The usual suspects: The top 5 scams causing trouble for consumers
Posted on 26th February 2018 by Martina Nee
Unfortunately, scams are continuing to cause trouble for consumers here in Ireland, in the rest of Europe and further afield. I guess as long as there is money to be made there will always be some unscrupulous fraudster out to hoodwink people into handing over their hard-earned cash and getting nothing, or not what they expected, in return.
As March is International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN) Fraud Protection Month, we thought it would be an opportune time to have a look at the top scams, frauds, and other suspicious happenings that we hear about at ECC Ireland.
Our consumer success story of the month looks at how ECC Ireland helped a woman get her money back after she was charged not once, but twice, for a holiday hotel booking. The consumer query of the month is scam related and involves a hotel booking via a dodgy online travel agent that disappeared soon after the payment was taken.
You can download your free February eBulletin PDF here or, alternatively, read on to find out more.
Watch out, scammers about! The top 5 scams to watch out for
1. The many changing faces, and names, of dodgy fashion websites
Being able to buy clothes or other fashion items online and across borders is of great benefit to consumers in the majority of cases, but unfortunately there are situations where it hasn’t turned out so good and they have been the victim of a dodgy fashion website.
ECC Ireland receives reports, on an almost weekly basis, about certain online fashion traders who rip off consumers by sending clothes/shoes that are either of inferior quality, the wrong colour/size or product altogether, and even with stains or holes in them (yes, you read correctly!). Not only this, but when consumers try to complain they often find out that the trader is not actually based in the EU/EEA but further afield like China, then struggle to get a response or adequate refund or replacement. Some have even returned the offending item, at their own expense, never to hear from the trader again, and obviously lost the money too.
There is another problem that we’ve noticed. Even when there are bad reviews on handy resources such as Trustpilot or negative ratings on Scamadviser that’s not to say that suddenly the fraudsters’ dodgy dealings are scuppered. Au contraire mon ami! Some of these traders get around this little hiccup by just changing their names – they sometimes don’t even bother changing the look of the site, just the domain name and anywhere the company name is mentioned. That’s it! They go on to scam even more consumers. There are quite a few of these Lazurus-like traders out there.
Some of these reincarnations are not even that clever. The new not-so-genious domain name may not even have anything whatsoever to do with clothes or shoes, for example the domain name may contain something like landscaping and yet on the site it sells shoes. This should be an alarm bell but alas, consumers have bought products from these types of websites but inevitably end up paying the price. How does this happen? Well, a domain name from another business may become available and so the dodgy trader can buy them quite cheaply and use it to trade online for a short time, but time enough to scam a few people before the site disappears and the trader scarpers off again, to probably set up yet another website, and so, it goes on and on.
2. Pops-ups that could end up costing you more than you thought
Social media is just harmless fun isn’t it? What’s wrong with just scrolling and clicking things without thinking twice? Well, a lot actually! Not only are consumers buying more and more online from official websites but they are also responding to advertising, clicking the link or pop-ups and following through on that purchase via social media. Most of this is fine as social media is by now a well-established marketing tool used by countless online retailers all over the world. However, just like anything else, there are the few bad seeds who will try to use this medium to con you so beware.
ECC Ireland and the rest of the ECC-Network has received numerous reports from consumers who have been blindsided by dodgy social media pop-ups and other similar advertising. While the majority of these complaints have involved beauty products others have been in relation to health-related items and even credit cards.
The modus operandi is that consumers are attracted by this shiny enticing pop-up ad, which maybe promotes a ‘special offer’ or ‘free trial’ or it’s something that you can only get from these guys, and maybe for a limited time. The consumer is interested, clicks to find out more, might enter details such as a name, email, and address but then doesn’t continue on with the purchase and has not entered into a contract. However, some time later unsolicited goods may arrive on the doorstep along with a demand for payment and often a threat of debt collectors if this is not paid. Some consumers have not even provided the trader with a postal address, only an email, and then they receive an email with an invoice claiming that a contract had been entered into and that payment needs to be made. Not very nice at all for these consumers who understandably are worried by this thinking that they have to pay. The answer is, you do not have to pay for or return a package that you have not ordered.
For more information:
- Read our recent press release on subsciption traps and free trials.
- ECC-Net’s Subscription traps in Europe report
3. Romance scams that will be break your heart and empty your wallet
Unfortunately, from time-to-time ECC Ireland is contacted by consumers who have been caught out by so-called romance scams. This is one of the worst kinds of scams as it results in the victim being not only financially at a loss but also feeling heartbroken and betrayed. You may think, ‘But, how can this happen?’. Well, it happens quite a lot, but it is under-reported mainly because people feel embarrassed and maybe don’t know where to go with their complaint.
These types of scams typically occur when the victim gets talking to the scammer either on a dating website, social media, or other online forums. Trust is built up over time, even as long as a couple of years, during which the scammer dupes the victim into believing that it is a real relationship – there is sometimes even proposals of marriage. Everything is going wonderfully when all-of-a-sudden there is a crisis of some kind and the scammer needs money to help him/her – it could be to pay off a credit card, get them out of the army, save their business. If this is all sorted, then they can be together. Happy ever after, right? Wrong!!! Unfortunately, ECC has seen cases where people have lost more than €30,000 in this way.
These scammers pray on the vulnerable and the lonely, take what they can get, before their true intentions have been revealed and the victim, or perhaps a friend/family member, raises the alarm.
Please watch out for this type of scam. It may not be you, but it could be someone you know who falls victim to this so be vigilant.
Find out more information:
- ECC Ireland did a press release on romance scams last year which is available here.
- You can also check out this ‘Don’t get hooked by a catfisher’ article in the Irish Independent (16th February 2018).
- This article in The Sun UK is about online vigilantes who are exposing dating fraudsters.
4. Fake accommodation owners or non-existent rental properties
There are also the mysterious cases of the elusive accommodation owners, disappearing rental properties, and your vanishing money. These scams usually start out normal enough with the consumer searching for a property to rent, either to live in or just for a holiday. They may do their research on a well-known legitimate accommodation website but when it comes to sealing the deal with the property owner they are encouraged to go off the platform, where there is a secure payment system, and deal with the owner directly. This often leads to the owner telling the consumer that the payment needs to be made by bank transfer (which is not a secure method of payment). The consumer may then turn up to the property only to find out that they have not been dealing with the real owner but an imposter and therefore have no booking. There have been cases where the consumer has found online what looks like a beautiful villa to rent, pay the money, only to find out that the property doesn’t even exist.
This type of scam doesn’t just happen with holiday rentals, there have been many cases reported where people looking for a room or apartment to rent here in Ireland have been scammed. The wannabe renter may find a property on a legitimate rental accommodation platform which seems too good to be true – great price, fab pictures, etc (should be a red flag given what the housing situation in places such as Dublin is like at the moment). They contact the email provided and get a reply saying that they bought the apartment while they were living for a few years (usually about 5) in Ireland. Then they say that they have this big job that doesn’t allow them to come to Ireland ‘for even a single day’ but that there will be someone to meet you at the apartment and you can give one month’s rent first, just to see if you like it. ALARM BELLS!!!! DING DING DING!!!!
The rule of thumb here is that if you’re using a legitimate holiday accommodation website that uses its own secure payment system then stay on that platform and do not, I repeat, do not, go off the platform to pay the owner directly. Most of these platforms allow you to contact the owner to ask questions about the property and that is recommended but when it comes to payment you should use the secure payment system provided by the third party accommodation website. You should always use a credit/debit card to make the payment. Never ever send money via bank transfer as this is not secure and difficult to trace meaning if it’s taken by a scammer then it’s gone.
For general long-term rental accommodation the most common accommodation platforms only advertise properties and don’t provide its own payment system so really it’s up to you to make sure to do your research thoroughly and remember, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Never send money to anyone without having first viewed the property and being comfortable that the property is as advertised. Some rental property sites have a report ad button so if you see an ad that’s suspicious then report it.
5. Refurbished phones causing trouble
There is a big market out there now for refurbished phones, especially if consumers can get their hands on a cheaper iPhone as a brand new one could set you back quite a bit. While refurbished phones are available directly through manufacturers and perfectly legitimate new and second-hand phone sellers/marketplaces, ECC Ireland has received a concerning number of reports from consumers who have bought refurbished phones from some dodgy online traders only to encounter significant problems with their purchases later.
The cases reported include instances where the consumer has bought from an online trader with a domain name that looks like it is based in Ireland or UK but in fact is based in the US or somewhere else outside the EU/EEA, and so when there has been a problem with the purchase it is difficult to avail of EU consumer legislation. Even when the trader is based in the EU, there may be another obstacle – the manufacturer does not recognise the consumer as the owner of the phone and therefore refuses to give assistance when there is a fault or perhaps the manufacturer will not fix a problem because the handset has been fitted with unapproved refurbishment parts. Sometimes the phone has been blacklisted because it has been reported stolen. In some cases, consumers have bought these phones only to find that after just one month they have stopped working because they have been blocked.
For more information:
- This article on Softonic.com about the ‘5 warning signs you’re getting scammed on refurbished gadgets’ has some good tips and worth a read.
- This 2016 blog from EBAY, which is one of the top marketplaces where you can buy refurbished mobiles, has some advice when buying from its marketplace. This could be applied to purchases made elsewhere too.
- Do your research thoroughly before hitting the purchase button or agreeing to anything. When you’re shopping online for any kind of product or service it’s vitally important that you know who the trader is and where they are based. Remember, if they are based within the EU/EEA then you have better protection under EU consumer legislation. However, watch out for traders who claim to be based within the EU/EEA but when you dig a little further (in the terms and conditions, doing a ‘whois domain’ search online, or a review search) it turns out that they are based elsewhere or for traders who have no contact information at all other than a contact form. Here’s an article we did a while back which provides tips on checking for fake websites and doing your research.
- Other research resources to find out about the trustworthiness of a website and information about scams include: The Wayback Machine, Scamadviser, Trustpilot, gov, Action Fraud UK and the scams section on the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission’s website.
- Know what you’re signing up for. As previously stated in scam number 2 (above) there are a lot of online purchases that may involve a ‘free trial’ or special offer. Make sure you read the terms and conditions fully to find out what this free or special offer entails – when do you start to pay, is there an automatic renewal/rolling contract, how do you cancel?
- Always use a secure method of payment such as a debit/credit card just in case things go wrong. Never ever do a money transfer as once it’s gone, it’s gone. By using your card, you at least have the option to go to your bank/credit card provider to see if you can avail of chargeback and/or cancel an unauthorised payment. Other payment methods such as PayPal are also secure to use as they have protections in place.
- What to do when you’ve been scammed: If you, or someone you know, has been the victim of a scam then it is treated as a criminal matter and therefore these cases should be reported to the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau by phoning 01-6663776.
Consumer success story of the month:
An Irish consumer booked accommodation online through an online booking platform for a holiday in France. When the consumer arrived at the location she paid the total amount due in cash and the hotel provided her with an invoice to confirm this. Unfortunately, sometime later, the consumer found that she had been charged again by the online booking platform via her credit card. The consumer tried to clarify that she had already paid the amount due, however, she was not in possession of the invoice she had been provided with as she did not anticipate that she would still need it. The online platform maintained that they would not be able to issue a refund until the invoice was provided. The consumer had tried to contact the hotel to request a copy of the invoice, while providing them with the details of when she had made the payment and the amount charged. However, the consumer only received automatic notifications from them rather than clear responses to her claim.
ECC Ireland investigated the matter further and colleagues at ECC France contacted the trader on behalf of the consumer. As a result, the hotel provided the consumer with a refund of the amount she was incorrectly charged.
Consumer query of the month:
Q: In January I booked accommodation for a holiday in Lanzarote through an online travel agency based in the UK. I provided my bank details to make the payment but then they also asked for a copy of my passport. As everything seemed fine I provided this. They took the payment, but I received no communication from them after this. When I went to the website to check about what to do I was shocked to find that the website is no longer working. I only made the payment a month ago! I think the trader has now set up a website under a new name. What can I do?
A: Unfortunately, it seems you have been the victim of an online scam where websites set up for a short period take consumers’ money and then disappear. The good news is that as you paid with your credit card you should be able to go to your credit card provider and ask to avail of chargeback. Since the payment was only made a month ago, you are also within the timeframe to do this – usually banks/credit card providers allow about 120 days for chargeback from the time of the payment, so it is crucial to do this as soon as possible. The other thing you can do is report the matter to the Garda Economic Crime Bureau. As you provided your passport you may need to think about other security measures so make sure to talk to the bank about this too.
Press and Communications Manager
The European Consumer Centre is part of the European Consumer Centres Network (ECC-Net), which covers 30 countries (all EU countries plus Norway and Iceland), and offers a free and confidential information and advice service to the public on their rights as consumers, assisting customers with cross-border disputes. ECC Ireland is funded by the European Commission and the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission.
Disclaimer: Whilst every effort is made to ensure accuracy, the European Consumer Centre cannot be held responsible for matters arising from any errors or omissions contained in this publication. The information provided is intended as a guide only and not as a legal interpretation.
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