By Anita Rice
BBC News Magazine
As scammers employ ever-more sophisticated ways to con people out of their hard-earned cash, how can you avoid being duped?
Premium rate competition scams, bogus lottery "winning" tickets and other get-rich-quick schemes are just a few of the ways fraudsters can part the unwary from their money.
And while you might think only the very gullible would fall for these cons, Which? magazine recently estimated that 20m people were targeted by conmen in the UK last year, with 25% of those actually losing money.
The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) says official figures are just the tip of the iceberg as many cons are never reported. Concern about the number of people being ripped off has prompted it to run a Stamp Out Scams campaign this month.
New technology has not only seen the number of scams rapidly increase over the past five years, but has added a global dimension to e-mail or post-based scamming which is more difficult to monitor.
"If you respond to just one scammer's e-mail, you could be put on a 'suckers' list which will be used again by - or for - another," says OFT spokesman Roger Hislop.
Scams are also the focus of a new secret camera TV show which exposes how the most common cons work and how to avoid being ripped off.
"For con artists, all scams are second nature; real hustlers play to their strengths and pick their 'marks' [victim] very carefully," says one of the show's experts, magician Alexis Conran.
So what scams are most prevalent and what can people do to prevent being stung? The TV "hustlers" say by simply following a few golden rules it is easy to trip up would-be tricksters.
The con: It seems that most of us, when confronted with somebody in authority, a uniform or brandishing an official ID badge - no matter how dubious - just stop asking questions.
Fraudsters often dress up as figures of authority to pull off a scam. One example is posing as a plain-clothed police officer investigating a crime.
A fraudster may enter a jewellery shop ahead of their accomplice and try to buy an expensive item of jewellery. The purchase is then dramatically interrupted by a "police officer" who claims they were paying with counterfeit cash.
The shop assistant is usually so shocked they let down their guard, immediately trust the fake police officer and giving their forged ID a cursory glance. They are then talked into handing over an item as "evidence".
Avoiding it: Social compliance is a major factor in this type of fraud, says Mr Conran.
"As long as we look the part and talk with authority people are willing to believe us straight away," he says.
"The thing that surprised me the most was just how little people quizzed us, hardly anybody double-checked who we were."
Always check IDs thoroughly and never be afraid to ring head office - or even the station where a police officer says he is based - to double check people really are who they claim to be.
BOGUS LOTTERY TICKET SCAM
The con: While pretending to be an authority figure is one of the surest ways to carry off a successful con, it comes second only to the experienced hustlers' strategy of choice - play on other people's greed.
These scams rely on the conman successfully selling people something that looks like a bargain. One doing the rounds at the moment is a lottery ticket scam.
The hustler claims he has a winning ticket but cannot cash it in because he is about to leave the country or similar. Once convinced by the fraudster's story, the forged ticket is sold at a fraction of its "worth" to the unsuspecting "mark" or victim.
Avoiding it: They say you can't cheat an honest man, and most cons involve a certain degree of larceny on behalf of the victim, according to Mr Conran.
"In this world, if a good opportunity to get something for nothing comes along people jump on it," he says.
To avoid falling prey to this type of scam follow the old adage: If it looks too good to be true, it probably is, so people should just walk away.
THE RENTAL SCAM
The con: To carry off what has become known as the rental scam, hustlers get access to empty homes - either by breaking in, working as house-sitters or via rogue estate agents - then advertise the property as available to let.
Tips on how to trip up tricksters
Remember the old adage; if it looks too good to be true, it probably is
Don't be taken in by uniforms - always double check IDs
Don't be afraid to make follow-up calls to check people are who they say they are
Don't handover over cash or valuables under pressure
If suspicious about any "official" phone calls you receive - contact the company HQ
While showing would-be tenants around, another member of the con team phones offering a deposit on the flat or house. The pressure is then on for the victim to cough up money immediately to secure the tenancy.
Of course, the home isn't available to let and the victim is often left hundreds of pounds out of pocket.
Avoiding it: To avoid being stung by this one, experts advise that people always check out the company claiming to rent the property and do not hand over money under pressure.
And remember, paying by cheque offers people no more protection than simply handing over cash. Fraudsters will cash cheques as quickly as possible before victims realised they've been duped.
THE MUSTARD DIP SCAM
The con: As people become more aware of street robbery the scammers are resorting to more elaborate ways of distracting people as they pick their pockets.
One person squirts mustard or another messy substance on the victim's clothes. Another member of the con team approaches the victim offering to help clean up the mess. In the process, they clear off with the victim's belongings too.
Avoiding it: Experts say the best way a person can deal with this situation is to keep their hands on their belongings if approached on the street.
Also, don't allow potential thieves to remove clothes while "helping you".
The Real Hustle, an eight part series begins on Thursday, 9 February at 2230 GMT on BBC Three.
Fallen for scams? Or got tips on avoiding them? Let us know using the form below. Do not include your bank details.
Clearly I'm a complete sucker! A few months ago, when heading home after a night out, I was approached by a suited man who claimed to have left his bag in a cab and needed to borrow £20 to get home. Since it was 4 o'clock in the morning I reckoned if his story was true he was pretty stuck - so like a complete sucker I took his mobile number (rang it to check) then leant the money. I've tried calling a few times to get my money back but the guy just hangs up. The annoying part is that next time a stranger asks me for help I'll probably be a complete sucker once again - clearly I haven't learned to be a hard nosed Londoner yet.
For all those people that complain about banks asking security questions, many companies will allow you to call back on a FREE phone number to confirm their identity with the company itself, you complain about security questions but if they began discussing your finances with someone else who pretended to be you - you wouldn't like that either.
I came very close to falling for a (presumably) phishing scam - this was before phishing was really talked about much. I received an official-looking email from my ISP stating that they were discontinuing the service and to follow the link to set up a new account with an alternative provider. I came very close to doing it until it dawned on me (rather obvious in hindsight) that my wife had not received the same email and used the same ISP. Quite what information I would have been asked to divulge I don't know...
Every time I get an email from a bogus firm asking for some security details, I spend a minute or so entering in some random details and numbers. I like to picture some scammer getting excited that they got a reply only to get really frustrated a few minutes later retyping in the data two or three times.
Be wary of tradesmen coming to the door offering to do a job "today only". They never seem to want to come back in the future and seldom leave a card - it seems a strange way to do business and is probably a scam. I always tell callers that I never buy on the doorstep and always sleep on any decision. That usually sorts out the scammers.
Pete Thompson, Rugby, UK
A useful tip is not to open any emails you don't recognise. A lot of software can inform the sender if the e-mail has been read, thus telling them if the box is "live". If they think the box is dead they may stop spamming you.
Basil Long, Newark Notts
One night at about 3am someone rang the buzzer to our flat. Over the intercom a young man said his father had been taken ill and he needed a taxi to the hospital and could he borrow £6. He gave his address on our street and said he'd give the money back the next day. Being half-asleep meant I didn't ask why he didn't call for an ambulance. Of course he didn't come back and it was more than likely a scam. Mind you, if someone sounded reasonable I'd still rather be ripped off a small amount than deny help, one day I might be in genuine trouble and will be counting on the kindness of strangers.
Old scam, new variation: Person in London telling passers-by that they desperately need a rail ticket to their parents' home some place out of the city. They claim they're escaping an abusive situation. "I'm not asking you for money" they say, and ask you to buy them a ticket from a machine that accepts cash (not credit card). They then take the ticket to the ticket office and claim they only wanted to go to Zone Two or similar but pressed the wrong button and asks for a refund, earning nearly £20 per victim.
Joe Ewins, Bexhill, England
What I want to know is, with so many scams now, why my bank expects me to cough up security information when THEY phoned ME. They then get tetchy when I refuse to disclose my personal information to a complete stranger. If it's that important they should send me a letter and I'll go to my local branch.
Daniel Herman, Dudley
The internet can be a wonderful tool for avoiding scams as well. I've received a couple of phone calls offering me amazing investment opportunities with guaranteed profits. By searching the company online while on the phone I'm able to check them out. After I inform them of my research they hang up quickly and I get fewer calls like this now.
Jools, London, UK
I am regularly e-mailed with "urgent - please read" subjects: which turn out to be from executors of long lost relatives living abroad who have died and left me money. All I need to do is send bank details. I am now very glad I have not replied to any. I would hate to be on a 'suckers' list!
Ceri Smith, Glasgow
There was a classic story a few years ago of a gang who set up a fake till a big store in the run up to Christmas. All the real staff just assumed it was because they were so busy, and the gang simply "sold" loads of expensive stuff that didn't belong to them. Similar, in level of bare-faced cheek, is the guy in the security guard uniform who stands on the street next to the bank safe deposit box and tells people it's "broken" and they should give their deposits to him!
Adrian, Manchester, UK
At a Dutch railway station, a British tourist approached my husband and I claiming that both he and his girlfriend had a flight to catch in three hours and that they didn't have any money to buy their rail ticket. They asked us if we could "lend" them the money. My husband asked to see the flight tickets first, which amazingly neither could produce. Generally I agree with the saying "If it looks too good to be true, it probably is."
Jo, Manchester, UK
Do not answer telephone surveys because you never know who you are talking to and in the case of the caller claiming to be from a bank it can cost you dear.
One scam we saw happened in Peru at a bus station. An old lady tripped over a tourist's suitcase, who immediately helped the victim - only to realise the case had been taken by another member of the gang! Avoidance - don't help old ladies!
The thing that always amazes me is when your bank rings up and asks you to answer some security questions. They could be anyone, and yet they always seem surprised when you ask them to prove who they are.
John James, London
Walking home late after a night out I was approached by a young woman who claimed her sister had just been beaten up. She asked to borrow my mobile phone to call an ambulance. This was so shocking and she was so upset that I instinctively reached for my phone for her to use. I hesitated at the last moment and instead offered to phone the ambulance for her and asked her to take me to her sister to see if I could help. At this point she got even more hysterical, begging for use of the phone. I told her there was a public phone box just a few meters away that she could use. She just turned away and walked back to her sister and then tried the same routine on someone else. I felt saddened that I was so cynical and angry that she would abuse people's trust in that way.
I was on the tram and there was a man who claimed he was mugged and had his bag stolen. He said he'd lost his wallet and that he was trying to get back to Canada in two days time. He claimed he contacted the police and that one of the officers managed to get him a half-price ticket to London (which is where his supposed flight was leaving from). He then asked if we could spare him some money. A few months later, I saw him on a bus doing the same scam.
G Visquez, Manchester, UK
Watch out for dropped bank note while extracting money from an ATM. One person notes the victim's PIN and collects card while a second person drops a note and tells the victim that he/she has dropped something. Victim picks up the note while card is being ejected from ATM.
Andrew Todd, London
Not me (honest) but this happened to a colleague... on going into a restaurant he was asked by a smartly dressed (as he described "managerish" man if he could take my friends coat. The "manager" took his coat right out of the door and he never saw it - or the wallet in it - again.
Alistair, Blackburn, UK
A further bit of advice when checking out credentials is not to ring the number on the ID card shown but to get the official number via the telephone book.
Peter Lockwood, Loughborough
I refuse to do business by telephone or email: I don't even admit to being me. It makes it impossible for me to get "phishing" attacks this way. I just repeat over and over until they get the message, "for security reasons, Mr Richardson does not do business by phone. You will have to write a letter." The bonus is that I don't need to use call centres.
Simon Richardson, London, UK
I've never fallen for any scams, but I did once meet someone who claimed to be a police officer who was acting very aggressively towards me. When I asked to see his warrant card, he refused. I walked away after that.
John Airey, Peterborough, UK
The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.