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A safeword to help protect against ‘family’ WhatsApp scams

10TH AUGUST 2022


Whatsapp chat bubbles

A safeword can be used between family members, when messaging. It helps make sure you know who you’re really talking to. Sarah Lenette, one of Starling’s financial crime specialists, takes a look.

You get the following message on WhatsApp from an unknown number, what do you do?

“Mum, it’s me… I’ve broken my phone and this is my temporary number. Can you help me with some urgent bills?”

What you definitely shouldn’t do, is send any money to the person who sent this message. This is almost certainly a scam. And it could cost you thousands.

It’s simple, yet effective. All a criminal needs is your phone number and the knowledge that a parent will do anything they can to help their child in need. Once the initial message is sent, they may make small talk, to try and sound genuine, before asking for a large sum of money, stating they can’t access their online banking. If you suggest a phone call, they’ll make an excuse as to why they’re unable to receive calls. This is all in the hope you’ll believe that this really is your loved one.

Action Fraud has reported that this scam cost victims over £1.5 million between February and June 2022, so it’s important to follow Take Five’s advice to stop, challenge and protect when you receive any messages like this. Always question any requests for money that come out of the blue, and verify the person who is asking for it.

In this scenario, the best way to establish who has contacted you is to make a quick phone call on their usual number - not the new, unknown one. As soon as you’ve had a voice conversation with your child, you’ll be safe in the knowledge that it really is them.

Of course, sometimes you might be unable to do this, so if you can’t speak on the phone, try asking a personal question only they would know the answer to, ensuring that it’s not something that can be found on social media. An example could be ‘what did we eat the last time we saw each other?’ (don’t give any clues that could give the answer away).

You could even establish a family safeword - something that holds meaning only to close family members, something that you can ask for to confirm who you’re speaking with. My family uses a phrase from a TV show we all love. Never share this word or phrase with anyone that’s not in your family, and make sure you change it every now and again. Change it immediately if you think you could have given it out to a scammer or a non-family member. If the safeword or answer to any questions can’t be confirmed, don’t make any payments and also stop responding to any further messages.

Contact your bank as soon as possible, if you do think you’ve sent money to a fraudster, You can contact us via the app 24/7 and a real human will be there to help.