Phone scams are becoming increasingly common, but there's a lot you can do to protect yourself, says Rowena Walsh.
Meadhbh* was at home one morning when she got a call on her landline from a woman she didn’t know. The woman was very nice. She was also very helpful. She described herself as a customer assistant from Amazon and she was ringing Meabhdh to organise a refund after she was mistakenly overcharged.
This was the first step in a sophisticated plot to rob Meadhbh, who lives in the midlands and is in her 70s.
Phone scams are one of the most common type of fraud, says Jillian Heffernan, head of communications at the Banking & Payments Federation Ireland (BPFI). Fraudsters trick their victims into divulging personal, financial, or security information or into making a financial transfer to them.
The ‘Amazon’ scam is becomingly increasingly common and an alert was issued recently about it by FraudSMART, a fraud-awareness initiative developed by the BPFI in conjunction with AIB, Bank of Ireland, KBC Bank Ireland, Permanent TSB, Ulster Bank, and An Post.
“Those contacted are told that they have been charged for an Amazon Prime subscription or that they are eligible for a refund for an unauthorised transaction on their Amazon account,” says Heffernan.
Although Meadhbh, who works full time, doesn’t have an Amazon account, her three adult children routinely use her house as an address for their deliveries. The customer assistant explained that she was going to check some banking details. She knew that Meadhbh banked with AIB.
Fraudsters may already have basic information about their intended victims as personal information can be bought from hacked company data, says Heffernan.
A key part of this fraud occurs when the potential victim is asked to download software and give remote access to their accounts.
The customer assistant asked Meadhbh to access the App Store on her phone, but Meadhbh inadvertently hung up the landline while trying to find the icon on her mobile. This didn’t faze the fake ‘Amazon’ caller who rang back straight away.
Meadhbh says it was only when she was told someone from her bank would call back shortly to confirm the transfer that her internal alarm bell started to ring. She ended the call immediately, turned off her mobile, and contacted her local AIB branch. She was reassured that no payment had been made from her account. She says she’s not “a sucker but was pulled along by how plausible it all seemed”.
Heffernan says phone scams tend to fall into two main categories: Money transfer or technical support.
In a money-transfer scam, the fraudster pretends to be from your bank. They say there is a problem, such as irregular activity or fraud, on your account. They want to find out about your debit and credit cards, PINs, online banking details, password, and personal information. “They use rush tactics, saying it needs to be done immediately, often targeting older individuals,” says Heffernan.
In a technical-support scam, the fraudster calls posing as computer support, saying there is a problem with your computer or internet connection. To ‘fix this’, they say they need to access your computer. “Fraudsters use familiar names of utility companies or service providers to make them sound more credible and even piggy-back on known technical problems that have gained media attention,” says Heffernan.
Scammers now have the technology to mimic an official telephone number so it comes up on your caller ID. Sometimes they play sound effects to make it appear as if they are ringing from a call centre.
Heffernan says it takes two people to terminate a landline call. “When you hang up your landline, the fraudster can hold the line open by not hanging up on you. You then pick up the phone again to ring the genuine company or the gardaí but you are still talking to the fraudster. Make sure you hear a dial tone before you dial.
“Don’t allow yourself to be rushed,” says Heffernan.
If you think you have been a victim of fraud, contact your bank immediately and report it to your local Garda station. A list of useful numbers can be found on the FraudSMART.
Age Action has advice on how to protect yourself from scams. See: exa.mn/Scams
*Not her real name