Consumer Advice: Spot and Stay Away from Scams

How To 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


Common Types of 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 potential risks.

“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.


Fake Websites

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’. These 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.


Lotteries & Prizes

You can be contacted by telephone, email or even letter and are told that you have won a “big prize”. The next step will ask you to call a premium-rate number or pay an administration fee to collect your prize by providing your banking account details/credit card number. You will be told to pay within a very short period of time in order to ensure you receive your prize. When all the amounts have been transferred you will never hear from the lottery organiser again.

A common scam is the “Spanish Lottery” where you receive a genuine-looking letter/e-mail telling you you have won the latest Spanish lottery draw. 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.


“Nigerian Letters”

Also known as Code 419 scams, these are unsolicited emails from someone purporting to be the accountant of some deposed royalty or a politician, or alternatively a bank employee who knows of a terminally ill wealthy person with no relatives, etc. 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 the bank details in order to do the opposite: extract money from your bank account.

While these scams originated in Nigeria decades ago, they now come from all over the world, usually via e-mail and social media.


“Free” Holidays

You may come across these 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 a percentage deposit upfront to secure your “free” holiday and maybe an administration fee also. You will soon find that no holiday materialises.


Phishing & Smishing

Emails or texts 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.


The Shipping Fee Scam

This usually involves a consumer-to-consumer transaction between two individuals on a buy-and-sell platform or announcements forum. The seller will be offered more than the asking price for whatever product they are buying, most seen in second-hand car sales.

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”.


Catfishing or Romance Fraud

In this scenario, an online boy/girlfriend or fiancé(e), whom you have never met in real life is asking me for financial help. Victims of this romance scam are made to 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 will often create far-fetched stories where they are victims and are in danger and they need money urgently in order to escape a scary-sounding situation.


A Friend In Need

Your friend is travelling abroad and suddenly contacts you to say they need money urgently 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.


The Charity Donation

This type of scam exploits a legitimate well-known fundraising method that charities all over the world use, which makes it very credible. Scammers impersonate genuine charities and ask for donations claiming to collect money, particularly after natural disasters or major events that are in the news. You will receive messages by email or social media to make the donation. Not only do these scams cost the victims money, but they also divert much-needed donations away from legitimate charities and causes.


The Security Alert

This method usually involves malware, spyware or ransomware software placed on your computer. A message pops up in your internet browser telling you there is a security problem with your computer. Most of these pop-ups and messaging would be blocked by your computer’s/other devices’ security – if you have it. However, if you click on the link of a suspicious message that appears on your screen while you are browsing the internet, this will enable the scammers/hackers to access your device. You will then be asked to pay the scammers so that they “unlock” your computer or files.

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.


General Advice

  • Watch out for tell-tale signs of scams: promises 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.


Learn more about the latest types of online scams here