AA Legal Documents
Law guide

Common scams



This section of the site contains information on specific scams and rip-offs. Examples include:

  • Emails from other countries offering large sums of money to help move imaginary bank accounts
  • Phone calls and text messages advertising offers that are too good to be true
  • Investment and travel opportunities that are not as advertised
  • Unexpected and unwanted gifts that you are later asked to pay for
  • Medical and mystical products that do not work or even exist

African email or letter advance fee fraud

These types of scams are sometimes referred to as 419 scams. The number 419 is a reference to a section of the Nigerian penal code which deals with these types of scams. In fact, although this type of scam frequently originates from parts of Africa, it can have other sources. There is evidence that a similar scam has operated from the USA.

This scam is often based on the premise that some major event or misfortune, such as the overthrow of a government, has resulted in large sums of money being held in a country by a person or persons who are seeking help in transferring the money to another country. A proportion of the money is offered for help in arranging the transfer.

Contact is normally by email, but has also been made by post. Typically, the writer appears to be a senior government official, an accountant with a state owned corporation, or perhaps a relative of a deposed or dead politician. They are also usually marked 'Strictly Confidential' or 'Urgent', and offer the opportunity to share in some kind of multi-million pound scheme.

There is evidence from around the world that company directors, lawyers and other professional people have reportedly lost significant amounts of cash. Inevitably, having parted with the money, they never heard from their African business partner again. Others have had personal and company bank accounts emptied of money.

Don't reply to these requests.

Never, ever, reveal your bank details to strangers.

Been caught?

The Home Office suggests, in the case of 419/advance fee emails, alerting the internet service provider (ISP) from which the email originated, by sending a copy to abuse@[theISPname] (for example, abuse@yahoo.com; abuse@hotmail.com; abuse@onebox.com). The ISP should then be able to quickly terminate the account.

If you think you have been a victim of this kind of scam, call Consumer Direct for advice on 08454 040506 or Consumerline in Northern Ireland on 0845 600 6262.

Bogus charity collections

Many people find donating old clothes and goods to charities a good method of clearing out their cupboards and making space. Charities often make use of doorstep collections to gather donations directly from people's homes. However, some of these charity collections are bogus.

It is estimated by the Association of Charity Shops that the potential value of donated clothing and other items 'lost' to legitimate charities as a result of these bogus collections, amounts to over £1m per annum. Many genuine charities rely on such doorstep collections for a substantial proportion of their shop sales.

Typically, householders receive flyers through their letterboxes appealing for donations of unwanted clothes, footwear and sometimes other household and electrical items, to be distributed to poor individuals and families in Eastern European or third world countries. Householders are asked to leave the goods in a plastic bag by the front door. These are later collected anonymously.

The flyers give the misleading impression that the items are being collected for charitable purposes. In reality, the collections seem to be organised by commercial operators who sell the donated items for profit. The misleading impression is in some instances reinforced by a reference to a registration number, which people may think is that of a Registered Charity but is in fact a limited company number.

If you have any doubts about a leaflet asking for donations, you can:

  • Contact the Charity Commission helpline on 0870 333 0123 to check whether the collection is for, or on behalf of, a registered charity.
  • Contact your local authority to see if the collector has been licensed.
  • Give direct to a local charity shop instead or donate to a charity shop collection sack. These should make clear reference to the charity registration number and many will also carry the Association of Charity Shops Kitemark.

Clairvoyant or psychic scams

"I accidentally discovered this amazing secret. I wish to send it to you free. In fact, I am convinced that over the next 30 days a 'Miracle' will certainly occur, one which could shelter you from need for the rest of your days..."

This is an example of a psychic mailing. The information which follows suggests that the recipient can guarantee good fortune for themselves by paying a sum of money for the "loan" of "Merlin's Magic Wand" for a number of months. (Also on offer is a "gift worth more than £10" in return for a prompt reply.) It includes anonymous endorsements from people whose lives are claimed to have been changed.

In some cases, these mailings adopt a more aggressive tone, suggesting that the recipient will actually experience some misfortune if they do not respond by the sending money requested.

Such mailings prey directly on the vulnerable and are particularly unpleasant. There are a number of instances where they have been received by people at the time of some misfortune, such as bereavement, and have caused considerable distress.

Mail of this kind should be treated with exactly the same scepticism as all other forms of unsolicited scam mailing.

Don't reply to these mailings.

Destroy them without responding.

Home employment opportunities

"Imagine owning your own business, being your own boss, working only a few hours per week, never having to set an alarm clock again... a business that's fun, easy, even exciting work. No staff, no overheads, no bookwork, no selling, working from the comfort of your home."

Advertisements promoting business and employment opportunities in your home may be deceptive. They may sound good, but they don't always tell the full story. Be suspicious if you have to pay a fee to receive more information. Beware of advertisements that make unbelievable claims about job opportunities or potential earnings.

These types of job adverts appear to offer paid work for 'stuffing envelopes', but are often a front for phoney get rich-quick schemes. You reply to the advert and usually receive a request for money, after which you're sent a 'plan'. It informs you to place a similar advertisement, photocopy the 'plan' and mail it out to other unsuspecting victims. The only person who makes any money is the promoter who placed the original advert, and he or she then moves on.

The targets for phoney homeworking schemes are usually people who need extra money, but who are not able to work outside their home. These adverts typically promise 'a large income' for working on projects 'in great demand'. Some promotions stress that 'no experience is necessary', while others indicate that 'no investment is required'.

The one characteristic common to all of these schemes is that you are required to send money before you are able to start work. Some require you to buy materials to produce items, such as sewing baby booties or aprons, making Christmas wreaths or toys, or fabricating other specialty products. You're not told that you have to sell these items yourself and there is usually little or no market for them.

Those behind these schemes are only interested in selling you their scheme. Some promoters say 'no selling required'. They promise to buy back any items you make, as long as your workmanship is 'acceptable'. Of course, these promoters will reject everything you send them by telling you that your finished products do not meet their 'high standards'. You are left to sell the items on your own, if you can.

If you are looking for work to do at home, you should consider writing to or approaching local companies who may be able to offer this type of work. Genuine employers will not ask for money in advance before providing you with work.

Internet scams

About internet scams

The internet is a very useful tool, but it has given a new lease of life to some old scams such as pyramid schemes, chain letters, bogus business or investment "opportunities".

The internet makes it even easier for tricksters to hide, shut down and move on. Clever websites may look legitimate and be more convincing than newspaper advertisements making the same false claims.

Internet scams may find you via your email address. With a few keystrokes, a message reaches hundreds of thousands of people through a single email delivered via the internet. Just as tricksters use unsolicited post to tout their schemes to unsuspecting people, so the new super-highway robbers promote their schemes using email.

Treat unsolicited internet emails offering easy money with all the same caution as unsolicited postal mail.

This doesn't mean you should avoid using the internet. It does mean that potential investors exploring the Web should do so with caution and be aware of the possibility of scams.

Tips for avoiding internet scams

  • Don't give your bank account numbers, credit card numbers or other personal information to anyone you don't know or haven't checked out.
  • Remember that people you speak to on the internet are not always what they seem.
  • Make sure that an investment or business opportunity and the person or company promoting it are properly registered with the relevant authority or trade association.
  • Check out the company or individual's track record.
  • Take your time. While there may be time limits for special offers, high-pressure sales tactics are often signs of a scam.
  • Take independent professional (legal and/or financial) advice.
  • Don't expect to get rich quick, and invest only with those you know and trust.
  • Don't assume that your online computer service polices its investment bulletin boards.
  • Don't buy little-known shares strictly on the basis of online (or other) hype.
  • Don't judge reliability by how professional a website looks. It's relatively easy and costs very little to create, register, and promote a website.
  • Try not to accept unsolicited emails. They are often used by scam artists.

Unauthorised internet banks

You may come across organisations over the internet that claim to be banks or offer banking services, but which are not authorised by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) (one of the successors to the Financial Services Authority). Consumers should exercise caution when dealing with unauthorised banks. You will not get the benefit of the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, nor will you have recourse to the Financial Ombudsman Service if you have any complaints.

These 'banks' will often be operating lottery or inheritance scams. They inform the customer that several million pounds is being held for them, and that to get it they must simply open an account or activate the account in question, which will cost thousands of pounds in fees.

Consumers are strongly advised to check whether a firm or individual is authorised on the Financial Services Register. They are also advised to check the Financial Conduct Authority's list of unauthorised internet banks. Please note that this list is by no means exhaustive, as new names are regularly added. The absence of a firm's name from this list does not necessarily mean that they can be safely dealt with.

Invention promotion firms

Do you believe you have a great idea for a new product or service? You're not alone. Each year, many thousands of people try to develop their ideas and commercially market them.

Some people try to sell their idea or invention to a manufacturer who would market it and pay royalties. But finding a company to do that can be difficult. As an alternative, others use the services of an invention or patent promotion firm. Indeed, many inventors pay thousands of pounds to firms that promise to evaluate, develop, patent and market inventions... and then do little or nothing for their fees.

The pitch

Advertisements for invention promotion firms appear on television, radio and the internet, and in newspapers and magazines. These adverts target independent inventors with offers of free information on how to patent and market their inventions. However, often the free information is all about the promoter and is a way to establish contact with potential targets.

After giving your invention a preliminary review, a firm might tell you it needs to do a market evaluation of your idea for a fee that can be several hundred pounds. Many questionable firms don't do any genuine research or market evaluations. The "research" is bogus, and the "positive" reports are mass produced in an effort to sell clients additional invention promotion and marketing services.

Fraudulent invention promotion firms don't offer an honest appraisal of the merit, technical feasibility or market potential of an invention.

Some invention promotion firms also may offer a contract in which they agree to help you market and license your invention to manufacturers. Unscrupulous promoters may require you to pay a fee of several thousand pounds in advance.

Reputable licensing agents don't rely on large advance fees. Rather, they depend on royalties from the successful licensing of client inventions. So few inventions make it to the marketplace, that they are choosy about which ideas or inventions they pursue. If a firm is enthusiastic about the market potential of your idea - but charges you a fee in advance - consider taking your business elsewhere.

Commonsense tips

Contracting for the services of an invention promotion firm is no different to any other major financial transaction. Apply the same commonsense.

  • Do you really need the services of an invention promoter? Try to do as much research for yourself as possible. The Intellectual Property office website and the Intellectual Property Portal can provide you with lots of background information on patents, trademarks, design registrations and copyright. Using an invention promoter is just one of the many ways to market your new products or ideas.
  • If you decide to approach an invention promoter, ensure that any information you give them about your invention is kept confidential. If there is any disclosure of how the invention works, without a confidentiality agreement, any future patent application will be put at risk.
  • Question any claims or assurances you are given, that your invention will make money. Nobody can guarantee your invention's success.
  • Investigate the company before you make any commitment. Request information from the place in which the company is based, to find out if there are any unresolved consumer complaints about the firm.
  • Make sure your contract contains all the terms you agreed to - both verbal and written - and that you understand all the terms and conditions before you sign.
  • Remember that once a dishonest company has your money, it's unlikely you will ever get it back.
  • Be sure to take independent legal and financial advice.

The Intellectual Property Office has produced a step-by-step guide to using invention promotion firms, which can be found on their website.

Investment scams

What are investment scams?

The word "investment" is used in connection with a wide range of schemes offering income, interest or profit in return for a financial outlay. It is often used loosely, and sometimes misleadingly, in order to disguise the true nature of a scheme; e.g. pyramid schemes, chain letters or other types of scheme where a return depends on persuading others to join.

The term "investment" is used here in connection with the purchase of something - such as high value or rare goods, stocks and shares, property - in the expectation that what is purchased will increase in value, and even provide an exceptional return compared to other forms of investment.

It is not always understood by potential investors that there is a wide range of so-called investments which are unregulated. This means that they are not traded by authorised investment brokers, who might be expected to operate to professional standards. Nor are they traded on a regulated exchange, which means that their current value and prospects for appreciation are difficult or impossible to assess through any of the normal channels. There is no guarantee that the market will still be functioning when you come to realise your investment and almost no chance of any compensation if the investments have been mis-sold. This all creates opportunities for the unscrupulous to mislead and trap the unwary.

Investment scams will always try to appear more attractive than conventional investments, and so the return on the outlay is always likely to be exaggerated or unrealistic. It follows that the essential message which applies to other scams applies equally to investments - if it looks too good to be true, it probably is!

Goods sold as investments

High value goods such as alcohol (e.g. champagne), paintings or jewellery, are usually promoted on the premise that they will perform better than other investments, such as shares traded on the Stock Market.

One common characteristic is that the potential investor does not or cannot approach the company offering the "investment". The introduction is almost always by telephone cold-calling or email, although the approach frequently comes in the form of a seemingly innocent offer of information. It is common for the scam operators to use shareholder lists to get the names of investors, and then offer them a free report if the potential investor confirms his or her address and provides a telephone number.

The potential investor then receives a brochure, or a phone call followed by a brochure. The brochure contains limited and often misleading information about the investment prospects of the goods on offer, and may be accompanied by press cuttings which appear to indicate that the major newspapers have reported that you can't lose by investing. There may be a graph showing how investment in the goods out-performs traditional stocks and shares. This is misleading, because it deals only with capital gain on the stock market, and takes no account of the dividend income derived from shares.

The operators of these scams are practised telesales operators posing as experts in their field to give potential investors confidence, even though the investor may have no real understanding of the goods' prospects. The goods are always made to seem difficult to obtain without 'expert' assistance, and when brokers go for the sale, they claim the goods on offer are so scarce that the investor must make a quick decision or he/she will miss the opportunity. However, once the sale is made, the goods are almost always readily available.

It is common for the goods to be held in store by a third party on behalf of the investor. But in some cases, the goods may not even exist or have very little real value or investment potential. But in all cases, the goods do not represent a viable investment, because at the price paid, they will either not appreciate at all or it will take many years before they even reach the value at which they were purchased.

The Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) investigates unregulated corporate schemes involving the sale of goods or commodities as investments.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and the Trading Standards board can take action in other EU member states against a trader based in the EU who is harming the collective interests of consumers. Where a trader is based outside the EU, the CMA and the Trading Standards board can seek assistance from overseas counterparts, through the auspices of the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN), to take action against dishonest traders in their jurisdiction who target UK consumers.


There are a number of companies offering shares by telephone or via the internet from abroad (i.e. outside the UK regulated area). They are likely to tell potential investors that they have the opportunity to invest in shares in a company that is either about to be launched on a stock market or is already listed, but about to boom. The investor is given an idea of how much profit will be made within a few weeks. In fact, the shares are likely to be in a failing company or one that has never even traded.

Investors who buy shares in this way, frequently find they have difficulty selling them, because the shares are not listed on a recognised stock exchange. But they may then be approached with an offer to help them sell the shares, provided they pay an "administration fee" upfront. Once the "fee" has been handed over, investors never hear from the firm again, leaving them further out of pocket and still holding the worthless shares.

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) regulates the marketing of shares. The FCA has published a list of unauthorised firms selling shares who target UK investors.

You can also use the Financial Services Register to find out whether a company or individual is an authorised trader.

Advertisements for investments

Misleading advertising or promotional claims may be in breach of the British Code of Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing. Complaints about misleading advertising or claims should be addressed to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). For advertising which originates outside of the UK, the ASA can liaise with the European Advertising Standards Alliance (EASA) for investigation. The ASA's Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) also have procedures to deal with complaints about advertising which originates beyond the jurisdiction of the EASA.

Tips to remember about investments:

  • ALWAYS take independent professional advice before making any investment, and particularly if the type of investment is unfamiliar to you.
  • Beware of unsolicited or unexpected approaches offering investment opportunities of any kind. Always check on the credentials of a company or individual before dealing with them.
  • Beware of claims that an investment will produce guaranteed, risk-free or exceptional return. Most investments include an element of risk and returns cannot be guaranteed.
  • Beware of any investment whose past performance and potential growth cannot be easily checked, for example in the financial press or via an independent financial adviser. Ask yourself, "Why not?"
  • Beware of pressure to make a quick decision and NEVER sign up to anything immediately. A reputable dealer will allow time for you to undertake research, and if the investment is genuine, there will usually be a 'cooling off' period in case you change your mind.
  • ALWAYS ask about payment of commission. Beware of an up-front commission payable at the time of purchase instead of the time of sale.
  • Beware of being told to keep the deal confidential. If the investment is legitimate, why would you need to keep it confidential?
  • NEVER give your bank account numbers, credit card numbers or other personal information to anyone you don't know or whose credentials you haven't checked.
  • Ignore emails, chain letters or any other unsolicited approach that promotes get-rich-quick schemes. They're not worth reading and will almost certainly leave you out of pocket!

Reporting investment scams

If you believe you have been approached by a scam operator or have lost money as a result of a scam, you can contact the following authorities:

Goods sold as investments


Misleading Advertising

Miracle cures

Pamphlets or advertisements from unscrupulous sellers of medical products often claim or promise 'miracles'. Beware of exaggerated claims such as 'instant cures for arthritis', 'lose weight without effort', 'grow hair overnight', or 'look years younger.' Similarly, beware of claims that medical appliances, such as hearing aids, are only available from an exclusive source.

These pills, lotions, creams and other products will be marketed as cures for various ailments, but it is unlikely that they have been properly tested or proven medically effective. Some might even be dangerous for your health. Hair replacement is another area where many promises don't materialise.

These medically ineffective or dangerous products are sold by professional fraudsters with no medical training. Sales gimmicks include fake testimonials from 'satisfied customers', emotional sales pitches and outright lies regarding product effectiveness.

Don't be misled

  • Don't believe claims that a product available only by mail or from an exclusive supplier contains a 'special', 'secret', 'foreign' or 'ancient' formula that will provide instant cures.
  • Don't believe claims that a 'miracle' drug or product will effectively treat a wide variety of illnesses or ailments.
  • Don't accept testimonials or case histories from 'satisfied customers' as the only evidence that the product actually works.
  • Don't believe claims that the medical establishment overlooked or suppressed a 'scientific breakthrough'. Someone is trying to convince you to part with your hard-earned money.

Premium rate telephone numbers

"Looking for some extra cash over Christmas? We are flat out with orders for the Christmas rush. Big money for hard workers. Earn in excess of £500 a week! Call Dave now on ..."

The catch is it takes you up to five costly minutes on the phone to find out there is no real job on offer.

The use and high cost of premium telephone numbers can be a central feature of a scam. Fraudsters use these numbers to carry out many different scams. They include phoney competitions, prize and holiday offers, as well as deceptive credit card promotions. The longer you stay on the line, the more money the fraudster earns.

The scams may begin with notification by post, by phone or other means, claiming that you have won something or have qualified for a credit card. You might be promised a product or service, but what you actually receive, if you receive anything, is likely to be disappointing. You will then be instructed to contact the scammer on a premium rate number.

If you are calling to get a credit card, you might simply get a list of banks to which you can apply for a card. If you are told to call because you are the winner of a prize draw, you will receive nothing at all, except a very large phone bill!

You might call the number and be required to listen to a long recorded sales message or answer a long list of questions. Remember, the longer you stay on the phone, the higher the charge for the call.

You might even be directed to a second premium rate telephone number for additional information, or to claim your prize or order your product or service.

Rogue premium rate internet diallers

Rogue premium rate internet diallers secretly download virus software to transfer dial-up internet connections from low-cost or freephone numbers to expensive 090 premium rate numbers.

The rogue dialler is installed on your computer without your knowledge, usually when you open a spam email or visit a website where the software is hidden. You can run up vast bills - often into several hundred pounds per month.

Tips to remember:

  • Premium rate telephone numbers attract charges by the minute, usually well above the cost of a local or STD call.
  • Don't dial these numbers unless you are absolutely sure how much you will be charged, and you are willing to pay for it.
  • Be on your guard if after dialling one of these numbers, you hear a message asking you to dial a second number.
  • Do some research into the organisation if you have never heard of them before, and trust your own commonsense.
  • Always read the small print of any promotion, so that you know any hidden catches and costs and exactly what you are likely to get.
  • You can always hang up.


PhonepayPlus is the organisation that regulates phone paid and premium rate telecommunications products or services - such as competitions, TV voting, helplines, adult entertainment, mobile ringtone and logo downloads, news alerts or interactive games - that are charged to users' phone bills or pre-pay accounts.

PhonepayPlus's purpose is to establish, maintain and ensure compliance with appropriate standards of protection for users of premium rate information and entertainment services, and in doing so, contributes towards the development of the industry. It can investigate complaints, and has the power to fine companies and bar access to services. In addition, it offers free advice and guidance to both existing and new service providers.

Consumers can submit a complaint online

Pyramid selling, trading schemes and chain gifting

Scams in this category can take a number of forms, such as phoney trading schemes, chain letters, mailing lists or money making "clubs".

Sometimes a scheme will have the features of more than one type. But like other scams, the aim is separate the unwary from their money, by offering the chance to make large amounts of money quickly.

One thing these scams have in common is that for every participant to receive the money on offer, would require an endless supply of new participants. Since this is impossible in practice, these schemes must eventually collapse, and result in most participants losing their money.

Trading schemes

Trading schemes (also described as direct selling schemes, network marketing, multi-level marketing and other names) are a legitimate form of business activity, offering individuals the opportunity to earn money by selling the scheme's goods or services from home. In some schemes, participants may earn additional commission by recruiting others to the scheme and from sales by their recruits.

However, trading schemes must comply with the provisions in Part XI of the Fair Trading Act as amended by the Trading Schemes Act 1996 and the Trading Schemes Regulations 1997.

Trading schemes become illegitimate and illegal when, while purporting to trade in goods or services, their real purpose is to generate money by recruiting new participants.

This is often referred to as "pyramid selling" (but not all "pyramid" schemes are "pyramid selling"). Note that recruitment rewards are not in themselves unlawful. But it is unlawful to persuade someone that the main motive for joining a scheme is to profit from recruiting others or to take money from someone on the basis of such a motive.

BIS has issued a guidance booklet ''The Trading Scheme Guide'' which outlines the provisions of current legislation. It includes the following important questions for all potential participants to consider:

  • Do I understand what is being offered to me?
  • Do I know what I will have to pay?
  • Do I understand that this is a self-employment opportunity and earnings will depend on the market and my efforts?
  • Is there a demand for the products of the scheme, and can I honestly recommend them to others?
  • While I have a legal right to a contract, do I understand that, if things go wrong, it will be up to me to enforce my rights?
  • Am I prepared to take the risk?
  • Should I seek independent advice before joining? (Compliance with the legislation does not mean that a scheme is commercially viable. Potential participants should seek independent and professional business and legal advice before signing any contract.)

Pyramid and chain-gifting schemes

Other forms of pyramid scheme do not claim to sell goods and services, but they do sell false promises of quick and easy money. They may be advertised through newspapers, the internet, 'investment' meetings, or you might hear about them through a relative or friend.

In a typical pyramid scheme, a potential member is asked to pay to join the scheme. The only way to advance is to recruit others, who also pay to join. If enough new members join, the pyramid will grow, possibly enabling some participants to make money. But in order for every participant to make money, there would need to be an endless supply of newcomers. In reality, since the number of new participants is finite, each new participant has less chance of recruiting others and a greater chance of losing their money.

Under the Gambling Act 2005, it is an offence for a person to invite someone to join a chain-gift scheme or for them to knowingly participate in the promotion, administration or management of a chain-gift scheme.

Why chain-gifting/pyramid schemes cannot work for most participants

If eight people invest £3,000 each in a scheme and then progress through the levels of the pyramid, they will each expect to receive £24,000 when they reach the final top. For each of those eight people to receive that amount, it will be necessary for 64 people to have each invested £3000.

Each of those 64 investors will be expecting to collect their £24,000, but that would mean that 512 people would have to have invested. Subsequent investors would need 4,096 participants, then 32,768 participants, then 262,144 participants and so on. In simple terms, each participant needs another eight investors in the scheme to get their money back and make a return.

The supply of potential investors will dry up, leaving the majority of people in the scheme having paid out a large sum and receiving nothing in return.

Both the Gambling Act 2005 and Consumer Protection from unfair trading Regulations 2008 (CPRs) ban the establishment, operation or promotion of a pyramid scheme in the way described above.

Chain-gifting letters

A typical chain letter might introduce itself like this:


You have just received information that can give you financial freedom for the rest of your life. With NO RISK and JUST A LITTLE EFFORT, you can make more money in the next few months than you ever imagined!

I should point out that I will not see a penny of your money, or that of anyone else who participates in this programme. I have already made over £150,000! I have retired from the programme after sending out over 20,000 letters of invitation to participate in this phenomenon.

Yours faithfully...

Chain-gifting letters are usually circulated with names and addresses of "existing participants" attached. Recipients are invited to send a sum of money to at least one of the named persons, and then add their name to the list, before photocopying it and forwarding it to other people. But presentational details may vary. In the case of the quoted example, recipients who sent money received superficial 'business plans', and so the scheme claimed to be selling a product, although it was bogus.

Thousands of chain letter scams are sent every day to homes, email addresses or mobile phones. Some chain letters can persist almost unchanged for several years. Unfortunately, it usually proves impossible to find the first link in the chain.

Pyramid or chain-gifting schemes may also present themselves as games, with names like the Concorde or Plane Game. They consist of a pyramid of participants and a 'plane' with pilot, two co-pilots, crew of four and eight passengers. The 'pilot' recruits passengers to participate in the scheme. Each passenger pays a sum of money to 'fly'. The pilot then departs with the contributions from the 'passengers' and the scheme then splits into two as the co-pilots become captains of their own aircraft. Now it is their turn to make money. But, as with all pyramid schemes, there must be an infinite supply of participants, the 'paying passengers', and the plane must crash, sooner rather than later.

Top tips to remember

  • Avoid plans that offer commissions based solely on recruiting new members.
  • Be cautious of claims that you'll make money through continued growth or commissions on sales by your recruited distributors, instead of sales you make yourself.
  • Look out for decoy references. Some promoters pay people to describe fictional success in earning money through the plan. Ask for solid evidence, rather than a glowing testimonial.
  • Don't hand over any money or sign a contract to participate in any multi-level marketing plan until you've investigated it. Take independent professional advice.
  • Don't agree to anything (or sign anything) at high-pressure meetings or seminars.

Remember, don't fall for claims such as:

  • "Your recruits do all the work for you; you just sit back and bank the money."
  • "All you need for future wealth is your £XX starter kit."
  • "Become part of the world's fastest growing industry, 'Network Marketing'."
  • "You and your friends can enjoy wealth together."
  • "I was unemployed and in debt before I discovered this opportunity."
  • "I made £XXXX in XX days. I guarantee you will do the same."


  • If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • All schemes where money changes hands, may be subject to the general criminal law on fraud, theft and deceit. Evidence that a criminal offence may have been committed should be brought to the attention of the police.

Telemarketing scams

Many businesses use telemarketing to genuinely sell or introduce products to consumers. Telemarketing scams are widespread and have been around for years, and scam artists use telemarketing to swindle millions of pounds each year from consumers.

Credit Card loss protection

The scammer will call you to offer you some kind of Payment Protection Insurance. This will be an independent scheme which is not administered by your card company. This is a ploy to get your personal information so that it can be used to create dummy credit records.

Never give out your personal information - including your credit card or bank account numbers - over the phone or online, unless you know the business is reputable.

Advance Fee Loans

The Advance Fee Loan scam involves consumers receiving a phone call or email, or they respond to an advertisement for a pre-approved loan or credit card. The product is targeted at people with poor credit history, and claims are made that no matter what the credit history, the consumer can receive a loan or credit card. When the consumer enquires, they are told that yes, they can have the credit, all they have to do is pay an advance fee or security to obtain the credit.

Often, the consumer will receive no loan or credit card for the money they have paid. The company may tell the consumer they were unsuccessful, or the company will simply disappear. This may be contrary to guarantees that they would receive credit.


Never respond to companies that guarantee credit before an application. Legitimate credit lenders will never guarantee credit to a consumer before they apply, especially if they are dealing with consumers with bad credit history.

If you are asked to pay for processing fees or an amount as security for a credit card or loan, don't. Some lenders may ask you to pay for a credit report or appraisal, but they will never ask you to pay processing fees before the credit is approved.

International lottery scams

As the popularity of lotteries has increased in recent years, so too has the number of lottery-based scams. A well-known example is the 'Canadian lottery scam'.

This involves people (based in Canadian call centres) telephoning potential victims and advising them that they have won money on the lottery, but before they can claim the prize, they must send money to cover processing fees. More than 80% of victims are aged over 65 and many are told not to use credit cards as these 'can be traced' and prizes would be liable to local taxes.

It is not unusual for victims to be targeted more than once as 'sucker lists' are commonly shared amongst fraudster groups.

What can you do?

Do not respond to such a call with anything other than a request for more information, and never pay fees in advance.

Unsolicited gifts

Sometimes companies send unsolicited "gifts" in the post, together with instructions on how to pay for the item within a certain period. This is sometimes known as inertia selling.

If you receive goods in these circumstances, you can keep them as an unconditional gift. You don't have to pay for or return any unwanted unsolicited goods. Under the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000, it is a criminal offence to demand payment for unsolicited goods from a consumer. If you receive a demand for payment for unsolicited goods, you should report the matter to your local Trading Standards Department.

The position is a little different when unsolicited goods are received by a business. In this case, the recipient should notify the sender (registered mail is recommended) that the goods are not required and will not be paid for, and to say where they can be collected. The business recipient is required to keep the goods safe for a period of six months. If they are not collected within this time, the recipient can dispose of the goods as they see fit.

Unsolicited prize draws, lotteries or windfalls

Most people have received notification of a prize draw, lottery or other form of promotion in which they have been selected out of millions of others. To collect the money or prize, you need to send a payment to the originator for administration or processing costs.

More often than not, the money has to be sent to a PO Box. The PO Box may be within or outside the UK, but the source of these mailings and/or telephone calls is usually overseas (Canada, USA, Australia, the Netherlands and Austria are among the most common sources).

This is almost invariably a scam. Unless you entered a competition, treat news of winning one with extreme suspicion.

Typical scams may:

  • Offer access to a winning ticket or the prize in an overseas draw or lottery, or membership of a lottery syndicate, in return for an "administration" or "registration" fee.
  • Require a purchase of some kind to receive a "prize".
  • Offer "genuine, multifaceted jewellery".
  • Suggest that there are government funds available to be claimed by individuals.
  • Claim the recipient is entitled to an inheritance from a long-lost friend or relative.

More often than not, there is no prize or reward on offer. Anything that is "won" is usually sub-standard, overpriced or misleadingly described and worth much less than the requested fee.

To avoid becoming a scam mailing victim, remember these points:

  • Ask yourself 'How could I win a lottery prize if I haven't bought a ticket?''
  • Normally, if you win something, you don't have to pay anything to receive your prize.
  • Once you respond to bogus promotions, your name and address is likely to be placed on other lists for similar scams.
  • If asked to use a premium rate telephone number, remember these can be very expensive and may be part of the scam.
  • Never reveal credit card or bank account details unless absolutely sure who you're dealing with. These details may be asked for as 'identification'.

Typical warning signs include:

  • The approach, whether in writing, by phone or by email, is unsolicited.
  • There is a very short time in which to respond to claim a prize.
  • An invitation to send a "processing" or "management" fee, make a purchase or sign up to a service to obtain a prize or reward.
  • The need to use premium rate phone lines.
  • The source of the promotion is based overseas.
  • An invitation to send money out of the country, particularly the Netherlands or Canada.
  • Prizes are expressed in foreign currency.
  • An invitation to provide credit card or bank account details.
  • Rewards are wholly dependent on persuading others to join a scheme.

What to do if you're at all unsure about a mailing

Ask yourself:

  • What am I being asked to pay for?
  • Can I really afford to lose this money?
  • Does the mailing look too good to be true? If it does, it probably is.

You can check if the source of the mailing is a member of the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) - look for the DMA's logo. Members comply with a stringent code of practice.

If you decide the mailing is suspicious, put the mailing into your paper recycling bin or delete the message.

Vanity publishers

Have you always wanted to be a successful author? There are a great many people who believe they can write a best seller and enjoy financial as well as literary success.

Many more books are submitted to publishers than are ever published, because the majority of manuscripts are not considered commercially viable. Therefore, publishers are not able to justify the necessary outlay in editing, publishing and marketing a book. Due to the costs involved, any reputable publisher will be quite honest when assessing the commercial viability of a manuscript from an unknown author.

However, some aspiring authors choose to use the services of publishers who offer guaranteed publication and marketing of their manuscripts, for an advance fee. Unfortunately, the authors may get little or nothing in return.

The pitch

Advertisements for what are commonly known as vanity publishers are likely to be found in newspapers and magazines as well as on the internet. The adverts target authors with offers to turn their manuscripts into successful published books.

Scam publishers are likely to express enthusiasm for a manuscript and its commercial potential, outlining a plan for getting the published version into bookshops. However, they will also explain that for the plan to be put into effect, the author will need to pay a fee towards the initial costs of publishing and marketing. The fee may amount to hundreds, even thousands of pounds. The publisher will, of course, say that the fee will soon be recovered when the royalties from book sales start rolling in.

The reality is likely to be publication of a relatively small number of copies of the manuscript, and no real effort at marketing the published book.

If the firm is enthusiastic about the market potential of your manuscript, but wants to charge you a fee in advance, consider other publishers.

Commonsense tips

Contracting for the services of a publisher is no different to any other major financial transaction. Apply the same commonsense.

  • Question claims and assurances that your book will make money. Nobody can guarantee a book's success, particularly when the author has not been published before.
  • Investigate the company before you make any commitment. Request information from the place in which the company is based, to find out if there are any unresolved consumer complaints about them.
  • Make sure your contract contains all the terms you agreed to - both verbal and written - and that you understand all the terms and conditions before you sign.
  • Be sure to take independent legal and financial advice.

Remember that once a dishonest company has your money, it is difficult and costly to get it back.