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Covid fraudsters: Here are the most common scams and how to avoid them

Be careful with your cash.

Image: Shutterstock/fizkes

GARDAÍ ATTACHED TO the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau (GNECB) have been very busy since the pandemic started due to an increase in scamming and fraud-related offences in that period.

Opportunistic criminals were handed a big boost when the Covid crisis began. People were staying at home and many switched to shopping online. This created a chance for those who had the means and expertise to defraud members of the public to develop scams that could steal money from your pocket without you leaving the door.

Whether it’s receiving a phone call from an African or Asian number or an Irish mobile informing you that you are at the centre of a criminal money-laundering investigation, gardaí and Revenue are urging the public to stay wary of cold callers looking for your information. 

Even now as the HSE reels from a cyber attack on its networks, people are more concerned than ever about how their personal information might be used by criminals. 

So, here’s a guide to all the scams out there and what you can do to protect yourself. 

Smishing/Vishing/Phishing

These are your bread and butter scams and have been around for decades. 

Have you ever received a text (smishing), an email (vishing) or a phone call (phishing) allegedly from a reputable company or state agency asking you to click on a link? This is one of the most common forms of a scam.

Recently, text messages are sent to Irish mobiles claiming to be from online shopping sites such as Amazon requesting you pay an additional fee or that you are due to pay extra charges on an item. These texts usually come with a link to click and enter sensitive details. 

The reason they are still around as a way of defrauding the public is that they work. 

For example, gardaí said there were 45 records of phishing/vishing/smishing frauds in 1st week of February 2021, compared to 13 for the same period in 2019/ 2020. 

 Over €640,000 value of reported crimes in 2020 with €53,000 stolen in one case alone.

The advice from the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau (GNECB) is

• Never click on a link of an unsolicited text
• Never give away personal data like PIN number, card numbers, passwords, one time codes
• Banks would never request a customer return a card to the bank in such circumstances
• Be very wary of cold calls – just because the number looks Irish does not mean it is
• If you are concerned, hang up and ring your bank/service provider from a number advertised in the phone book or on your bill
• If you are expecting a delivery and receive such a text, be very careful. Contact the delivery service.

Phone calls

An anecdotal aspect of Covid-19 has been people receiving calls from far-flung places like Gabon, Oman and Mauritius to name but a few but when you pick up the call, the line goes dead.

Mostly, these calls are made in the hope that you will ring them back and that call will be charged at a premium rate. However, more insidious scams with the callers claiming to be gardaí are on the rise. 

Even the Garda Confidential Line (a phone line which allows people to give anonymous tips) was also at the centre of a recent scam. 

Garda 3 (2) Detective Chief Superintendent Pat Lordan of the GNECB. Source: Garda Press Office

The GNECB warned that members of the public have been receiving calls from a number similar to the Garda Confidential Line with the caller stating they are investigating fraud activity or investigating a crime and and explaining they require your details to progress the investigation. The phone call comes from 0-1800-666-111. The actual Garda Confidential Line number is 1800-666-111 and does not make outgoing calls.

Another prevalent scam is where a person or automated message tells you there is a warrant out for your arrest/an outstanding fine/ that your DNA has been found in a crashed car or on drugs seized and to prevent further action you are asked to make a payment.

The message from the gardaí is that they are not going to advise via an automated message that you are the focus of a serious criminal investigation. They advise you to contact them and let them know from what number the call came from. 

Scammers will also attempt to mimic legitimate Government departments. For example,  there have been cases where phone calls and texts from people fraudulently advising they are a named official of the Department of Social Protection and are being advised your PPS number has been compromised.

The message here from gardaí is clear: never ever give out details such as your PPS number over the phone. 

If the caller is legitimate they will have no problem with you hanging up and calling the department yourself.

Regarding current welfare scams, a spokesperson for the Department of Social Protection said: “Customers and members of the public are reminded about scam phone calls and text messages they may receive from individuals claiming to be an official of the Department. 

“These calls and texts display a range of numbers, including some which may appear to be from the Department’s phone numbers. The Department would like to remind all its customers that it will never seek personal information from customers via text message and will never ask a customer for their bank details over the phone.”

Any person who receives such a call or text is asked not to disclose any information and to report it to the gardaí immediately.” 

Online shopping fraud

In Ireland alone, we were conned out of €22 million last year just by falling victim to online shopping scams. 

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With the nation enduring one of the longest lockdowns in Europe, fraudsters took advantage of the fact we were spending our money online. Gardaí said there has been a 50% rise in this sort of crime compared to 2019/2020.

While there are many things to look out for to ensure the safety of your details, the rule to remember, according to gardaí, is that if an offer is too good to be true then it usually is.

shutterstock_360575702 Source: Shutterstock/Virrage Images

The main message from the GNECB is to use secure websites and make sure the website you are on is real – not cloned or fake.

You can do this by looking at the address bar on your browser to make sure there is an “https” at the beginning of the web address and a padlock symbol displayed beside the URL before the purchase is made – this indicates a secure connection.

Many online shops also have trust seals – you’ll see these on the homepage or login page of the website. 

Gardaí said if a website is asking you to send money to a random PayPal address, wire it by Western Union, pay in iTunes gift cards or only deals in cryptocurrency, that should send up a red flag.

“The majority of the time, those methods are done to avoid scrutiny and ensure that a transaction can’t be reversed,” a garda spokesman said. 

Invoice redirect fraud  

Last year, over €10 million was stolen by scammers using what is known as invoice redirect fraud. 

This is where the fraudsters send an email to a business purporting to be from a supplier etc. requesting the immediate payment of an invoice or transfer of funds.

Gardaí warned that the effects of this kind of scam can be “catastrophic” for businesses. 

For example, a firm in Ireland processed a payment of more than €600,000 for the purchase of a product. The funds left the firm’s bank account before they were redirected and the cash was transferred into money mules’ accounts in Ireland, the EU and Hong Kong.

The GNECB has the following advice so employers and employees do not fall for this kind of fraud. 

  • Verify email address is spelt correctly
  • Has the URL been changed from “.ie” to “.com”?
  • Businesses must ensure that they have robust policies and procedures in place to deal with requests of this nature
  • Where a business becomes aware that such a crime has occurred they should ask their bank immediately to do a recall on the money and then report the matter to gardaí.

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