10 online scams to watch out for
From dodgy emails and pop-ups to subtler forms of fraud and confidence trickery, here are some common pitfalls to avoid
Illustration: Frazer Hudson/Ikon via Getty Images
Since the web entered public consciousness 20 years ago, there has been a lot of talk about its dangers and all the rogues who lie in wait for them around every virtual corner. According to a survey published last week, 90 per cent of Irish consumers fear identity theft.
Media specialist agency Mediavest said Irish consumers were “increasingly cautious” when it came to giving personal data to companies via the internet, with 85 per cent telling its researchers they purposely minimised what data they gave out.
The survey found that 43 per cent of consumers said they had changed their online habits due to fear. “This fear is warranted by the fact that [22 per cent] of consumers have been affected by someone misusing or stealing their data,” Mediavest said.
Scam artists are getting better. And innocent – if sometimes gullible – people are paying the price. There was a time when the world’s scammers would content themselves with sending off billions of illiterate emails purporting to be from Saudi princesses with oil money to spirit out of their country, or widows of deceased sub-Saharan dictators with suitcases of diamonds to disperse to randomers.
According to internet security firm Symantec, more than five billion scam emails are sent each year. Then there are the phone calls, the phone drafts and the online auction house chancers to watch out for.
10 scams to look out for
1 Earlier this month, the Garda took the unusual step of holding a press conference to alert the public to a specific ruse that has seen five people defrauded to the tune of tens of thousands of euro in less than a month.
The scam is clever. A call comes to your landline. It is the security manager of a well-known shop and they have bad news for you. Someone is in the store at this very minute and they are trying to use your debit or credit card. There is a sense of urgency in their voice. A sense of urgency is key in all effective scams, as it puts the target under pressure, and when we are under pressure we make mistakes.
The security manager asks for your financial details. But you are too cute for that even when you’re under pressure and you refuse to give him any information. The terribly polite security manager accepts that and advises you call your bank to have the card stopped – even temporarily. In a panic you hang up and immediately call your bank. You push the buttons and a voice answers.
It’s not your bank though. The fraudster is still on the line. When a call is made to a landline only the caller and not the person receiving the call can disconnect, and the line remains active for 60 seconds. Now the fraudster – or more likely an accomplice – pretends to be a bank official. You are sure they are who they say they are because you have made the call to them.
You give your financial details and they suggest that to protect the account you transfer money to another account. In that instance it’s game over. Once you “voluntarily” transfer funds or information to a third party, there is no comeback for you. One person was ripped off to the tune of €38,000 in the scam. Tracking the criminals is difficult and getting the money back is next to impossible, not least because it has been transferred to countries including Indonesia, where the long arm of the law struggles to reach.
2 You are working away on your computer when suddenly an alarming screen pops up. It has a Garda logo on it and it is accusing you of using your computer for illegal purposes. The message says you have been locked out of your computer and the only way to unlock it – and to avoid a Garda investigation – is to pay a (comparatively small) fine through a website you will be directed to. In the cold light of day, this scam seems ridiculous. This is not how the Garda conduct their business. Ever. But there are gullible people out there who may not be great when it comes to technology and these are the people the scam artists want to target.
3 Like the “Garda investigation” scam, the Microsoft scam preys on people who don’t have a proper grasp of the workings of the tech world. It was at its height four years ago, when almost one in four Irish people reported getting a telephone call from scam artists posing as computer security engineers with Microsoft. It hasn’t gone away. The call warns recipients they are at risk of a computer security threat. Once a victim is duped into believing there is a real problem, the scam artists run through a range of deception techniques designed to thieve money.
To establish the extent of the fraud, Microsoft (the real one) surveyed 7,000 computer users in the UK, Ireland, the US and Canada and found that 26 per cent of Irish people polled had been contacted and 16 per cent were deceived into following the scammers’ instructions. Most of those who were duped suffered some sort of financial loss.
4 An email arrives from your bank, or from Ebay or PayPal, asking you to provide some key details, such as your password or bank account number, so they can update your account with enhanced security features or something. You provide the details and, next thing you know, your account has been emptied and your bank is washing its hands of you and your problems. Unsolicited emails from any business asking for personal details are always a lie. No reputable organisation will ever contact anyone in such a way.
These phishing scams are increasingly common and can be very deceptive. Not even the Revenue Commissioners are immune; one of the more plausible of these scams is a mail purporting to be from the tax man offering a significant tax rebate to those who submit personal and financial details online.
The mail is dressed up to look like an official piece of correspondence, and you are invited to visit a certain website, after which you will be asked to key in pass code to start the refund process. The site mirrors the Revenue’s own website but is entirely fake. Would-be users are asked to submit details including their name, address and bank account details, after which they are told to expect a rebate. There is very little the Revenue Commissioners – or an other organisation which has its name used in this way – can do about it, other than to constantly remind people they will never send unsolicited emails to anyone promising to give them cash.
5 Some scams prey on desperate people who are on their uppers and willing to believe in almost anything if it promises financial salvation. Others prey on people’s innate willingness to help those who are in trouble. One day you turn on your computer, log in to your email account and see a mail from an old friend, or at least someone you once exchanged a few emails with. Let’s call her Sarah.
Sarah is out foreign and in trouble. Sarah has been mugged, you see, and is reaching out to you. Her wallet has been stolen and she has no credit cards or cash and has to settle up with the hospital before she can fly home. She needs €500 and the only way she can get it is through Western Union.
Will you help her? No. No you won’t, because Sarah is grand. She may not even be out foreign. All that is happened is her email account has been compromised and scammers have sent begging mails to everyone in her address book.
6 We would all like to win the Lotto, right? Many of us even buy tickets with the hope of achieving this aim. Winning the Lotto happens but, sadly, it is rare. However, getting letters telling you that you have won the lottery are, sadly, not rare. Physical letters – and sometimes emails – addressed to Irish citizens telling them they have won overseas lotteries they have never actually entered are weirdly common. To claim your prize, all you need to do is send your bank details to some complete stranger, after which the money will be deposited in your account before you can say, “How the hell can I win a lottery without buying a ticket?”
7 “Hello good person. I am Mrs Janic Otumba and my housbond is director of First Bank of Angola, and I have urgent, very confidential business proposition for you. An American Oil consultant with the Nigeria Mining Corporation, Mr Antonio Creek deposited $20,200,000 in the branch of my husband but now Mr Antonio Creek has die without making a WILL, and attempts to trace his family are fruitless. I found your name on an IMPORTANT people register of good deeds and want your help to secrete the money out of my country. Can you please contact my husnand and we will make the transfer.”
If you think these scams – known as 419 scams – are so illiterate and so far-fetched that no one could ever fall for them, you’re wrong. People do fall for them. They are illiterate and ridiculous because the scammers want to filter out all but the most gullible people. They just need one person in 10 million to be conned to make it worth their while.
8 Sites such as Carzone.ie and Autotrader.ie have revolutionised the car buying and selling business. Their popularity has not escaped the notice of scammers. One scam we have come across is horrendously simple. A fraudster puts a car worth €20,000 up for sale at €5,000. They have an Irish mobile listed as a contact. You email the seller and get a long, convoluted story in which they say they are selling the car at such a knockdown price because they have moved to continental Europe and can’t sell it there because the car is right-hand drive. Sensing the deal of the century, you agree to send off a deposit after which the car will be shipped to you. It doesn’t exist.
9 When it comes to sly scams, there are few more sly than this one. You run a small business and, one morning, you get an email from someone wanting to place an order for whatever it is you sell. You agree a price and days later a bank draft arrives. But it is for double the agreed price. The bank draft looks real and is drawn on an Irish bank, and you are able to lodge it to your account without a problem.
That same morning an email from the buyer arrives in which they say they made a mistake. They are obviously very distressed and beg you to return the difference. Being a decent soul you immediately refund the difference with a bank draft of your own. Days later your bank tells you that the original is a forgery. You have absolutely no comeback.
10 Ebay has also become a magnet for scammers. There are all sorts of rogues working the online market place. Here’s just one example. You are in the market for vintage sunglasses but just miss out on the pair of your dreams. You are understandably gutted. Then minutes later an email draped in Ebay’s logos arrives. The winner of the sunglasses has pulled out and as underbidder you have the option of buying it at the last price you bid. It is called a second-chance offer. You are delighted. So you buy the sunglasses. But the second-chance offer is bogus.
A CAUTIONARY TALE: THE SUSPICIOUSLY CHEAP GALWAY FLAT
Jessica Thompson emailed Pricewatch with a story about a scam artist that could prove timely given all the talk about the rental sector. “About two years ago, my boyfriend and I were moving in together and looking for an apartment on Daft.ie We found one for €500 per month in the centre of Galway city.”
All good so far. “We emailed the owner and asked about it. The reply was almost immediate. He told us the apartment was bought for his daughter when she was studying in Galway. His email was extremely long and he told us all about his personal life: wife, kids, his dog’s name, the fact that he would soon be a grandfather. And because he was in London (allegedly), he wouldn’t be able to show us the apartment himself.
He suggested the couple fill out a form at a link provided giving him their address, names and the rest. After than he would send the keys to Ireland via courier. “Once a deposit of €1,000 was paid to him, the keys would be delivered to us. We could then view the apartment and move in if we chose to do so. But if we didn’t like it, we could return the keys and our deposit would be refunded.”
She says that once she contacted him, red flags started flying. There was the suspiciously low price, the impossible amount of space in the apartment, how fast “the owner” responded to their query and how keen he was to give them keys, as if nobody else had emailed him.
“It was around the time students were searching for accommodation too, so there was no way we were the only ones who emailed him. He kept sending us emails asking about the deposit, and when we didn’t respond, he continued to email us until we finally responded and saying we knew exactly what he was up to. We believed this scam at the start, but once we got the email, there were just too many clues to ignore. It was very disappointing. I guess the moral of the story is: if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”
RED FLAGS AND PRECAUTIONS: RULES TO BROWSE BY
If it sounds too good to be true, it is. Keep this maxim to the fore and you will very rarely be wrong.
Any email request for personal information should be ignored. Never follow the links embedded in such emails. If you are inputting personal details, make sure the web address starts with https (the “s” stands for secure) as opposed to just http.
Never open attachments from people you don’t know. Don’t accept random friend requests on Facebook, and never grant access to your information for apps with which you are not familiar.