The computer scams everyone in Northern Ireland needs to know about - by PSNI cybercrime expert
Robert McMurran gives Ivan Little a chilling account of the number of ways that fraudsters target your cash and belongings
He's too embarrassed to allow his name to be made public, but a well-known figure in Belfast has revealed how he fell foul of an email scam last year which almost cost him a fortune. The man, one of scores of people in Northern Ireland who've been tricked by fraudsters, said: "I should have known better but the scammers caught me off guard."
The man explained that what seemed like an innocuous email purporting to come from his mobile phone provider didn't strike him as odd.
"They asked me to re-confirm my bank details and because it was coming from a source I knew - or thought I knew - I had no reservations about giving them what they wanted."
Several hours later the man woke with a jolt: "I suddenly realised what I had done was stupid."
He contacted an emergency number provided by his bank and ended up going through to a helpline in America.
"I was told that someone had already made a number of purchases with my credit card. But I was able to stop it there and then before any major damage was done. I got off lightly."
But police say many victims of the scammers aren't so fortunate and they've stepped up their campaign to make the public more aware of the tactics used by the criminals who have been dubbed "the scum who scam" as they prey on thousands of people with their relentless and ever-changing techniques to part them from their money.
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And though many of the targeted individuals have been able to see through the duplicitous double dealings, some have fallen hook, line and sinker for the cons and lost their life savings in the process.
The litany of deceit is almost endless, as I discovered when I sat in on a talk given by the PSNI's crime prevention unit to urge the public to do more to help themselves in the non-stop battle to beat the fraudsters.
At the meeting Robert McMurran, who is a civilian PSNI employee, not a uniformed officer, was introduced to his audience in west Belfast with a warning from one of his hosts that he was going to be speaking about a subject that "puts fear in all of our hearts - scams".
Robert started by telling one half of the audience that they'd just won the Spanish lottery while the other half had scooped the Australian lottery.
"All you have to do to claim your money is to give my colleague here all your bank details," he added.
He was joking of course, but it was a serious warning to people about the dangers posed by telephone calls or emails congratulating the 'lucky' recipients about winning competitions they'd never entered.
"If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is and alarm bells should start ringing," said Robert.
Another popular way of tricking people into handing over money is through telephone calls or emails from fake charity organisations they've never heard of.
Robert said: "You think you are helping someone but you could be donating to charities that simply don't exist. Stick with the ones you know."
Cold calls over the telephone like the one mentioned earlier are an everyday nightmare for countless people here and in the last few weeks scams have netted gangsters nearly £40,000 after men in Antrim and Tyrone were tricked into giving them their banking details.
Bogus messages from HMRC promising tax refunds have also extracted the same personal information for the imposters even though government officials repeatedly issue warnings that they don't use emails to do business.
Other lucrative moneyspinners for the cheats include fake health products which promise miracle cures for a range of illnesses and ailments.
The PSNI works closely with Trading Standards, which has become increasingly alarmed about the growing number of rip-offs of vulnerable people like the local woman who spent £1,000 on slimming pills but didn't lose any pounds in weight.
When she contacted Trading Standards they had the pills examined and discovered they were Viagra.
Romancing scams take advantage of men and women who are looking for love but instead find cruel scammers who are prepared to take them for all they're worth.
The most popular trick is for someone who scours newspaper death notices to feign interest online in a "victim" who may have recently lost a husband or wife. The prospective "partner" will eventually say they're keen to travel to Northern Ireland to take their blossoming internet relationship to the next level but can't make the journey because they have just lost their job.
And that's the cue for the gullible man or woman here to send money to finance a trip that never happens.
Police say they know of normally cautious professionals who have taken the bait and instead of saying hello to a new companion have had to say farewell to their homes because they've been swindled out of so much money. The PSNI advice is to set up a meeting on neutral ground to establish the bona fides of the other party and avoid the disappointment of finding out that a George Clooney lookalike seen in a shared photograph is actually more like a star of a horror movie.
Investment scams which were fleecing people even before computers came on the scene are still popular with the fraudsters.
One way for the gangsters to cash in is to take on - and take in - a group of friends, starting off small by paying out modest returns on £50 investments before going big and suckering others to hand over thousands of pounds and getting nothing in return.
Robert warned his audience to be wary of doorstep salesmen who turn up unannounced, making all sorts of offers and delivering all kinds of dire warnings about repairs that they say are needed to your property.
He said not all of the callers are rogue traders but he urged people who are suspicious to seek advice from other qualified professionals who can verify if the work is indeed necessary.
Rogue sales people who try to pressure people at their homes into buying goods, often with a warning that the offer is time-limited, should also be treated with caution, say police, who have stressed the importance of seeking out identification from callers who say they are representatives of councils or utility services.
Another less obvious precaution relating to unexpected visitors, according to the police, is to ensure that back doors are locked because while someone is engaging householders at the front of the property accomplices may be getting in through the rear of the premises and helping themselves to valuables.
Online scams are evolving at a frightening level and the universal aim is to get people's bank details so that their accounts can be emptied.
Robert said it's crucial people don't give out personal information over the phone or internet to organisations or individuals they don't know.
He said that scammers posing as bank officials had developed methods of trying to trick unsuspecting people by telephoning them on their landlines and asking security questions before inviting them to ring them back on genuine numbers.
But the problem is that the original caller won't have cut the connection and people who think they have dialled real numbers will simply end up speaking to an associate of the fraudster on the same line.
Robert said: "If you are concerned ring a friend or relative, and once you do that your line will be cleared."
Bogus emails are also a headache, according to the PSNI, which says that conmen can't recreate legitimate addresses but will make slight alterations in a bid to fool people.
"You might not notice the email is from Tescos and not Tesco or Marks & Spencers instead of Marks & Spencer," said Robert who stressed the importance of not clicking on any links in emails that people are unable to verify.
The danger is that if they do click on a link they may unwittingly download a virus or a programme that could allow criminals to see everything they are doing online, giving the conmen access to all of their bank details.
Emails from friends or family with out-of-character requests for money should always be verified, said Robert, by making direct contact with them or checking out the communications with other people.
Shopping online is fraught with pitfalls, says the PSNI.
It advises people to ensure that the webpages of companies they are buying from have a padlock symbol on them and an 's' - for security - in the address at the top.
"If they are not there don't put your bank details in because it means it's not a secure page," added Robert, who warned that what were flagged up as free samples on the internet often hid a multitude of potential problems.
"One woman who signed up for free samples of knitting wool eventually noticed that £40 was coming out of her account every month.
"When she complained to Trading Standards it discovered that she had agreed to subscription payments in her terms and conditions but she hadn't read them."
Robert said it is imperative that people don't allow scammers into their systems.
Most people, he added, had security firewalls and anti-virus protection on their computers but not necessarily on their mobile phones.
He warned that opening wi-fi on unprotected phones could also open a raft of problems.
He said that at a recent meeting with National Crime Agency representatives in Belfast, one official showed how easy it was to access other people's information.
He said: "The official brought along an unprotected laptop and in the morning he went onto the free wi-fi in the hotel. At lunchtime he told us he'd had 25,000 attacks on his computer."
Checking and sending emails at home in secure networks is fine, said Robert, but not in wi-fi in public places if no passwords are required to access it.
He added: "Everybody around you will be on the same wi-fi so they can see your emails and something that you have clicked on.
"If you need to check your emails when you are out and about use the data on your device rather than using the wi-fi that's available.
"If you are just searching the internet for news or sport that's all right because you are just looking on a public site. But never put in your personal details."
Social media is also open to exploitation. Every day thousands of people who are holidaying around the world use sites like Facebook to let friends and relatives back home know what they're doing. But Robert warned: "If you're posting photos of yourself on the beach in Spain - where are you not? That's right, you're not in your house. And burglars love to have that information."
- Further advice and information can be obtained by visiting www.nidirect.gov.uk/scamwiseni or the ScamwiseNI Facebook page @scamwiseni