money through your account may constitute money laundering.
  • Recovery room scams:These offer you the chance to recover funds already lost through other scams, for a fee.
  • Shopping and auctions: Scammers will steer victims away from online sites and request unusual payment methods such as money transfer agents or Emoney, a digital equivalent of cash.
  • Computer programs:Scammers may attempt to put programmes on your computer that can steal, wipe or lock your data. This is why it’s important to use strong passwords on all your online accounts, always have anti-virus software and a firewall installed, and update these to the latest versions as soon as these become available.



  2. Make sure you have strong passwords on all your online accounts, and change these regularly. For a secure password, use three random words and include a symbol, numbers and upper and lower-case letters.

  3. Look after your mobile devices. Don’t leave them unattended in public places, and protect them with a PIN or passcode.

  4. Ensure you always have internet security software loaded on computers and update to new versions immediately.

  5. Don’t assume that Wi-Fi hotspots in places like cafes, bars and hotel rooms are secure, so never use them when you’re doing anything confidential online, like banking. Instead, use 3G or 4G.

  6. Never reveal too much personal or financial information in emails, on social networking and dating sites and in person. You never know who might see it or use it.

  7. Always consider that online or on the phone, people aren’t always who they claim to be. Fake emails and phone calls are a favourite way for fraudsters to approach their victims.

  8. Don’t click on links in emails, posts, tweets or texts – and don’t open attachments – if the source isn’t 100% known and trustworthy, or it seems strange that you’d be receiving them.

  9. Always access internet banking sites by typing the bank’s address into your web browser.

  10. Never pay for anything by direct bank transfer unless it’s to someone you know personally and is reputable.

  11. Never respond to any emails, text messages, letters or social media that look suspicious, including messages with bad spelling or grammar.

  12. Never go to a website from a link in an e-mail and then enter personal details – the email could be fraudulent.

  13. If you are at all suspicious, heed your instincts! You are very probably right.  Go and check with someone you trust.

  14. If someone you’ve never met in person asks you for money, that should be a red flag. Tell them you’re not interested and stop all contact.

  15. When shopping online always sign up to American Express SafeKey, Verified by Visa and MasterCard SecureCode as well as looking for the padlock or unbroken key symbol when you first visit a site. Where possible make your purchase with a credit card or via a credible online payment system (PayPal) which protects you in the event of fraud.

Get Safe Online

Get Safe Online has also made a series of short films explaining some of the risks of going online and providing simple advice on how to avoid them.  View these here.