I’m not unique. We’ve all been there. The phone rings and a voice introduces themself as Andy, or John: One insisted to me his name was Seamus without so much of a hint of an Irish accent; although perhaps with a dash of irony.
What follows is a technically convoluted speech in which Seamus (lets give him the benefit of the doubt) tells me there is something seriously wrong with my computer. He warns that all kinds of people could be accessing my hard drive as we speak, helping themselves to my personal details. Fortunately Seamus, all the way over there in the back of beyond, can fix the problem. I just need to give him direct access to my computer and all will be fine.
Yeah. Does Sean think we were all born yesterday? Well, maybe he does because ‘spoofing’ or ‘vishing’, as it is variously known in the online fraud trade, is on the rise. As an industry in the UK last year it was worth £755 million, representing an increase of 26% over the year before. That’s roughly the turnover at Harrods and slightly more than Selfridges. And that’s the stuff they get away with. Prevented online fraud during the same period was £1.76 billion. Yes billion.
My friends joke how they swear down the phone at Seamus and his associates. Whereas I, not wishing to encourage any online backlash, tend more to the polite thank you and goodbye. Except for one occasion earlier in the year when I told him to ‘fuck off’. It didn’t work. He called me back a few moments later and told me to “ fuck off”. I called him a name I normally reserve for my closest friends and right wing politicians whereupon he rang back and called me the same name, adding that various members of my family are whores, and so on. I left the phone off the hook for a couple of hours to be sure he wouldn’t call again.
Nothing quite that surreal has happened recently. I still receive unwanted calls, in addition to the endless PPI and ambulance chasing insurance scams. But most of my contact. with this underworld, this dark web of crime are via emails, or ‘phishing’ as it is known. These are the emails that to all intent and purpose have originated from a reputable organisation, one that I may have regular contact with either via email or telephone. Those purported contacts that make us feel wanted and important. That make us feel a part of this interconnected digital world.
Indeed, as I write a fake LinkedIn email has dropped in telling me of a message awaiting me; just click. And another from an imaginary Chloe Matthews at Gmail. In this world of instant digital communication the criminals know few of us can resist the invitation to log on – to connect. This is the post-thinking age afterall.
In the old days of high streets, half crowns and honest bankers my only infrequent contact with villains was pickpockets in the west end and Gard du Nord. Nowadays, thanks to the internet, modern con-tricks are unfolding in my living room. Confidence tricksters used to look like Terry Thomas, with pencil moustaches and oily hair and an eye for the ladies. Today’s come dressed as bank managers, courier companies, and social media platforms.
It’s not new. A couple I know, banking with Barclays, had £15,000 or thereabouts taken from their savings accounts after responding to an email that looked like it had originated from their bank. It stated that their account had been compromised and they needed to renew their security details.
They got their money back because in the early days of online fraud, before the sums involved became so eye wateringly huge, banks were sympathetic. That’s all changed. Nowadays banks are much more likely to blame the fraud on our negligence. Of course it’s nothing to do with the fact that banks are closing local branches faster than you can come with your umpteenth password, and forcing us to bank online or by phone whether we like it or not. Banking by smart phone anyone? According to the most recent statistics 2000 smart phones are stolen each day in the UK.
According to Financial Fraud Action UK 75% of all financial fraud is card payment. Fraudsters use stolen card information to go on shopping sprees. The next most popular is remote banking, accounting for 22%. That’s when we click on the fraudulent hyperlink on a phishing email that dispatches a ‘cookie’ (such a friendly name for such an insidious invention) to the heart of our secrets and allows criminals to help themselves to our money.
The third most type of fraud is cheques, accounting for, wait for it, 3%. Cheques being the payment method the banks want to discontinue, along with branches and real people on telephones.
Every day is struggle against the forces of darkness. This week alone (November 2016) I have received daily emails from two banks (Barclays and Santander) and something that looks it may have come from FedEx, advising me of a parcel awaiting delivery with the obligatory hyperlink to hell. In the age of internet shopping who isn’t expecting a package? The man at FedEx couldn’t mask his boredom when I inquired if the emails were genuine. “No,” was all he said.
Some of the emails are easy to detect. Like on of those from a Barclays clone that said, and I paraphrase, that if I didn’t clink the link provided and enter my security details, “it would be very bad.”
Perhaps the scariest email out of maybe 200 or so this year arrived at the beginning of the week purporting to come from a dear friend. It was a link to a website or article she thought that I would be interested in. And yet there was something in the language. It didn’t ring true. I put the email to one side and got to speak with my friend some hours later. She confirmed that it wasn’t from her and confirmed also that another friend had received one similar. She speculated that a recent hack in the Yahoo site, with whom she had an account, could be behind it. When I put her on hold to look at the email again and give the exact wording it vanished right before my eyes. Spooky? Tell me about it.
I don’t know about you but it’s got to the point where I won’t open any email until I am convinced it is genuine. Life has become an unwanted daily struggle against an army of well trained and highly motivated criminals – all probably on minimum wage, wherever they are? I take a screen shots and delete all the originals and just to make sure I empty the trash. According to a particularly patronising voice at my bank I am right to be sceptical. But why do we have to be on our toes in our own homes? It’s modern life you say. Well, it’s not the one I want to be a part of. Admittedly there’s not a lot we can do individually, except perhaps stop online shopping and banking. Think about it. High streets would come back to life. Delivery drivers and warehouse employees working on or below the minimum wage could get decent shop jobs. The last time I looked 135,000 bookshops have closed in the US as a direct result of Amazon. By 2014 the number of independent bookshops here in the has fallen by over a third, to below 1000 nationwide in ten years. It’s one of the reasons I stopped using Amazon seven years ago.
So – we get to keep our money. Stop the crime, and save our high streets. Not a bad way to start 2017.