Analysis: anyone young or old can fall victim to these scammers, but there are some ways we can help ourselves

It's another thing we can chalk down to the pandemic: the huge increase in scam emails and text messages tricking people to share personal and banking details. In Ireland, we've seen warnings from the Revenue Commissioners, the Department of Social Protection, An Post and the gardai about this practice. Irish consumers are not alone in this: mobile phone users worldwide have been targetted with texts that appear at first glance to be from delivery companies or government departments.

The resurgence of text scams of late appears to be taking advantage of circumstances brought about by the pandemic but, according to Gareth Norris and Alexandra Brookes from the Department of Psychology at Aberystwyth University, we can stamp them out by learning more about them.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Ray D'Arcy Show, Conor Pope from The Irish Times on how to avoid getting scammed

Writing in The Conversation, Norris and Brookes saw that the scamsters are multiplying due to timing. "More of us are expecting a parcel in the post after increasing our online shopping since March 2020", they say, "while novel financial measures related to the pandemic, such as the furlough scheme, may have given people the impression that the government has temporarily altered its operations."

The second factor is volume. "These types of scams are delivered en masse, and fraudsters only need to receive responses to a handful of the thousands of texts they send out to make significant sums of money. That's not because of the money they're asking people to send them – which appears tiny in the case of a delivery fee – but because criminals can use the card details they're provided to empty victims' bank accounts. Other text scams, which prompt you to click on a link, are designed to infect your phone with malware that can help criminals steal your personal data."

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Detective Inspector Mel Smyth from the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau, and Jacky Fox from Accenture Ireland Security, and Vice Chair of Cyber Ireland, discuss online shopping scams.

Norris and Brookes say that the increasing volume of these scams suggests that they do work. "Because their success encourages "copy cat" scams, with new criminal groups experimenting with their own text scams, it's difficult to stamp them out entirely, despite recent arrests. The best way to counter these scams is to reduce their success rate, and we can do this by making the public aware of how and why text scams work."

But why do we fall for text scams? Norris and Brookes says it's down to how the criminals exploit our psychological vulnerabilities. "The aim is to encourage us to respond on impulse rather than thinking through whether we may be being scammed", they say.

"Exploiting emotion is the main method used by scammers to achieve this. The delivery charge scam, for instance, often threatens a loss if you don't immediately pay for redelivery, with fraudsters issuing a tight deadline before they claim your parcel will be returned to its sender. Emotions such as fear, panic and anxiety can cause us to respond impulsively to scam messages.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, 60% of Irish people are worried at being targets of online fraud

"On the other hand, positive emotions, such as excitement or hope, can also bias our judgement and encourage impulsive behaviour. The tax refund scam is built on the promise of financial gain if you click on a link – but instead of transferring you cash, the link is built to facilitate phishing that gives criminals access to your personal data or bank details.

"People are far more likely to fall for this scam if they've already received a genuine communication that they're due a tax refund. Psychologists refer to this feeling as "illusory correlation", which happens when we see events as linked when they're not. Illusory correlation tends to confuse or relax our natural caution, making us more vulnerable to scams."

The bad news, say Norris and Brookes, is that "anyone can fall victim to scams". But there are some ways we can help ourselves. "First, make sure you take some time to properly look at the content of any message you receive. Any written message containing email addresses, phone numbers or language errors could help you spot a scam.

At the end of the day, it's better to miss your parcel than to lose thousands to scam artists

"If you can't spot any blatant errors, just wait – even for a few minutes – before responding. This will allow you time to think whether it's normal for a company to communicate with you via text.

"For delivery scams in particular, it's well worth interrogating everything about the text you receive. Checking websites for the delivery companies they use, or even making a quick call to the delivery company the text claims to be from, can help clear things up. At the end of the day, it's better to miss your parcel than to lose thousands to scam artists.The Conversation"


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ