Matthew Bolger was walking his dog when he received a text message to warn him that there had been an unauthorised attempt to access his bank account.
Matthew, an architecture student, is tech savvy and in his twenties. But, partly because he was away from his laptop, the criminals caught him at an opportune time.
A second text message told him that he would soon be contacted by his bank. When his phone rang, he found himself reading codes from his phone, unaware that he was actually giving fraudsters access to the account.
A total of €6,000 was taken and, for a brief time, his account was used to receive funds that had been stolen from other people.
It's been stressful for him, but it is has unfortunately become a more common tale. We’ve all had a scam text or a spoof phone call in the last few months.
Some people have been plagued by calls to their landlines. Often, a recorded message warns them their PPS number has been compromised, or that Revenue has determined they under-declared income. Our inboxes are stuffed with fake emails supposedly from banks, delivery companies and even Government departments.
The increase in scam attempts is not just anecdotal. Garda sources told Prime Time that reports of scams surged by 440% in the first six months of 2021.
The Covid-19 pandemic is partly to blame. People have been working from home, using less secure networks. There has been more online shopping. Criminals tend to go where people are, and they have thus followed us online.
The spoof calls are so common that I received one just as I was preparing to look into the issue for Prime Time.
The caller told me that my Amazon Prime account had processed a payment of €79.99. I don’t have an Amazon Prime account. But, for the purposes of research, I decided to go along with the scammer.
They wanted me to download an app called "Quick Support". I lied and said I was using an Android device. I pretended to download it, and she guided me, step by step, through the installation, occasionally asking me what I could see on my screen.
My urge not to scream "SCAMMER" almost overcame me several times. But in the interest of journalism, I continued to wind the scammer up.
I frustrated her by asking questions like, "What should I see now?", "What do I do next?", "Why can I not do this on the Amazon app?", "Can you email me your details and a contact number so I can call you back?"
She persisted and, at one point, snapped. "Please just download the app sir," she said.
It was a struggle not to laugh in the knowledge that I had wasted ten minutes of her time, ten minutes she hadn’t spent scamming an unsuspecting person.
At one point, I even offered to give her my credit card details, but the app download seemed to be the most important thing for her. Supposedly, she couldn’t tell me her name for GDPR reasons – and she told me the call was being recorded by her. I assured her I was doing the same thing.
Eventually, when the ten minutes elapsed, she hung up, having assured me she had sent me her details so I could call back. She hung up when I asked what email address she had sent them to.
It’s a serious story, but I still laughed.
The fake text messages seem to be more common. The scary thing about this is that anyone, without any detailed knowledge of hacking or computers, can generate fake texts. There is software available for less than €40 that allows you to clone anyone’s number and send texts.
Cyber security expert Paul Dwyer calls it "child’s play", and he is not wrong. He demonstrated the simplicity of these scams to Prime Time at the offices of the International Cyber Threat Taskforce, a not-for-profit organisation he has set up to tackle cyber crime.
It is shocking just how simple it is. Having seen it first hand, you could never again trust that a text from anyone has really actually come from them. It kind of changes your entire view of the world and your faith in technology.
And cyber crime is a €5 trillion global trade.
"What we’re seeing on a daily basis are literally thousands and thousands of attacks on Irish people," Mr Dwyer told Prime Time.
"In fact, if they were muggings in the real physical world, if they were people being robbed when they go into a store, there would be outcry, but this is happening in the cyber world in Ireland. Criminals are reaching out and putting their hands into people’s wallets and taking their money."
Many of the calls and texts are untraceable, because they are randomly generated online and cease to exist almost as quickly as they are used. They are offshore. Highly organised criminal gangs have what insiders call "farms" full of scammers, which are effectively call centres. They work around the clock and around the globe.
Detective Superintendent Michael Cryan of the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau told Prime Time that the text and phone call scams seem to be an issue mainly in English-speaking countries.
He’s been liasing with colleagues all over the world about the problem. Gardai have seized phones and made some progress, but experts say it’s almost impossible to get on top of the problem.
"It certainly has become bigger over the last year or two," said Det Supt Cryan.
"The smishing texts have been going on for quite a number of years but it is getting more and more sophisticated and more elaborate"
You might think you’ll never get caught out, but don’t get too smug.
Take Dr Nicola Fox Hamilton, a cyberpsychology researcher at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology.
Her day job is literally looking at how these things happen. And guess what? She got scammed when, by her own admission, she was tired and working on a very busy project.
"A lot of people feel embarrassed or ashamed that they have fallen for scams, and they really shouldn’t. The scammers are extremely good at what they do – and they are very good at using our psychology against us," she told Prime Time.
It’s a salutary tale, one that has given her first-hand insight into how someone like Matthew can lose thousands in a matter of minutes.
"If someone is saying that €3,000 has come out of your account and you need to cancel it because it is a problematic transaction, you have two reactions: you’ve got urgency. This needs to be dealt with immediately," she said.
"And, you’ve got fear, that you are losing a substantial sum of money – and that overrides our rational thinking and it sort of short-circuits our brain, and you stop thinking in a rational way."
There’s a saying that nothing is what it seems. Applying that to your online and phone life is probably a good idea, but don’t let hyper-vigilance spoil the experience.
Never click a link in an unsolicited text message. If your bank sends you a link or requests a code, it’s probably fake. Treat any message from your bank cautiously.
Don’t call them on a number they send you. Instead, check their number online and place the call yourself. And despite what I did, don’t engage with the scammers.