I THINK we all know by now that an elaborately-composed email missive asking for urgent funds and purporting to be from ‘Thomas’ or ‘Kenneth’ in an exotic country we may have never even heard of, is likely to be a scam.
Answer it, or heaven forbid, meet its demands to wire several thousand pounds to the sender – and you will only have yourself to blame. What though if you are a vulnerable or easily-confused person, who places their trust in anything which looks even vaguely official?
And what if this email doesn’t look as if it comes from a questionable-sounding individual in a far-off land, but from Netflix, pretty much a household name?
On Good Friday, I was sitting on the sofa doing some admin when an email popped up on my screen. It was – or so I thought, at first – from this very streaming service, for which I pay a monthly subscription of £7.99. The email pointed out that my payment method had failed and instructed me to click on a link to reset my details.
It looked completely and utterly genuine. In fact, exactly the same as an official email I’d received from Netflix some months ago when I updated my direct debit.
However, because I am a complete control freak when it comes to money and personal security, I knew that his particular payment had already left my bank account two days earlier. That’s because I check my statements by app at least twice a day, always on the look-out for errors.
And, incidentally, I never open any kind of personal finance app in a public place, or where the wifi connection is unsecured. I’m sure there isn’t a fraudster with scanning equipment hiding in the ceiling of every supermarket, but you can never be too sure.
Anyway, something certainly didn’t add up. And there was no way I was clicking any link. So I tracked down Netflix customer services online and had a very helpful ‘live chat’ with Reno, who advised me that it was indeed a phishing email and said that I must send it immediately to his colleagues in the cyber-security department.
My partner’s mother, who is almost 70 and vulnerable, was sitting beside me while I executed this feat of technology, watching the live chat messages fly back and forth in amazement. What if it had been her, not me, who had received a similar instruction? What if she clicks on a link in a text or is persuaded to hand over her bank details on the telephone?
Phishing, when an email falsely claiming to be from a legitimate source such as a bank, building society, company or government body tries to entice an individual to part with personal or financial information, is one of the most common of all cyber-crimes, according to police. Once the criminals have the information they need, they can be in your bank account in just a few taps. And should this happen, don’t expect your bank to fall over itself in sympathy and refund the money you have lost.
Without frightening yourself half to death, you simply have to educate yourself about the kind of scams which happen and take serious steps towards self-protection. It is not as if we don’t know that it’s happening.
Attempting to exhort money by email is just one of the cyber-crimes unearthed in The Yorkshire Post’s recent investigation, which found that fraudsters have conned Yorkshire residents and businesses out of a staggering £30m in just six months.
I’ll say that figure again in case it hasn’t quite registered. Between April and September last year, people like you and me lost £30m to criminals whose sole purpose is to deceive and defraud, cynically preying on those who fall for their wiles. This figure represents more than 21,000 individual crimes reported by Yorkshire victims to Action Fraud UK, the police-backed organisation which handles scams and cyber-related offences. Look them up at actionfraud.police.uk.
In one very sad case, a woman lost £150,000 to a conman she met on Facebook in a dating scam. Another victim lost almost £20,000 when fraudsters hacked into their current account. In every single case, the damage caused was not just financial, but emotional.
Charities which support those who have been victims of these insidious crimes say that self-confidence is destroyed, and that feelings of shame and embarrassment can cause severe anxiety and mental health issues. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, but if this was a crime we could see with our own eyes, happening on our doorsteps, would we stand back and do nothing about it?
We can’t stop the hackers and the scammers and the fraudsters, but we can be ready for them when we come. If self-protection is our only protection, then we must educate ourselves and others, learn how to spot a fake and, above all, trust no-one until we know that they are worthy of our trust.