Online Shopping: How to avoid online scams


Millions of people fall victim to scams every year with people from all walks of life targeted. Some scams are well known but new fraudulent schemes are devised regularly so it is important to be alert to the potential risks.

How can I spot a scam?

While new variations of scams emerge almost daily, often there are common threads which make fraudulent approaches easier to identify. There are a number of things to look out for, including:

  • The call, letter, e-mail or text has come out of the blue.
  • You have won a prize but never entered a draw
  • You are asked for money upfront to release your ‘win’
  • You are asked for your bank account, credit card details or other confidential information
  • You are told you must reply straight away or you will lose the winnings or refund
  • And above all, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is


General Advice

  • Watch out for tell-tale signs of scams: promise of huge rewards such as lottery winnings, urgent action required and requests for upfront payment or private information. Be skeptical of all unsolicited contact and remember if it sounds too good to be true, it generally is.
  • Never, ever, reply to unsolicited emails (spam) and be careful when clicking links in emails to avoid potential threats such as phishing.
  • If you have already sent money, do not send any more. If you have sent bank details, notify your bank and close your account.
  • If you think you have been the victim of fraudulent activity, you should report the matter to your local Garda station immediately.
  • Remember, most genuine companies will not cold-call you and request payment or sensitive information. If you are unsure you should hang up and verify the approach with the company directly using their published contact details.
  • Never send any money or financial information in order to receive a prize or to accept an offer of employment
  • When shopping online do not disclose personal information which is not necessary to complete a transaction. Certain personal details, combined with your credit card number could potentially lead to identity theft.


Common scams

Expensive ‘free’ Trials

Advertisements for free trials of skincare and weight-loss products appear frequently online, with consumers invited to pay a nominal postage fee to obtain a free sample of the ‘wonder’ product. However, hidden in the small print is the catch – unless you contact the company to cancel within a set timeframe (usually 14 days), you will be billed every month for the full cost of the product which can be up to €200.

Unofficial websites offering public services

Watch out for third party websites online offering services such as European Health Insurance Cards,  driving test bookings or passports,  which will charge you additional ‘administration fees’. Theses websites often mimic official websites and in most cases you will have paid more for exactly the same service had you booked it on the official website.

Always use the official website of the organisation that you are applying to and be aware that prominent rankings in search engines are often paid for.


You can be contacted by telephone, email, letter or win a prize on a scratch card. You are told that you have won a ‘big prize’ and must call a premium rate number or pay an administration fee to collect your prize.

You will be asked to pay an administration fee or to send your personal account details in order to receive your big cash prize. You will be told to pay within a very short period of time in order to ensure you receive your prize. Once contact is established further payments will be sought. When all the amounts have been transferred you will never hear from the lottery organiser again. Your money will be lost.

‘Nigerian Letters ‘

The so-called “Nigerian letters” (also known as Code 419 scams, after the article of the Nigerian Criminal Code dealing with fraud) can also originate in other countries. These are email scams from someone purporting to be the accountant of deposed royalty or a politician, or alternatively a bank employee who knows of a terminally ill wealthy person with no relatives or some such similar senarios. They offer you a share in a huge fortune in return for using your bank account to transfer the money out of the country. The scammer will use any bank details given to attempt to extract money from your bank account.

Free Holiday Promotions

Beware of ‘free’ holiday promotions that may be offered to you via scratch cards, cold calling or direct mailings. You will be told you have won a free holiday, be it a cruise or a holiday in the sun. You will have to pay some money upfront to secure your ‘free’ holiday, maybe for a second person to join you and maybe an administration fee. You will find that no holiday materialises. Some ‘free’ holidays will require you to go to another destination for departure and may require you to pay for accommodation etc.


Emails purporting to come from your bank or other institution, asking you to update, validate, or confirm personal financial details or passwords. The scammers will attempt to use these details to extract money from your bank accounts or take out credit agreements in your name.

Mobile phone text messages that direct you onto fraudulent websites or invite you to call a premium rate mobile number or download malicious content are also increasingly common.


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Bear in mind that not all schemes aimed at parting you from your money are fraudulent and it is important to be alert to other ways you can be caught out unintentionally, particularly online.




Scams of all kinds have proliferated in the age of the mobile phone, e-mail and internet. Here are some scenarios you may come across in your everyday life.

I’m selling my car, and someone has offered me more than the asking price. Is this a scam?

If a deal “seems too good to be true, it almost always is”, the saying goes. Typically, the “buyer” will tell you that his “shipping agent” will pick up the car, and offers to pay by cheque. When the seller responds, he is told that a cheque has already been made out for more than the asking price, for an amount which includes the “shipping fee”, and asks the seller to send this extra “fee” to the “shipping agent” by money transfer or cheque. The seller will find that his payment cheque will bounce, while he is out of pocket for the “shipping fee”. 


I’ve just got a letter/phone call/scratch card telling me that I’ve won a free holiday. Am I right to be suspicious?

Yes, you are. If you have not entered a competition to win something, you cannot possibly have “won” anything.
Generally, beware of “free” holiday promotions that may be offered to you via scratch cards, cold calling or direct mailings. You will be told you have won a “free holiday”, usually a cruise or a holiday. You will also be told that you have to pay some money upfront to secure your “free” holiday or for a second person to join you on this holiday and, sometimes, an administration fee. Should you decide to make any or all of these payments you will find that the holiday does not materialise. Some “free” holidays will require you to go to another destination for departure and may require you to pay for accommodation while there, etc.


I’ve received a very genuine-looking letter telling me that I’ve won the Spanish lottery. Could this be possible?

Think about the old slogan “if you’re not in it, you can’t win it” i.e. if you haven’t bought a ticket for the Spanish lottery, then you haven’t won it. This is obviously a scam.


My online boyfriend, whom I haven’t met in real life, is asking me for financial help. Should I send money over?

Victims of this romance scam believe they have met their perfect match online, but the other person is in fact a scammer using a fake profile to build the relationship. They slowly gain the victim’s trust with a view to eventually asking them for money. Dating and romance scams often take place through online dating websites, but scammers may also use social media or email to make contact. They have even been known to telephone their victims as a first introduction. These scams are also known as “catfishing”.


Someone contacted me out of the blue and needs my help to transfer a large sum of money.

these so-called “Nigerian scams” involve someone overseas offering you a share in a large sum of money or a payment on the condition you help them to transfer money out of their country. While these scams originated in Nigeria, they now come from all over the world, and they usually come via e-mail and social media.


My friend is travelling abroad and needs money to come back home.

You will usually receive a message from a real friend, from their actual social media account or personal e-mail. The scenario is almost always that he is away on holiday, had some trouble (medical emergency, mugging, missed flight) and urgently needs money to return home. They usually ask for money to be sent by bank transfer, Western Union or similar. None of this is real, except the social or e-mail account. Scammers have hacked into social media accounts and e-mail mailboxes and send out messages to everybody in the friend list or mailing list asking for money to be sent abroad.


I was contacted by e-mail/telephone/social media to make a donation to a well-known charity.

Scammers impersonate genuine charities and ask for donations claiming to collect money after natural disasters or major events in the news. Not only do these scams cost you money, they also divert much needed donations away from legitimate charities and causes.


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