What do I need to know about spam and scams?
Spam messages sent by email could involve commercial adverts for drugs, financial advice, pornography or sexual augmentation products. In some cases, they might claim to be from a bona fide organisation, such as your bank, and be sent with the aim of getting hold of sensitive information like your password or credit card details (this is referred to as ‘phishing’).
Did you know?
It has been estimated that Britons (as a whole) receive a total of more than 420,000 scam emails every hour
One of the most prolific email scams is called “advanced fee fraud”. This is where an unknown individual emails you saying they have a large sum of money in a far-off country and require your mobile number and bank account details in order to assist with the international transfer. They promise you a share of the money in return for your help, but the reality is that the fraudster seeks to get one or more “advance” fees prior to transferring the money.
With this in mind, the internet and mobile industries have taken action.
Email providers like AOL and Yahoo! use filters to examine emails entering their networks for certain keywords or phrases and for large numbers of the same email. In many cases, the provider will route the spam emails to your, or your child’s, personal junk mail folder. Users can also identify spam manually (if it gets through the filter) and every spam report you send helps your email provider to improve their spam filters.
If you or your child comes across a spam or scam message in your in-box, it’s recommended that you don’t open it as it might contain offensive content or a virus. Just report it to your email provider and then delete it. If your email provider doesn’t offer built-in spam filters, you can install them yourself.
In general, SMS (text) doesn’t lend itself to spam messages – typical SMS messages contain fewer than 160 characters so this limits how they can be abused – but it still happens. Like the email industry, mobile providers such as Vodafone offer filters to help block spam SMS before it reaches your mobile. Mobile users – particularly children and teenagers – need to be aware of two potential scams, however:
- Premium rate scams – SMS might be used to send you or your child a message inviting a call or text back to a premium rate service. A typical message might say “Congratulations! You have won a prize. Call XYZ XYZ to receive more details”. The reply number (XYZ XYZ) is a premium rate number, which is charged at more than a standard call rate. This type of scam is designed to remove money from your or your child’s pre-pay balance or mobile account. Your family can avoid these scams by not replying to national premium rate codes.
- Subscription SMS abuse – this is where an information service provider gives you or your child the impression that they’re charging a one-off payment over your mobile when in fact it’s for an ongoing subscription. Your child might have read about a ringtone download service in a magazine, for example, but it might not have been made clear that it was a regular subscription. If you or anyone on your family falls victim to subscription SMS abuse, you can report it to your mobile service provider and the industry regulator (see below).
What action can I take?
When you’re choosing your family’s email and mobile provider, find out how they deal with spam and scams – do they offer built-in filters and will they help you report scams to the relevant authorities, for example?
Encourage your kids to report any spam emails or SMS message that get through the filters – every spam report helps your email or mobile provider to improve their spam filters. You should be able to find details of how to report it in the ‘Help’ or ‘Safety’ section of your provider’s website
If someone in your family receives a scam email, you could also forward it to the Office of Fair Trading at firstname.lastname@example.org
Encourage your child to check and delete their junk folder regularly as some of their personal emails might fall into it by mistake
If your family’s email provider doesn’t provide spam filters, you can install them yourself
Give your child some tips on how to recognise a spam email – Do they know the sender? Does the subject heading make sense? Does the email or text offer something for sale? Does it contain strange spellings?
Tell them to not open or reply to unsolicited emails (even to request being removed from the mailing list as this confirms that the email address is a real one). If they open a spam email by mistake, they shouldn’t click on links or download attachments
Encourage your son or daughter to never give out personal information such as email addresses, mobile numbers or bank details to people they don’t know
If your child wants to register on a public website, set up a different email address to their usual one in case spammers get hold of it
Explain to younger children that strangers only offer to share large sums of money in fairy tales and that you can only win a competition if you’ve entered it in the first place – similarly, older children need to know that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is
Discuss the difference between a standard call rate and a premium rate service – you can find lots of useful information about premium rate services in our mobile costs article
If your child purchases a ringtone or other service using their mobile and finds that they’ve been signed up to a subscription without their agreement, reply STOP to unsubscribe to the service and report it to your mobile service provider and the industry regulator PhonepayPlus
Where can I go for more information and support?
- Check out the government’s Consumer Direct website for general information about scams
- Take the ‘phishing’ and ‘scambuster’ quizzes on the Consumer Direct website
- GetSafeOnline has lots of useful tips for dealing with unwanted email
- This guide by the Information Commissioner’s Office explains how to prevent, reduce and report spam emails
- Get advice and talk to other parents on Mumsnet
- Family Lives' 24/7 Parentline offers guidance on a wide range of parenting issues
- Visit the Phonebrain website with your child to teach them about premium rate services
- PhonepayPlus regulates premium rate services in the UK