Beware of the scams designed to fleece you out of thousands

A good friend of mine was caught out by a scam before Christmas. He received a call on his home phone from an individual who claimed to be from Mastercard. The individual told him that a fraudster had got his hands on his debit card and used it to steal money from his account.

My friend was, however, assured that the fraud had been caught and that it was still possible for his money to be refunded – as long as he quickly bought iTunes gift cards and passed on the serial codes of those cards to the caller. He was instructed to withdraw money from his bank – and to use that money to buy the iTunes gift cards. The caller advised my friend to lie to the bank if queried about the withdrawal – and to tell the bank that the money was for Christmas gifts.

The caller was a fraudster. There had been no unauthorised use of my friend’s debit card and no money stolen from his account – the story was a fabrication. The money spent by my friend on the iTunes gift cards was lost. The serial codes of the iTunes gift cards were used by the fraudster to buy expensive products – or sold onto others.

The conmen behind these scams can be very convincing, often instilling panic into people so that rash decisions are made to rectify a non-existent problem – with money ultimately then being lost to the fraud. Many Irish people have lost thousands after falling for this scam.

Other scams have duped people out of larger sums, even tens of thousands of euro.

Scams have become increasingly pervasive in recent years. Three out of four Irish internet users have been targeted by online scams, according to a recent YouGov survey commissioned by Google. “From our involvement with the corporate sector, we are constantly getting calls about cyber attacks,” said Patrick D’Arcy, director of forensic and investigation services with Grant Thornton. “Fraudsters are always seeking opportunities to generate income.”

Here are some scams which Irish people have fallen prey to in recent weeks:

Broadband scam

There has been an increase in incidences of a phone scam where people receive a call about a ‘problem’ with their broadband or PC.

“The fraudster claims to be from Eir or another well-known telco,” said Niamh Davenport, head of fraud awareness with the Banking and Payments Federation Ireland (BPFI). “The fraudster tells you there’s a problem with your PC or broadband – and talks you through some steps [on your computer] to fix the ‘problem’. While you’re doing this, the fraudster loads malicious software [known as malware] onto your computer. That malware can then track your activity online, and get your bank card details. This scam was stepped up in the last few weeks. Some bank customers have fallen for it.”

Contact your bank immediately if you have received a call like this – even if no money has been taken from your bank account or card. You may need to have your bank card cancelled and a new one sent to you. You should also get your computer checked.

You will often be unaware that malware is on your computer – until you notice money stolen from your bank account, unauthorised transactions on your credit or debit card, or you simply have problems using your computer. As well as getting your bank card details, malware can get other personal and financial information.

In another version of this scam, several people in Wicklow have received a call from a fraudster claiming to be from a local broadband provider. The caller demands money over the phone for unpaid bills and threatens to disconnect the broadband service unless paid.

Free smartphone scam

The consumer watchdog, European Consumer Centre (ECC) Ireland, has received a number of complaints about a website based in Denmark. “The website is contacting consumers asking them to enter into a competition or to complete a survey to be in with a chance to get a very expensive smartphone,” said Martina Nee, spokeswoman for ECC Ireland. “In some cases, it seems to the consumers that it is in conjunction with a well-known Irish supermarket chain and in other cases, it seems that it is in conjunction with a telecoms provider.” Consumers who fall for this scam agree to pay a small fee to cover the postage of the smartphone to their home -but they never win or receive the phone, and the consumer then finds that further money is taken out of their account without their knowledge or permission.

This paper spoke to a number of people who lost money as a result of this scam. One man explained how he received an email telling him he had won an iPhone and in order to claim his prize, he needed to pay €3.95 in postage. The name and logo of a well-known Irish telecom company was used in the email – leading the man to assume that the email was from this telco. However, the email did not originate from the telco – it had come from a completely different company [the Danish-based website]. The man noticed €3.95 was taken from his account for the ‘postage’ but heard nothing after that. However, a few days later he noticed another €44 had been taken out of his account by the same company.

“When I called the company, I was told I had subscribed to its service,” said the man, who did not wish to be named. “I said I had done no such thing and certainly did not authorise them to take the second payment. They agreed to cancel my ‘subscription’, but refused to give back the money.”

A woman who was duped by a similar scam run by the same company received a text message telling her she had been selected to receive an ‘exclusive reward’. The logo and brand of a well-known supermarket was used in the email, giving the impression that this message was from the retailer. To claim her ‘reward’ (a smartphone), the woman was invited to complete a marketing survey “about her experience” with the supermarket. However, the supermarket had nothing to do with this survey. The woman paid about €3 postage to get her smartphone delivered – only to have another €44 taken from her account a few days later. “I work beside the supermarket and I trust this supermarket – plus the supermarket would have my phone number so I thought it was completely safe,” said the woman. The supermarket however had nothing to do with the messages or the scam.

Romance scam

Romance scams – where an individual feigns romantic interest so they can con someone out of money- are common in the run-up to, and weeks after, Valentine’s Day. “Typically what happens with these scams is that a lonely or vulnerable individual meets someone on an online dating website – and very quickly, the communication starts to take place outside the website, such as through personal emails,” said Davenport. “After a few months, the fraudster might say he or she wants to visit you – but is having difficulty getting a visa. The fraudster will ask you to transfer money to them so they can get their visa.” Another version of this scam is where a request is made by the fraudster for money to pay for the urgent medical treatment of a relative. Like the visa story, this is simply a lie designed to fool people into sending money on.

Technology has made it easier for fraudsters to concoct scams – and to target people. One of the best ways to defend yourself against scams is to be able to recognise them. Hang up the phone, or delete the text or email, if one such scam makes its way to you. Better safe than sorry.

Other scams & what to do if you’re duped

TV Licence & Tax refund scams

Scammers have sent emails to residents in Northern Ireland and the UK in recent months claiming the TV licence authority there has been trying to get hold of individuals to arrange a refund of an overpayment — but due to invalid bank account details, the refund has not been paid. The fraudster requests bank account and personal details so the refund can be paid — but this is simply a ploy to drain money from an individual’s account. UK scams usually make their way to Ireland so watch out for this one. A common version of this scam in Ireland is where fraudulent emails or text messages are sent which purport to come from the Revenue Commissioners — and which request personal and financial information so a tax ‘refund’ can be paid to the individual.

Bank hacking scam

With this scam, you receive a phone call from an individual who claims to be from your bank — or another reputable organisation. During the call, the fraudster will try to trick you into giving personal, banking or security information. They may also convince you to make a money transfer to them or inform you that you have won a prize and need to send money to release it. You may be told there is a problem with your bank account and tricked into believing you must move your money into a ‘safe account’. The safe account however is the fraudster’s account and you’ll lose money if you transfer any into it.

Rental scam

One of the most common rental scams is where the scammer copies genuinely advertised rental accommodation — and then re-advertises that accommodation with their own email or phone number. They will often refuse to show you the property — or will say they’re out of the country and so unable to show it to you. Instead, they send you photos and fake documents or keys in exchange for payment of rent and deposit. You usually don’t realise you’ve been scammed until you arrive at the property to find someone else living there. Another version of this is where the scammer rents a home for a short while. They then advertise it as being available for rent and show potential tenants around while they live there. They agree to rent the house to you, look to collect the deposit along with the first month’s rent — and then disappear with your money.

Cheap iPads

A number of Irish holidaymakers to the Canary Islands have been conned out of thousands after buying ‘cheap’ tablets for around €30. The holidaymaker is typically asked for their bank card details to either buy the tablet or so additional services (such as broadband and software) can be bought to ensure it works correctly. However, some holidaymakers have found thousands have been taken from their accounts after handing over card details.

What to do if you’ve been scammed

Contact your bank immediately. The bank may for example be able to stop a money transfer to a fraudster if it gets to it on time. It may also need to cancel your bank card. Report the fraud to your local Garda station too. “Sometimes if you’re not successful getting a refund of money lost from your bank, you may be able to get a refund from the Garda,“ said Niamh Davenport, of BPFI.

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