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You would almost feel sorry for the scam artists who chose Irish Water as their phishing bait. Bogus promises of tax back or fake offers of cheap electricity or the lure of free holidays somewhere lovely are one thing, but how many of us would race to give the State’s most toxic utility more information?
The scammers hoped there would be loads of us when they targeted Irish Water customers as recently as last week with a hoax email seeking confidential details. The email looked pretty legit, as emails of this nature are designed to do. It claimed Irish Water was performing annual account maintenance and needed more information from recipients, who were asked to follow links that would take them to a dodgy site.
Although the utility being used as bait was new, the phishing scam is anything but. It is among the most common frauds around, and you really should not allow yourself to be caught out. A good rule of thumb is to ignore all emails seeking personal or financial data: no reputable company will ever ask for it.
The other rule of thumb is to make sure that if you do follow a link in an email, always, always, look at the address bar of the website you are taken to. It will quickly reveal the bona-fides or otherwise of the correspondence.
Also, never open an attachment from a dubious source. And if you get an unexpected email from an acquaintance with some obscure reference to an attached document they think you might like to see, don’t open that either. It almost certainly contains a virus.
The only problem is the scam website does not own or have any connection to any of the properties it has listed on the site. They take your booking, and you transfer money to their bank account, but when you arrive at your destination the address is either completely fake or it does exist but the people living in the property have no idea what you are talking about.
The easiest way to avoid being conned in this way is to use well-established, reputable sites. Never use Western Union any money-wiring service, unless you actually know the person you are sending the money to.
Never transfer money to a stranger’s bank account. Having the Bic and Iban number of a person you are dealing with might seem more secure than wiring money but it is not. Criminals buy up dormant accounts on the dark web and use them to collect buckets of cash before transferring it to untraceable accounts. Before making bookings, google websites to see if anyone has had a negative experience of the site and run it through scam madviser.com. This service is not perfect but it will alert you to the dodgiest of websites.
And make payments using only PayPal or your credit cards. If you follow this advice, and things go wrong, at least you have some comeback. If you transfer money, you are on your own.
All sorts of psychology is at play here. The mail is addressed to a named individual and comes from a named employer. Staff are much more likely to act on the instructions of their boss than a random stranger or some Arabian princess with a suitcase full of oil money.
The FBI’s internet crime centre has been investigating “business email compromise” scams over the past couple of years. By its estimate, nearly 10,000 companies have been hit in the past two years, with cumulative losses of as much as €1 billion. And that is just what the authorities are aware of. Given the reluctance many people have about admitting they have been conned, it is likely the losses are much higher. And given the relative newness of the scam and its cleverness, more people are likely to be duped in the months and years ahead. Make sure you are not one of them.