Stay Safe: Avoiding Telephone Scams

Last Updated on 19 January 2021 by Dan

Hello everyone!

This post was inspired by a call I got last Friday at work. I picked up the phone and heard an automated recorded message from BT, saying there was an issue with my line and that an engineer call out would be needed, and push 1 to be connected to a member of team to arrange this. Happily I’d cottoned on quickly to the fact that this was a scam and put the phone down.

Often it’s not that simple however – I was caught when awake and on the ball. I’ve definitely had times when if caught when a bit sleepy or distracted I might not have immediately picked it up.

It can happen to anyone….

It doesn’t matter how smart you are, it can happen to anyone if caught in the right circumstance. In the FT this week (article here but may be behind a paywall), Alice Kantor wrote about her experiences nearly falling for a fraud where she was told an improper filing from HMRC meant she was being penalised and had to pay immediately. She nearly fell for it as her initial impression was that the person who did her accounts may have made an error, only to cotton on when she rightfully insisted on some paperwork prior to taking any actions.

It’s amazing how it can be the financially literate who get caught in scams just much as vulnerable people. I’m not sure if it’s just coincidence or I’ve been more aware, but I’ve noticed how much more recently friends have mentioned being targeted by similar scams recently. As a result it’s good for us all to check in from time to time on making sure we stay scam aware.

What the scammers do:

There’s a few psychological tricks that telephone scammers will use to try to get to you.

The first thing they’ll try to do is create a sense of panic – usually because something isn’t right and there will be negative impact to you if it isn’t fixed.

Classic examples used in scams are:

  • A bank payment hasn’t gone through.
  • There’s an issue with your taxes or utilities, TV license etc.
  • An issue with your utilities means you’re about to be cut off.
  • You have done something criminal unknowingly.

The instant reaction of this is to trigger your fight or flight response – cortisol (our stress hormone) floods the brain because something bad might be about to happen. Cortisol triggers our desire for immediate action – ironically it makes our logical decision making worse which is exactly what the scammer wants.

How can we stop this?

Ideally, this is the point we can shut that scammer down immediately. Remain calm, and think about if the claim of the person on the other end makes sense.

It’s never unreasonable to simply say that if that’s the case please can they confirm in writing and put the phone down (just never give your address – if it’s a legitimate entity they should already have it!)

Cranking up the pressure:

Stage 2 of scam methodology is to increase the intensity of the pressure by introducing a form of time issue that this situation must be resolved immediately. This is designed to kick up that cortisol into yet another gear and make you so worried that you hand over your bank details before you’re had time to think about it.

Usually in scams the threat will be some kind of:

  • Imprisonment/legal action
  • A larger (usually completely unmanageable) fine for not paying some form of smaller fine now.
  • Cutting off service.

Again, keep calm. We’re now definitely into territory where no real action could feasibly be taken without giving you formal details in writing.

Challenge the ‘why the immediacy’ – most scammers will be really insistent that the situation absolutely has to be resolved right away and there is no other option. If they’re persistent on this you should smell a rat.

In short:

No genuine large company will call you with a major issue that can only be resolved over the phone.

No genuine large company would expect a form of immediate payment with consequences if it doesn’t happen.

If you’re in doubt – ANY doubt….. don’t be pressured. Simply put down the phone.

Keep alert and keep aware. The people who try this stuff are the absolute worst of humanity, because they know exactly what they’re doing.

You may also be interested in our article on some additional tips on avoiding more investment related scams/risky propositions.

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