Why Christmas can be an opportunity for online scammers

You could be falling victim to one of many online scams this Christmas, says Maltese police cybercrime unit

Online shoppers who come across irresistible deals should stop and think before letting go of their money: they could be falling victim to one of many online scams this Christmas period, the head of the Maltese police cybercrime unit says.

Police inspector Timothy Zammit says that despite warnings abroad of an unprecedented threat this Christmas from a range of different scams, locally the problem is mainly limited to fake online shops and dating scams.

Zammit says users often start off on respected platforms such as Amazon or eBay, where they are then approached by a fraudster who draws them away from the website. “The criminal tries to take you out of their systems by asking you to send him a direct email, or not to use PayPal for affecting payment because you’d pay less charges, for example.”

Social media scams are also on the rise, normally involving fake online shops being temporarily set up, heavily advertising cheap clothing for example, before disappearing after just two days.

“Between last-minute shopping and being more cash-strapped at Christmas, a person who would normally not consider a scam might give it a second thought,” Zammit says, who adds that criminals were aware how the season can make loneliness more acute and targets more vulnerable.

“In dating scams victims meet a person online and become convinced they will come to Malta and be with them. It’s normally a soldier returning from Afghanistan or an attractive Eastern European woman.”

In such cases, Zammit said it was not uncommon for deluded victims to not believe they have been scammed. “They file a report because their relatives force them, and we have to try and prove to them that it was a scam.”

In one recent case, an individual transferred over €100,000 to a scammer, but when he was blocked from making further transfers by the financial service provider, the victim got around this by asking people on the street to do it.

“If you’ve fallen victim to a dating scam, the moment you start to suspect something is wrong, you start asking the person a lot of questions,” Zammit explains, highlighting how smart fraudsters can be. “All of a sudden you receive an email from the ‘police’ telling you the person you were speaking to is a criminal. They say they are going to help you get your money back and refer you to a lawyer.”

Once the real police investigate, they almost immediately find out that same individual is behind all the email addresses.

Zammit cautions that users must take the same precautions in everyday life, online. “A simple Google search could flag a potential scam. We realise that people first make their purchase, then they have suspicions, and then Google it. We’re just asking them to run the search before they let go of their money.”

Despite the police’s best efforts, it was often very difficult to retrieve money once it has been sent and withdrawn. “Even when sent through bank accounts, the other person is exploiting the window between when you send money and when you start to have suspicions,” Zammit says.

After the cash is taken, it is problematic for police to identify the fraudster since the account would have been opened using fake documentation. “They tend to use banks that allow you to open an online account, which, by the time certain serious checks are carried out, would have already been used and abandoned.”