Any one of us is a potential target for a scam that will empty our bank accounts.
Online and phone scams are now so prevalent that the Department of Social Protection recently had to start a media campaign warning people that criminals are ringing members of the public and trying to defraud them while pretending to be State officials.
More than 260,000 credit and debit card frauds, totalling €22m in value, hit Irish people last year, and gardaí have said online transaction frauds were up 50pc in 2020 compared to 2019.
But criminals are evolving their enterprises all the time, and moving with society. Even the Covid pandemic has been turned into a cash-cow by cyber fraudsters.
Here are the top five scams that we all need to be aware of. Not only do we need to protect ourselves, but we all need to sit down with our elderly relatives and young teenagers and warn them too, because fraudsters often tackle the vulnerable and naive.
Devious criminals know that people have a huge fear of being scammed, and have managed to turn that fear into a trigger that will panic you into divulging your details.
It started with criminals masquerading as your bank and sending you a text message or an email telling you that there has been unauthorised activity in your account and it has been shut down, and in order to reactivate it you will be advised to click on a link and provide details such as your account number and access codes.
You may get a phone call from someone pretending to be from your bank alerting you to a fraud and asking for your details so they can reset your account.
When you do this you play into the hands of the criminal. You think you’re preventing a fraud, but in actual fact you are being defrauded, because the fraudster will use your details to empty your account.
A more recent version of this scam is where a person gets a call from an 083 number or what looks like a legitimate State agency number in which they hear a recorded message allegedly from the Department of Social Welfare, Attorney General’s Office, or other State offices.
Scams can differ, but some advise the victim to press ‘1’ or a different number which puts them through to a person who advises them that their PPS number or their bank account has been used in a crime such as money laundering.
The person then asks for them to verify their name, PPS number and in some instances their bank account details
They are then advised that their accounts need to be protected, or their money moved to a different account.
They might also be persuaded to download apps onto their laptops or phones which allow the scammer to move the money into different accounts.
The bank details can be used to defraud money directly from the victim’s account, and the PPS number can be used to defraud payments from the State using the victim’s details.
There have been several instances of fraudsters claiming Covid PUP payments using other people’s PPS numbers.
Do not give any account numbers, PIN codes, or PAN (Personal Access Numbers) to anybody over the phone or electronically. No bank or State office will ever ask you for these details, so if someone does ask you for them, they are most likely a scammer.
When we browse online for something we are looking to buy, we are met with all sorts of sites with an array of offers, and picking through them can be time consuming.
Not many people can resist a bargain, and sometimes the offer of a bargain online can be tempting.
Scammers know this, and are adept at putting very professional looking websites or internet ads together with the sole purpose of getting your attention, and your money.
The car and mobile phone trade is a year-round hunting ground, but they will even follow seasonal trends such as lawnmowers, caravans and boats in the spring and summer, or games consoles at Christmas, when they know people are looking for items like that.
To lure you, they use low prices and last-minute deals, and ask for a deposit or all the money up front.
But is there a car? Is there a boat? Is there a Playstation? Does the thing you are buying actually exist? You need to know the seller is legitimate. Scammers have become adept at copying other people’s ‘For Sale’ ads and using them to scam people into parting with their cash.
But when you pay them online, the ‘seller’ will suddenly disappear with your money.
Make sure you see what you are buying before you part with money. Or make sure the payment system is secure.
“If a stranger knocked on your door on a dark night and asked you for cash up front for something you had never seen, I don’t think there are many that would give him the money. Yet we seem to have a trust in online shopping and do exactly that,” said Detective Chief Superintendent Pat Lordan of the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau.
His colleague Detective Inspector Mel Smyth said there are three main types of victims in online fraud – a person who buys something and does not receive it, a person who sells something but gets no payment, and a financial institution when compromised cards or bank accounts are used to make online purchases.
“We are seeing an enormous amount of money being lost every day, ranging from €200 in a transaction upwards. You might ask why fraudsters would go for small sums of money, but it all adds up over time. We have arrested people and seen their phones and their financial transactions and the volume of money going through their accounts. They are making an enormous amount of money through small value frauds.”
If it looks too good to be true, back away.
This is one of the most complex scams on the go, but is extremely lucrative for the criminal gangs who operate them.
The vast majority of us are no experts in trading in stocks and shares, and it’s far from Bitcoin and Cryptocurrencies any of us were reared.
Yet we read about people making a fortune dabbling in such trading, and with interest rates as low as they are, there is very little return from traditional savings accounts in banks.
Trading in stocks, shares and currencies has become easier to access, but not easier to succeed at.
Criminals are creating fake investment websites, and advertising them with fake ads that pop up on your phone or computer, and luring people into that exciting but dangerous world of trading.
Possibly the worst combination for this type of scam is someone who has a fresh pension payout sitting in their account.
They have lots of money and they may not be so tech savvy, so when they make an enquiry to a website they found that promises a fantastic return on an investment, and get a call from a ‘broker’ who asks to remotely install software on their computer, they say ‘yes’.
At that point the scammers lure you into transferring funds into an ‘investment’ and send you complicated graphs and spreadsheets showing your money is doing well, or doing badly, and encouraging you to inject more funds to either maximise your ‘profit’ or mitigate a potential ‘loss’.
This can go on over weeks and months, and you may think you have money growing in your online ‘portfolio’, but your cash is in a scammers bank account.
A retired man in the Midlands was recently scammed out of €250,000 after engaging with fraudulent 'investors' online while thinking he was dealing with a legitimate company.
Gardaí warning about a 120pc increase in investment fraud scams during the Covid-19 pandemic have said the majority of cases involve sums of more than €40,000, often representing a person's life savings or a pension lump sum.
If you are going to get into trading, consult the Irish Central Bank for legitimate and registered investment companies. Don’t part with your money based on something as ethereal as an online ad.
An increasing number of people being scammed out of thousands of euro during one-off financial transactions such as house purchases or invoice payments.
Clever fraudsters are increasingly cloning the websites of solicitors and companies, or taking over control of them remotely, and sending their clients messages about where they should make their payments or pay their invoices.
These messages are sometimes communications that the company or supplier has changed their bank details, and is alerting the customer to the ‘new’ account.
And because the fraudster has prior knowledge that a payment is due to take place because they have access to the communications from the solicitor or a company they have hacked into, it makes it much easier for the scammer to dupe their victim because the victim is expecting to make a payment and believes it is legitimate.
More than €10 million was stolen from Irish businesses in 2020 using sophisticated invoice redirect frauds.
Gardaí have warned that nobody should pay anybody money based on an email or text instruction alone.
“We have seen an increase in these one-off payment scams, but people are losing thousands of euro over them and they need to be aware of the dangers of acting on online payment requests,” said Detective Chief Superintendent Pat Lordan from the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau.
He said people should always check personally with the person providing details or directions for a financial transaction, and not to use the phone numbers provided on an email, but to independently check them and talk to a known contact person before making a payment or divulging financial details such as codes or PIN numbers.
Unfortunately, in many instances the person or business does not know they are a victim of this crime until sometime later when the legitimate supplier or vendor sends a reminder invoice for payment.
Scammers need to have bank accounts to transfer money to and from in order to get the cash they have stolen from people. These ‘mule’ accounts hold cash and spread it to other ‘mule’ accounts making the tracing of the money by bank and police more difficult.
The best accounts for the criminals to use are those of people who have no criminal past. They are clean accounts until these parasitic criminals get their hands on them.
Sit your teenage and young adult children down and tell them about ‘money mules’, because criminals target a lot of young people to become money mules on the promise of a few hundred euro for them.
Once you are coerced into handing over your bank card and details, the criminals will lodge money into your account which has been stolen from other people through investment or online scams, and then either transfer the money on to other accounts or pull the cash directly from it at ATMs.
When gardaí come knocking on the door of the money mule, they are dropped by the criminals who had promised them the few hundred euro and they disappear, leaving the money mule to face arrest, prosecution for money laundering, a criminal record, and a financial record that will follow them for life.
The Garda National Economic Crime Bureau has said that ‘money mules’ are the vehicles by which fraudsters can make money, and if the supply of mules can be curtailed, it makes life much harder for the criminal gangs.