The unexpected email alarmed my older relative in California. Apparently from PayPal, it confirmed her purchase of $800 ($798) in bitcoin. She wouldn’t have had the faintest interest in buying bitcoin.
She rang the PayPal number on the invoice, and spoke to a nice man who told her that she was the victim of a scam. But PayPal could aid her in recovering her money.
You need to go to an Apple Store and buy a gift card, and call me back; don’t delay, the reassuring man said. She went out and made the purchase, even though it seemed odd. When she phoned back, he obtained the number on the card. The actual physical card is safe with you, so you don’t need to worry about fraud, he said.
Thus she became another victim of a widespread online phishing scam using gift cards. No one had used her PayPal account, of course. Apple Support confirmed to me that the gift card had been redeemed swiftly at an Apple Store in Philadelphia. Only gift card numbers are needed, not the actual cards.
The email she received was convincing. The file name for an “invoice” utilised her own initials. For someone in their 80s, who uses the internet daily and sometimes shops online, the problem and the solution seemed plausible. I tried to sort out what I could on a timely US visit, but nothing proved easy.
Though my relative thought she had spoken to the “real” PayPal after the incident, I knew this could not be, because of my own exasperation in tracking down a PayPal number to call. For understandable safety reasons, it’s also particularly hard to resolve a problem on behalf of someone else at any financial institution, as many must do for elderly relatives or friends who can find it even more confusing than the rest of us to wade through poorly designed websites seeking a number for human support, not a chatbot or a form.
And as a regular stream of scam emails and phone messages continued to flow in, as they do these days for us all, my relative remains worried her accounts have been breached. I’ve asked her to phone me whenever she’s unsure about a message or email.
We all encounter these scams regularly. Reports from the FBI in 2021, the EU in 2020 and statistics from the UK police unit Action Fraud all indicate online fraud continues to balloon. Especially so since the start of the pandemic when we all migrated to even more online purchasing. UK consumer group Which? said UK fraud reports were up by a third in 2020, accounting for £2.3 billion (€2.7 billion) in losses.
The constant scam barrage is tiresome and irritating, even when we aren’t duped. When we are, while online fraud can be costly, it’s also a psychologically upsetting blow. The EU report noted that far more people said they suffered “emotionally” as opposed to “financially” as a result of online fraud: 79 per cent compared to 24 per cent, even though the average loss to online scams was significant, more than €4,000.
According to the report, Irish consumers are the second most active online EU shoppers, and have the second highest experience of fraud, with 68 per cent saying they’ve personally experienced fraud through online purchases, identity theft or monetary schemes.
While addressing online fraud remains a challenge, businesses, and institutions from governments to regulators, fail to provide adequate scammer punishments, consumer protections or basic support navigation to affected individuals, especially the elderly who are increasingly forced online and on to clumsy apps for critical living tasks such as managing finances, utilities, bills… and government services.
While both the FBI and EU reports indicate older people are most affected by online fraud, in numbers and in total money lost, fraudsters are equal opportunity scammers in all age categories.
Recently, I was telling my friend Tara about my relative, and she replied that she’d been the target of scam messages the moment she put an item up for sale on Facebook’s Marketplace. She showed me the most recent encounter, with someone who wanted her to arrange to send the item supposedly via “UPS” and pay an extra €100 for “insurance” which the buyer said they’d refund. This scam involved paying for vouchers on the Recharge.com website. The scammers request the voucher number to “complete the transaction”.
She strung them along for a while, then eventually told them where to go, reporting the account to Facebook. She wonders why Facebook can’t better filter such scam messages. Recharge.com does little to inform its users about scams. It has an old blog post on scams (it came up via internet search) but no link to such basic safety information on its home page.
Ironically, as I was talking to my friend, I got a worried call from my relative. She’d had a phone message from “Amazon”, asking her to call to confirm the purchase of a desktop computer.
“It’s a scam. Delete it,” I said. But I’d rather delete the scammers, the unhelpful websites, and the pressure to buy online.