There’s no getting away with the fact that there has been a huge increase in fraud over the last year.

[According to the BBC] Barclays have said 77% of scams they are seeing originate on social media, online marketplaces and dating apps. TSB also reported a huge spike in cases.

UK Finance, who represent the banking industry, reported that fraud losses in 2021 (the last figures available) totalled £1.3 billion with £1.4 billion in attempted fraud prevented. Alarmingly, that’s just reported fraud. Stop Scams UK – the industry affiliated organisation dedicated to stopping the scammers – tell me that the actual figure is closer to £4 billion.

What’s particularly concerning is the increase in complaints about sites like Facebook marketplace where many fraudsters masquerade as legitimate retailers. Or the rise of scams on WhatsApp, including the notorious ‘hi mum, hi dad’ con.  Scams using these two businesses alone make up a large number of the fraud cases that people contact me about each week.

So here’s my guide on the latest scams you need to watch out for – and I’ve also roped in my fellow TV expert and technology expert, David McClelland, to help you understand and avoid identity theft scams.

WhatsApp scams

There’s a bit of an urban myth out there that suggests because WhatsApp is encrypted, it’s not possible to use it to commit fraud. However, while hacking the service might be tricky, it’s not that difficult for an enterprising fraudster to hijack and account or impersonate one.

But most scams are typically low-tech and use tried and tested variations of scams that have been around for years. One of the most common at the moment is the ‘hi mum, hi dad’ con.

You receive a message or call from an unknown number, purportedly from a friend or family member. This usually suggests that they have lost their phone and borrowed one (hence the unknown number). Next you’ll be told about a potential emergency situation, in the hope you’ll transfer some cash over without thinking. This con is so successful and ubiquitous it even formed the basis of a recent episode of the Simpsons.

Remember, these scams work by putting you under pressure to respond without giving you time to think. So don’t transfer cash. Remember – if a friend or family member really is in desperate need, they’ll borrow a phone and call you. Not send a WhatsApp or text message.

Marketplace scams

When you buy goods or services through an online marketplace, like eBay or Amazon, there is at least a dispute resolution centre for you to go through if there’s a problem with the person you bought from.

But some social media marketplaces muddy the water a bit. There are lots of complaints about ‘official’ sites like Facebook marketplace, from fake listings to ‘groups’ that pose as fan sites but are often there to lure you in to making purchases of fake or non-existent goods. Facebook does have a ‘Purchase Protection Policy’ for complaints about purchases from its marketplace, though I’ve heard mixed reports about some claims.

On top of all of that, many of the adverts on social media are often for firms based abroad who sell goods that are of… shall we say ‘variable’ quality!’

The best way to avoid these scams is to do your research. Check to see if the firm is based in the UK in the first instance as this makes things easier to deal with if there is a problem. Always check the contact details so you know that there is someone to speak to if something goes wrong. Most important of all, only pay for goods by debit or credit card, or by an e-payments system like PayPal which can help you get your cash back if things go wrong. Do not transfer money direct to the account of another person – chances are you won’t get it back.

PayPal friends and family

Speaking of which, some fraudsters are using PayPal’s ‘Friends and Family’ option to get their hands on your cash. This allows you to pay people you trust without incurring a fee. However, Friends and Family payments operate in a very similar way to a bank transfer. Because you’re only supposed to use this method to pay people you know, you are not covered by PayPal’s buyer seller protection schemes. Fraudsters exploit this by asking you to use Friends and Family when you purchase (fake) goods or services. When the items don’t turn up, you have no recourse through PayPal. 

Martyn James is a leading consumer rights campaigner, TV and radio broadcaster and journalist.

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