7 Oct 2022

Dealing with scam calls

As the cost of living crisis begins to bite, there are daily reports of increased activity from fraudsters, who are seizing the opportunity to exploit our current economic ills, and are approaching members of the public with sophisticated scams – mimicking texts or emails from HMRC, the energy companies, the NHS and so on.

At times like this it is easy to feel beleaguered in your own home. Your computer and your phones are fast becoming portals into what should be an impregnable fortress. Try as you might to maintain physical security – strong locks and bolts, video cameras, state of the art burglar alarms – you may feel increasingly vulnerable to the online menace.

There is a wealth of good advice available, which we should all note: don’t hand over money until you’ve checked credentials; don’t click links in a text or email from an unknown source; never give banking or personal details to someone you don’t know; never send money to someone you don’t know or trust.

But fraudsters operate in insidious ways and when they engage you in personal contact by phone they may be able to manipulate you. We have all been taught to be polite to strangers, to mind our ps and qs, to listen attentively, to do our best to answer questions honestly. Fraudsters can exploit this bedrock of good manners by engaging us in polite and plausible conversations, which can lull us into a false sense of security and may even lead to us making a fatal error.

You can guard against this vulnerability and still maintain your self-respect and good manners. If you receive an unsolicited call, ensure that you do the following:

• Wherever possible, screen your calls. There’s no rule that dictates that you must answer your phone, so if you see an unfamiliar number on your caller display, let the call go through to voicemail. Genuine callers will leave a message. If an unknown person does leave a message, you can then contemplate it at your leisure, exercise due diligence on Google, and make a calm and rational decision about whether you should respond.

• If you do unknowingly pick up the phone to a scammer, you may well find that they will use small talk to engage you and lull you into a false sense of security. They will use conversational standbys such as enquiries about your health or the weather to make inroads. It is fine to answer a query such as “How are you enjoying this heatwave?”, but you should immediately follow your answer with a polite request: “Who am I talking to?”.

• The primary purpose of phone scammers is to extract information from you – at one extreme this may be bank details; much less obviously they may want to find out about your domestic set-up, your family, your age, work experience and so on. A stranger asking lots of questions on the phone should be a red flag. Try to block the questions by turning the tables and turning interrogator. Politely ask for the caller’s full name, number and credentials, ask for bona fides, ask which country the caller is based in, just keep asking. 

• Neither confirm nor deny questions that are put to you by the scammer about your feelings or motivations.  They will utilise any opportunity to play on feelings of insecurity, anxiety or greed. If, for example, they ask an apparently blindingly obvious question, for example ‘Do you want to make your money work for you?’ or ‘are you worried about your retirement?’ still respond with a question ‘Why are you asking me about that?’ or ‘It’s not something I generally discuss with strangers.’

•Don’t fall for clichés. Many fraudsters are extremely sophisticated: they speak good English, they do not work in noisy call centres, they are well-spoken and articulate. In the case of fraud, the normal social signals we use to assess people’s credibility are scrambled, so don’t let your guard down just because the caller seems to be on your wavelength.

• Don’t be too trusting of people purporting to call from respectable-sounding institutions, such as HM Government, the DVLA or the Royal Mail. It’s quite acceptable to ask the caller to prove their credentials – perhaps by revealing information about you that only the institution in question would know (when you last filed your tax return, for example). Alternatively, you can always tell the caller that you will call them back on the number listed on their organisation’s official website. Any signs of reluctance for you to go ahead with this proceeding will indicate that this is not a bona fide caller.

• If you do find yourself involved in a conversation, politely ask the caller to slow down so you can make a careful note of their particulars. Indicate that you like to keep a record, so you can discuss the call with your wife/husband/partner/financial adviser. This will not be a popular proceeding for most scammers and will wrong-foot them.

• If you really feel that the evidence it is a scam is overwhelming, terminate the call; it is quite possible to do this politely but firmly.  Say “I’m so sorry. I have listened to what you have to say, but I don’t want to take this any further. Thank you for calling. Goodbye” and put the phone down immediately before the caller can respond.

• Some people find it difficult to bring a call with a persistent scammer to an end as they are worried about interrupting or appearing rude. It is always a good idea to have an excuse up your sleeve, so if you’re feeling hectored, badgered or trapped, you can just say something like ‘Oh dear, there’s the doorbell, I’m sorry I’m going to have to go’.

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