‘I gave my brain the day off and fell – hook, line and sinker – for the scam’

Pricewatch: Irish people conned out of more than €15m in year to end of July

In the year to the end of July, Irish-based victims were tricked out of an average of €5,300 in scams involving impersonation, romance and bogus investments

In the year to the end of July, Irish-based victims were tricked out of an average of €5,300 in scams involving impersonation, romance and bogus investments

 

Sometimes Pricewatch yearns for the good old days when scam artists were almost fatally stupid. They would content themselves with firing off emails to everyone in the country at the same time claiming to be from the children of sub-Saharan despots or the legal representatives of dead bankers in faraway places promising us in semiliterate language outlandish sums if we just gave them access to our bank accounts for a few minutes.

The good news for us was that not only were their ruses absurd beyond belief, the people behind them were also pretty gullible themselves. Back in the day, when Pricewatch had time on its hands, we used to bait the fools. We set up a dedicated Hotmail account – that might tell you how long ago it was – under the name Anaive Eejit and every time a scam email arrived we would respond with breathless enthusiasm, promising the shadowy criminals at the other end of the chain our full co-operation.

Our inbox quickly filled up with mails starting with the lovely phrase: “Hello A naive Eejit...”

Once we managed to get a criminal who was pretending to sell cars to come on to the Ray Darcy Show in its Today FM incarnation, which was pleasingly bizarre, but our crowning moment came when we managed to get two of the dodgiest blokes in Amsterdam to travel to Schipol Airport to meet us off a late-night Aer Lingus flight from Dublin.

You can imagine their dismay when they called us from the arrivals hall a couple of hours after the plane had arrived to find out where we were only to be told that we were at home in Ireland, on our couch watching Nasty Nick get his comeuppance.

Good times.

But times have changed and the scams that were two a penny are now 100 a cent and have spread like a virus. The criminals behind them have got much more adept at conning people out of their money and even the most stupid of them can deploy tools easily accessed on the internet to make their ruses appear more plausible .

Just how prolific they are was laid bare in recent weeks. Scam artists conned Irish people out of more than €15 million in the year to the end of July, with fraudulent activity jumping by almost 80 per cent as criminals sought to maximise their profits from the fear and uncertainty caused by Covid-19. Victims were tricked out of an average of €5,300 in scams involving impersonation, romance and bogus investments.

Earlier this month Banking and Payments Federation Ireland (BPFI) issued a report which detailed the scale of the problem we are all dealing with every single day. It is hard to overstate the size of the problem. More than two-thirds of Irish people were targeted by some form of impersonation scam in 12 months. That’s more than two million people having to deal with these clowns every single year. Most of us have had to deal with them on many, many occasions.

Thousands of people fell victim to scams last year and many thousands more are likely to fall victim this year. Based on the BPFI figures, as many as 60 people will have money stolen from them by scam artists this week alone.

In news that will not come as a surprise to many readers, the report noted a sharp rise in reports of fraudsters pretending to be from a legitimate organisation or business and seeking to get sensitive information or money from their victim.

When asked who the fraudster was pretending to be, over half of those surveyed said a government department or agency including the Revenue Commissioners or Garda, while about 30 per cent per cent said the fraudster was pretending to be from a bank with almost one in five saying the fraudster pretended to be from a delivery company.

Despite the widespread adoption of online and mobile solutions, 72 per cent of respondents contacted by fraudsters said they were contacted by phone, almost twice as many as reported being contacted by email.

The good news – if we can call it that – is that many people are sufficiently clued in to do nothing. Almost three-quarters of the people who were contacted by criminals last year did absolutely nothing.

The bad news is that 6 per cent clicked on a link in an email, 3 per cent provided personal or account information and 2 per cent provided bank or credit card details.

Now, while 2 per cent might sound like a small number in percentage terms, when you consider just how many people are contacted by criminals, it quickly becomes massive. If two million people receive that first contact and just 2 per cent are duped, we are still looking at 40,000 people who have been left seriously exposed by scammers.

Potential victims were targeted through a range of communication channels and in various guises. Some even combined approaches, seeking to communicate through a mixture of emails, cold calls, follow-on calls, voice messages and SMS text messages.

“Fraudsters continuously update and adapt their tactics and tools,” warned Brian Hayes, BPFI chief executive. “They can quickly identify and exploit scam opportunities presented by evolving consumer and business behaviour as well as the ever-changing economic and social environment.”

Scamming via Facebook

Not a week goes by that we don’t hear horror stories about scam artists and last week was no exception. We got one last week that chimed with the comments of Brian Hayes when he suggested that fraudsters are always updating and honing their – for want of a better word – skills.

The troubling story came from a reader called Emma who would have thought herself quite savvy but still came dangerously close to losing her shirt in a scam that targeted her in a very direct fashion.

“Picture the scene – I have a fancy, environmentally-friendly camping stove that my husband bought, which we rarely used and that I am dying to sell,” she writes.

She had advertised it on online classified sites and also on a Facebook camping page.

“I’ve had no interest, so imagine my delight when I get a WhatsApp message asking me if it was still for sale. I said yes and the man – there was a picture of him in the little icon – said he’d like to buy it.”

The would-be buyer asked what condition the stove was in and Emma told him it was in good condition and he then asked if she would be willing to post it to another city.

“I said sure, no problem, and he replied to say that he had organised a courier to pick it up and that if I clicked on the link he’d sent – which appeared to be from An Post and is called something like An Post Safe Post – that the funds would be transferred directly to me from them.”

She says now that that should have been the first red flag. “I hadn’t given him my address and a real person would also have asked first if it suited for a courier to collect. However, I was so thrilled to have finally sold the damn stove that I decided to give my brain the day off and I proceeded to fall – hook, line and sinker – for the scam.”

She clicked on the link and it told her An Post had received payment for postage directly from the purchaser “and that if I entered my credit card details the balance of funds would be transferred to me. I obligingly entered all my credit card details and then it said that I needed to enter the balance on my card.”

She said that should have been another major red flag but she “merrily ignored” it.

She entered the balance and was told that she would be sent a text message with a confirmation code and that she was to enter the code. “I didn’t get a code and I started to get annoyed. I checked my messages and then I went back to the link and it now said that I needed to ‘accept the push notification in the banking app’. I didn’t get a push notification. I checked that the settings in my phone were correct, I logged into my mobile banking app but could see nothing there. I started apologising to the scammer for the failings of technology.”

She then noticed in her banking app that Google had put a temporary hold on her credit card.

“By now I was really annoyed – technology was stopping me from selling my stove. I phone my bank and, I kid you not, I spent an hour and 45 minutes on hold. That’s a lot of time that I will never get back, listening to the same few bars of muzak over and over while my frustration levels grew to outsize proportions. I never got through to them.”

So again she apologised again to the scammer. “He told me that he was getting a notification from An Post saying that my bank didn’t support the app and that I should try another card from a different app. I still didn’t twig. I gave up for a few hours though as I had to go to work.”

When Emma got home she tried again. “This time I entered my debit card details and then, to my undying shame, I also tried it with my husband’s Ulster Bank credit card. As I was still not getting a text message with a confirmation code or a push notification I told the scammer that I was giving up and that I would figure out another way of sending him the stove the following day.”

At this point she had given the details of three separate bank accounts to some criminals and was quite literally on the verge of disaster.

Then her bank stepped in to save her from herself. “A short while later I got a text message from my bank asking if I had authorised a payment of €806.16 – the exact amount in my current account, the details of which I had helpfully supplied – to a named company. And in my confused state – as well as my brain being on holiday I was also suffering from really bad vertigo – I hit Y by mistake.”

Noooo, we can almost hear every reader shouting.

“A nanosecond later my brain finally returned from its day off and I hit N, logged into my banking app and froze my cards, called the lost/stolen card helpline and cancelled my cards and was incredibly lucky not to lose any money. I calmed down and then remembered my husband’s credit card so there was another five mins of panic while we called Ulster Bank and ascertained that no damage had been done and cancelled his card. As he had previously lost his debit card this left us completely without access to money so my dad had to bring us cash the next day to tide us over until new cards arrived.”

Emma ends her story with a cautionary plea to all readers. “For the love of God – if you’re selling anything on online and somebody contacts you directly regarding the exact thing you’re selling and after a brief chat tells you they’ve organised a courier to pick up the goods... block them immediately. I wasted the best part of a day and I can’t tell you how idiotic I feel. On the upside, if anyone is in the market for a second-hand BioLite camping stove then I’ve still got one available.”

Readers fielding scam texts

We took to Twitter last week and asked what kind of scams people were seeing of late. This is just a fraction of what came back.

“Got a text from AIB using the usual number they contact me from – reminders, etc. Text said that someone had tried to add themselves to my account – didn’t click on it.” – Maureen Shannon

“Texts purporting to be from BoI, emails ‘from’ Amazon and Netflix, texts from an 087 number, click on link to hear a message, warrant for my arrest and on it goes.” – Helen McGonagle

“Busy morning with kiddies running around, saw DHL text come in so clicked it, downloaded software AND UNCLICKED A SECURITY SETTING! Only afterwards I noticed the link was not legit. Notified DHL and then did a factory reset on my phone. Thinking I was too clever for a scam!” – Triona Gaynor

“My nan had a text to say she was a close contact and to click a link to book an appointment for a Covid test. Luckily it was a dead link but how was she to know?” – Kayleigh Clarkie

“Two messages in the last two days claiming I had an incoming voice message. Click on the link is what they wanted. Deleted and blocked.” – Noel Wrafter

“Telephone call from ‘Amazon’ on work landline last week. Warning that account ‘frozen’ due to suspicious activity. They claimed an iPhone over €1,000 purchased. No account details registered with Amazon with work tel no. Amazon confirmed scam call.” – Carla Manning

“When my mother was moving, a couple of months ago, I was selling some of her old furniture on Facebook marketplace and had numerous messages exactly like this.” – Dan St Ledger