Pádraig Hoare: Why the sudden increase in scam calls and texts? 

There are many facets to the fraudulent activity, many variations, but all are insidious
Pádraig Hoare: Why the sudden increase in scam calls and texts? 

Robocalls can dial various numbers millions of times a day, over and over again, at little cost to the scammers. 

They have been almost as ubiquitous as Covid-19, working from home, and social distancing — the scourge of the scam call.

Barely a week goes by when a number we don’t recognise flashes up on our phones, giving that one-second window of doubt and confusion — should we answer this one, for it may be something important, or is it yet another phantom call, designed to extract money?

We know by now that answering such a call is a bad idea, and an even worse idea is to call the number back. 

Even worse again is calling back, and following the instructions that follow, usually from a recorded message or from a persuasive live operator with bad intentions.

But how do these scams actually make money? The answer is not a simple one, as this Irish Examiner reporter found out. There are many facets to the scam, many mutations and variations, but all are insidious.

A person avoids all of the unpleasantness simply by not answering the phone in the first place. But say you do, what happens then?

The “do not answer” advice is best practice for a reason. 

However, it seems that simply answering a call is not a catastrophic blunder.

Verify your number is real

What answering a call does, according to experts, is verify your number is real, and therefore you are of value for future potential scams. 

If you answer inadvertently, but either ignore the recorded message or slippery live operator’s instructions and hang up, the damage is minimal — but minimal is still more than no damage.

What is of value to the scammer when you answer however is that they can then bundle your number with other numbers they have established to be owned by a real person.

That bundle of numbers then becomes of value on the dark web and other illicit marketplaces, as they are numbers that could be answered again in the future, thereby providing opportunities for other scammer down the line to extort money through nefarious ruses. And so the cycle goes on and on.

In other words, while answering such a call and letting it go no further means you won’t lose money, it is not an unsuccessful venture from the scammers. Your number is sold on to other would-be scammers to try again in the future.

Why do we sometimes get calls over and over again, driving us round the bend in frustration? It’s simply brute force by the scammers.

After all, robocalls can dial various numbers millions of times a day, over and over again, at little cost to the scammers. 

If even a small percentage of people answer and are duped into following instructions on a recorded message, then that could still be thousands of people unwittingly parting with their money.

What happens if you simply call back a number emanating from, let’s say, Burkina Faso or Vanuatu, two of many countries that seem to route the calls in recent years?

They are invariably versions of the popular Wangiri scam of Japanese origin. At its core, the phone will ring and then ends, with scammers hopeful you will call back.

International hotline

By calling back, you may be connected to an international hotline. Those international hotlines are a bit like calling premium numbers, the kind of phone lines that were the scourge of parents in the 1980s and 1990s when kids would ring expensive phone numbers to perhaps hear a popstar or actor’s pre-recorded generic message, thanking fans for support, etc.

The same could apply to adult chatlines, where (usually) lonely men would call a number, talk to someone in person or listen to recorded highly-charged sexual talk, and before they know it, were being charged through the nose for the privilege.

Five minutes on one of those phone calls, and that was a hefty addition to your normal bill by the time you opened the envelope from the phone company at the end of the month.

The scam calls we have come to know and hate these days work around the same principles. You call back, you are connected, and a hefty fee is charged just for connecting. 

If you stay on the line even for a few minutes, the costs can be enormous as they are charged as premium connections.

The fees that the scammers pay phone companies for hosting such expensive lines are dwarfed by the charges they bring in from unwitting customers, thereby making the scam a lucrative yet simple one to carry out.

As we all get a bit more streetwise about answering such calls, the scammers are adapting.

Disguises more sophisticated

No longer do we just have to worry about weird numbers from faraway countries, but now the disguises are becoming more sophisticated.

It may sound funny to most of us, but answering calls to be told by someone on the other line that we are being investigated for fraud or drug charges, or that Revenue is pursuing a hefty tax bill, can be harrowing to some who may be unfamiliar with these scams.

While most of us laugh off the absurdity of it all, there are some vulnerable users who may feel compelled to handover bank details, home addresses, etc to make the unpleasantness go away.

The same applies to text messages, where new Brexit-related rules on delivery charges are being exploited. A text will purport to be from a delivery company, insisting a charge must be paid in advance to receive a parcel or package.

Vaccines

They’ve even started on vaccines. An Irish Examiner reader this week told of how their partner received a fake text which included a link for her second jab, with the same mobile number used in the first legitimate text.

“Luckily, she didn’t click on it, but I’d imagine it was a link seeking additional information/bank details, etc,” the reader said.

“The difference between the second, fake text and the first legitimate text  — there was no vaccination centre address on the fake one, and the link was slightly different to the first one. 

"Depending on how many people received them, it could potentially cause hundreds/thousands of people to turn up at appointments they don’t have,” they added.

According to Gareth Norris and Alexandra Brookes at the Department of Psychology in Aberystwyth University, the resurgence of text scams in the spring of 2021 appears to be taking advantage of circumstances brought about by the pandemic.

Writing in the current affairs website The Conversation, the academics say we must get familiar with the scammer thinking process.

“To understand the apparent increase in text scams, we need to consider two key factors. The first is timing. 

Missed delivery charge scams are most often rolled out around the busy Christmas postal period, while tax scams are usually timed around April to coincide with the new financial year.

“The second factor is volume. These types of scams are delivered en masse, and fraudsters only need to receive responses to a handful of the thousands of texts they send out to make significant sums of money.

“That’s not because of the money they’re asking people to send them — which appears tiny in the case of a £1.43 delivery fee — but because criminals can use the card details they’re provided to empty victims’ bank accounts. 

"Other text scams, which prompt you to click on a link, are designed to infect your phone with malware that can help criminals steal your personal data.” 

Phone scams exploit our psychological vulnerabilities, they say.

“The delivery charge scam, for instance, often threatens a loss if you don’t immediately pay for redelivery, with fraudsters issuing a tight deadline before they claim your parcel will be returned to its sender. 

"Emotions such as fear, panic and anxiety can cause us to respond impulsively to scam messages.” 

The same can work when it comes to positive emotions — who wouldn’t be excited by the prospect of a tax refund, the academics ask.

We should not be arrogant enough to believe that we would never fall for a phone scam — that is precisely how we do get caught. 

This reporter, having become very familiar with phone scams through the years, still managed to answer a scam call this week. I had let my guard down, even for a moment.

According to Mr Norris and Ms Brookes, older people are not more likely to be victims of scams, contrary to popular belief.

This is partially because many older people may be less likely to bank and shop online, have dealings with tax authorities, or even use mobile phones, they say.

“It’s the use of mobile devices for these text-based scams that may actually make younger people more susceptible. While we’re somewhat used to scam emails, scam texts are relatively new. 

"Texts also feel more intimate — we expect them to be from people we know, or from institutions we’ve trusted with our mobile number. 

"And we often access texts on the go, when we’re busy or distracted and less likely to question their veracity.” 

A few simple steps before choosing to respond can make all the difference, they say.

“First, make sure you take some time to properly look at the content of any message you receive. Any written message containing email addresses, phone numbers or language errors could help you spot a scam.

“If you can’t spot any blatant errors, just wait — even for a few minutes — before responding. This will allow you time to think whether it’s normal for a company to communicate with you via text.

It is well worth interrogating everything about the text you receive, they say.

“Checking websites for the delivery companies they use, or even making a quick call to the delivery company the text claims to be from, can help clear things up. 

"And at the end of the day, it’s better to miss your parcel than to lose thousands of pounds to scam artists.”

What to watch out for

Communications watchdog ComReg says there has been a significant upsurge in the volume of scam calls in recent weeks. Here is just a few to watch out for:

  • PPS Numbers: Gardaí warned about automated numbers concering suspicious activity linked to a PPS number. These scam calls mainly come from numbers with an 087 prefix.
  • Garda stations: These come from numbers appearing to be a genuine Garda station and usually seek personal information.
  • Foreign dialling codes: There are a wide range of these numbers, with calls purporting to come from a number of countries, many of which are designed to illicit a call-back in order to get money.
  • Banks and Post Offices: There have also been dozens of calls, texts, and emails claiming to be from banks, post offices, and even government departments of Revenue. Typically, these look for specific personal information, such as bank account numbers of social welfare details, and often operate under the guise of offering refunds.

Such bodies will never contact looking for such information over the phone, through text or via email.

If you believe you may have fallen victim to any of these scams, contact your financial institution and report the matter to gardaí.

This article was first published on July 12, 2021

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