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How to spot a payment scam: Five red flags you shouldn't ignore

Scams are becoming harder to spot. Vigilance is your best defence. Here are five warning signs to watch out for and some simple steps you can take to stay safe.

Portrait of Alex Nash
Alex NashWednesday 8 November 2023

Authorised Push Payments scams, or APP scams for short, are the fastest-growing form of fraud in the UK. In 2022 alone, 40 million people were targeted and according to the PSR’s recently released APP fraud performance report, APP accounted for 40% of all fraud losses.

It will never happen to me… except it could.

One of the biggest misconceptions about APP scams is that all victims have specific personality or demographic characteristics that make them susceptible to this type of crime: we imagine they’re older, or not good with technology, or maybe they’re trusting, naive, or easily flustered. But the reality is no one is immune. Anyone can fall victim at any time. No matter how smart, financially-educated or tech-savvy you think you are, criminals make it their business to catch their victims off guard and exploit anxieties and vulnerabilities that can impact any of us at any stage of life. If you are tired, stressed, distracted, or dealing with financial difficulties, you could be particularly susceptible to this kind of scam..

What exactly is an APP scam?

An APP scam happens when a victim is tricked into transferring money to a criminal entity posing as a genuine payee. It can take many forms. Common examples are being conned into buying non-existent goods online or paying a “fee” to your bank, a utility provider, a delivery service, HMRC, or any other reputable brand or entity. APP scammers may also pretend to be a loved one in an emergency who urgently needs you to send them money. Some scammers will even pose as a member of your bank’s fraud prevention team, claiming that your bank account has been compromised and you need to transfer your funds elsewhere to “keep them safe”.

APP scammers lure victims through many of the communication channels we all use every day, including:

  • Social media
  • Email
  • Text or WhatsApp messages
  • Phone calls
  • Online adverts
  • E-commerce sites (including buy-now-pay-later schemes)
  • Popular auctions or dating sites

How to spot an APP scam

It's becoming increasingly difficult to spot APP scams. Scammers may know your name or have access to some of your account details, which makes them sound a lot more credible, and many of them have perfected a convincing customer service patter.

But there are some common red flags to watch out for and some simple steps you can take to safeguard yourself and others.

Red flag #1. It's unexpected. You are contacted out-of-the-blue by your bank or another respected organisation and asked to transfer money fast or confirm personal details, often for vague reasons‍—‌there’s a “problem” with your account, or they need to “look into” a failed payment.

What to do:

  • Always call back. Hang up and call back using official contact details from the company’s website, or the phone number on the back of your bank card. Never use any contact details given to you by a potential scammer.
  • Call 159. If the bank or company in question has no record of contacting you, it’s likely you were the target of a scam. Stop Scams UK and the Global Cyber Alliance have a scams hotline where you can report the attempt.

Red flag #2. There’s time pressure to act. Scammers know that if you have time to think, they’ve lost their mark. Their goal is to keep you off balance and pressure you into taking action immediately. Many scammers will present you with an urgent scenario: your account will be closed, your package will be sent back, your service will be cut off‍—‌unless you do what they say. A common example is when a criminal finds out that you need to make a high-stakes, time-sensitive payment (such as a deposit to secure a new home), and insists the funds must be transferred immediately.

What to do:

  • Take a deep breath. If you feel like you are being rushed or coerced in any way, hang up (or step away from the screen) and take a deep breath. Nothing is so urgent that it can’t wait a few minutes for you to collect your thoughts.
  • Talk it out with someone. If you’re feeling panicked or disoriented, tell a loved one or friend what happened before you make any decisions. They can often help you see the holes in the scammer’s story.
  • Call back. Call the real company or provider using their official contact details and explain what happened. If there really is an urgent problem, no harm done. If there isn’t, you’ve just dodged a scam.

Red flag #3 - It feels too good to be true. You’ve won a free gift or prize in a competition you never entered‍—‌you just need to make a small payment to secure your win. Or maybe you’re being offered an exclusive deal or an amazing investment opportunity in exchange for some personal details. Whatever it is, the benefits seem like they far exceed whatever small concession is being asked of you. Combine this with red flags #1 and #2 (it’s unexpected and there’s time pressure), and you’ve likely got yourself a scam.

What to do:

  • Ignore it. Don’t click on any links or engage with any of the content. If it’s a genuine gift or prize, you will never be asked to pay money or share sensitive information to receive it‍—‌this is illegal.
  • Educate yourself. Which Magazine has a helpful guide on how to spot ad scams.

Red flag #4. The channel, the tone or styling are not quite right. Your bank normally only communicates with you via email, but you receive an SMS from them. A delivery service emails you a payment link, but the company name isn’t formatted correctly. Your phone provider usually opens their emails with “Hi [firstname]”, but this one says “Dear sir/madam”. Scammers are often good at mimicking well-known brands, but the devil is the details‍—‌small inconsistencies can give them away. If spelling and grammar are not up to scratch, or the tone feels overly familiar/excessively formal compared to how the sender normally communicates, you should be on your guard.

What to do:

  • Don’t click on any links. Instead, log in to your account via the official app or website to see if you have any notifications or messages.
  • Enable push notifications on key apps. Fake SMS notifications are easy to create. Opt for push notifications from your bank/provider’s official app for an extra layer of certainty about who is contacting you.
  • Double-check URLs. If you find yourself on a page asking you for personal information or card details, check the URL - does it match the company’s official website domain exactly? If not, abort.
  • Report it. You can also officially report any suspicious emails by sending a copy or screenshot to

Red flag #5. You feel uncomfortable. Go with your gut. You may not be able to pinpoint any specific red flags at the moment, but if something feels off, it probably is. Remember, legitimate companies will never ask you to verify or share login details or other sensitive credentials, and legitimate fraud departments will never ask you to transfer even a small amount of money to another location.

What if you've already been scammed?

First and foremost, it’s not your fault. APP scams are a pervasive form of crime that impact people from all demographics and backgrounds; you have nothing to feel ashamed about. If you believe you have been scammed, there are a few actions you can take immediately:

  • Report it to your bank as soon as possible. They may be able to stop the payment or potentially get your money back. If you are unhappy with how your bank handles your case, you can contact the Financial Ombudsman Service for further support.
  • Report your experience to Action Fraud. You may not think there’s much point in reporting your case‍—‌but the information you provide today could help prevent someone else from being scammed tomorrow.
  • Check out Citizens Advice's helpful guide on what to do if you have been scammed here or use their online scam checking tool. You can also contact their victim support line on 08 08 16 89 111, available 24/7/365.

Time to take a stand against scams

With cases soaring and losses mounting, financial providers need to do more to help and protect the most vulnerable in our society. Katy Worobec, managing director of economic crime at UK Finance, believes coordinated action is the only answer:

"...authorised fraud losses rose again this year as criminals targeted people through a variety of sophisticated scams, with much of the criminal activity taking place outside the banking sector, often involving online and technology platforms. This is why we continue to call for other sectors to play a greater role in helping protect customers from the scourge of fraud."

Katy Worobec in The Guardian