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How phone fraudsters are scamming people while pretending to be government officials

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pretending to be government officials

Law enforcement agencies and anti-fraud bodies across the globe spend a great deal of time and effort attempting to educate members of the public about phone fraud. Despite this, incidents involving consumers being scammed in these types of plots remain relatively high, even though people are routinely warned not to hand over any personal or financial information when they are cold called. In the majority of cases, anybody who deals with their finances online or uses telephone banking services will have come across multiple warnings regarding the potential perils of inadvertently handing over their passwords or agreeing with a cold caller to have money paid into a holding account in the event of an alleged fraud. Consequently, it can sometimes be difficult to have sympathy for people who allow themselves to be conned in these circumstances. It can be a different story however when a fraudster calls up pretending to be from a government agency.

The majority of people will have had at least some experience of dealing with the financial institutions with which they have relationships over the phone, often to the degree that they would be able to tell if something were amiss if they were called by a fraudster pretending to be from any such firm. Conversely, far fewer members of the public are used to routinely dealing with government agencies that might have reason to contact them, and would likely be less than familiar with what to expect from a call from somebody purporting to be a public official. This is a fact that phone fraudsters are able to take full advantage of.

At the beginning of this month, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) revealed that complaints to its Consumer Sentinel Network about government imposter scams reached record levels this spring. The consumer protection agency noted an increase in the number of phone scams that involved fraudsters pretending to be from official agencies such as the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service or some other government department. In May alone, the FTC said it received around 46,600 complaints relating to this type of fraud, and noted that some victims are being threatened with arrest if they refuse to hand over fictitious back-tax payments. In some cases, fraudsters are using sophisticated “number spoofing” technology that makes it look to victims as though they are calling from official government phone lines. Some scammers are even demanding that victims hand over their payment in the form of gift cards, which the FTC said should be the perfect giveaway that a fraud is taking place.

Meanwhile in the UK, the BBC last week revealed that organised scammers are taking advantage of loopholes in the British government’s new Universal Credit welfare system to profit from plunging jobless people into debt. The fraudsters approach unemployed people while pretending to be government workers and offer to help them apply for welfare benefits. After taking down their personal and banking information, the scammers apply for emergency loans in the names of their victims, taking the money and leaving the benefit claimants they target laden with the subsequent debt. The BBC found that the criminal networks behind the scam are using social media to attract victims, setting up Facebook pages with titles such as Gov Grants Same Day, Same Day Grant, Discretionary Budgeting Grant and Same Day Grant Payment. In a separate scam, fraudsters are contacting UK taxpayers by phone and threatening them with legal action or even jail if they fail to hand over on-the-spot fines of many thousands of pounds.

Chinese nationals are routinely targeted in these types of scams, with organised criminal networks operating illegal call centres in multiple locations around the world dedicated to contacting potential victims who originate from China. In some cases, these gangs have been known to call people they have already targeted in past scams while posing as police officers in order to convince them to hand over more money under the pretence that a payment is required before an investigation into the previous fraud can be launched. Just this week, police in Australia issued a warning about a telephone fraud conspiracy targeting the country’s Chinese community, particularly international students. In several “complex social engineering fraud and telephone scams”, the criminal networks behind these extortion plots call potential victims pretending to be from a range of official agencies. In one particularly sad example of the way phone fraudsters target Chinese nationals, it was reported back in 2016 that a prospective university student from Shandong province had died of a heart attack after she was conned out of her tuition fees. Fraudsters contacted the 18-year-old pretending to be from the “education ministry” and convinced her to transfer the money to a bank account under their control.

In many cases, people who fall victim to scams such as these will stand little chance of getting their money back, leaving them facing significant financial hardship. The sad reality of the matter is though, that while law enforcement agencies do all they can to raise awareness of this type of phone fraud, the scammers who perpetrate it will  continue to profit all the while they are able to find vulnerable victims who fear getting into any type of trouble with authority.

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Misery, not hedonism, appears to be driving increased drug use among Gen Xers and Boomers

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Over the past few years, numerous surveys have revealed that Millennials and members of Generation Z are less keen on the consumption of illegal drugs and alcohol than their immediate forebears. In fact, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent Youth Risk Behaviour Survey showed that alcohol, drug and cigarette consumption have been falling consistently among American teens for at least the past decade. The study also showed that young people in the US are having less sex. Until recently, similar trends were being observed in the UK, where alcohol and drug consumption among young people have also been following a general downward trend for several years now.

Yet despite this, the number of drug-related deaths in both countries is on the rise. Back in August, data from the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that drug poisoning deaths rose by 16% in 2018. Last August, the CDC said that drug overdoses were estimated to have killed just over 72,280 people in the US in 2017, which represented an increase of some 10% on the previous year. All of this suggests that members of Generation X and Boomers are accounting for a growing proportion of both nations’ problem drug use and drug-related overdose deaths; a trend that appears to be being borne out both statistically and anecdotally.

Back in 2017, the UK’s ONS revealed that people aged between 40 to 49 had the highest rate of drug misuse deaths across England and Wales for the first time ever in 2016. This led to people of that age group being dubbed the “Trainspotting generation” after the Irvine Welsh novel that was popular during their youth. According to ONS researchers, the emerging trend of older people suffering a higher a number of drug overdose deaths was down to the fact that many addicts in the 40 to 49 age group were beginning to lose lengthy battles with substance abuse habits that might have been begun decades ago due to poor physical and mental health.

In a more recent assessment released this August, the ONS said that “people born in the 1960s and 1970s… [were] dying from suicide or drug poisoning in greater numbers than any other generation”. The ONS said that while the reasons for rising drug and suicide deaths in this age group were complex, a high number of those who lost their lives lived in some of the most deprived parts of England.

While it might be easy to conflate drug problems among Boomers and Generation Xers with the hedonistic times in which they came of age, other studies have also suggested that this might be too simplistic a view. In a paper published in April, researchers at Vanderbilt University in the US state of Tennessee noted that high levels of depression, suicidal ideation, drug use and alcohol abuse identified among middle-aged white Boomers was beginning to impact the youngest members of Generation X. Lauren Gaydosh, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Health and Society and Public Policy Studies at Vanderbilt, forecast that midlife mortality may begin to increase across a range of demographic groups, adding: “Public health efforts to reduce these indicators of despair should not be targeted toward just rural whites, for example, because we’re finding that these patterns are generalised across the population.”

Earlier this month, new figures published by the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) revealed that the number of English pensioners aged over 90 being admitted to hospital after suffering from psychological and behavioural disorders following cocaine use had risen ten-fold over the past decade. This came almost a year after similar data revealed that the number of over-45s in the UK seeking medical attention after suffering serious mental health problems as a result of drug use had risen by 85% over the previous decade. Speaking with the Guardian at the time, Ian Hamilton, Associate Professor of Addiction at the University of York, said: “[Older people] are more likely to have had longer drug-using careers, so they will need longer in specialist drug treatment. However, unfortunately treatment services are being directed to offer abstinence-based services rather than maintaining this group on substitute drugs like methadone.”

Both ONS studies and the Vanderbilt paper suggest that rising problem drug use and overdose deaths among older people in both the UK and the US have little to do with them being children of the second summer of love or having grown up believing heroin chic was the epitome of cool. Instead, evidence indicates that the growing number of people experiencing problems with drugs in later life appear to be among the most vulnerable in society, suggesting that labelling them with nicknames such as the “Trainspotting generation” might at the very least be treating the problems they face with undue flippancy.

While it may be the case that some Boomer or Gen X drug users might have been living with a habit for decades, it would seem that many are pushed to use illicit substances as a result of the undesirable life situations in which they have found themselves, and not as part of ill-advised efforts to relive the hedonism of their youth.

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Why Black Friday and Cyber Monday are still Christmas come early for counterfeiters and hackers

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Black Friday and Cyber Monday are still Christmas come early for counterfeiters

Quite why the retail industry continues to insist on cannibalising its most profitable period of the year by staging Black Friday and Cyber Monday events in the lead up to Christmas remains a mystery to many. But while the benefits of slashing prices and effectively bringing the holiday season shopping period forward to November may seem questionable to some observers, there is little doubt that these discounting extravaganzas generate huge sales, even if these do come at the expense of those made later in the year.

In many cases, it is debatable as to just how good a bargain shoppers get during Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales events, with several retailers using smoke and mirrors to make it appear as though the deals they offer are better than they really are, but there is no denying that these types of retail phenomena have captured large swathes of the public’s imagination. So much so in fact that shoppers become so focussed on bagging a bargain during such bonanzas that they fail to take the usual precautions they would under typical circumstances.

Busy retail periods traditionally offer fruitful opportunities to sellers of counterfeit goods. Evidence suggests these are multiplied during sales events such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday, during which consumers are encouraged to believe they must act speedily to secure the best of the bargains available. Consequently, some shoppers spend less time than they should thinking about the source of the goods they are buying, having been whipped up into a frenzied state by the psychological pressures these types of events are designed to exert.

Back in July, a survey of 2,000 US internet shoppers conducted by anti-piracy and counterfeit protection firm Red Points revealed that many consumers feel under pressure to snap up a bargain during Amazon’s Prime Day sales event, which shares many characteristics with Black Friday and Cyber Monday. That pressure, Red Points said, results in consumers making hasty decisions and failing to carry out the research into potential purchases they would usually conduct. The poll found 60% of respondents said they had felt under pressure to buy items more quickly than they otherwise might when shopping during the Prime Day event. Panel members said they suspected that “33% more of the products they had bought [on Prime Day] were counterfeit”.

The pressure that these types of sales events exert on shoppers creates the perfect environment for counterfeiters, allowing them to target shoppers whose defences are impaired by the psychological stresses they are put under. As well a using ecommerce platforms such as Amazon, eBay and Alibaba to offer fake goods during sales events such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday, criminals also exploit such occasions to fraudulently obtain consumers’ personal information using fake apps and websites. Last year, a report from online security firm RiskIQ warned members of the public that hackers were planning to capitalise on Black Friday and Cyber Monday by creating fake smartphone apps and bogus landing pages to fool consumers into downloading malware, use compromised sites or hand over their login credentials and credit card information.

Demographically, Red points warned last year in a separate report to the one mentioned above that millennials’ risky shopping habits leaves them particularly vulnerable to counterfeiters during major shopping events. This was put down to the fact that the vast majority of millennials prefer shopping online to visiting bricks-and-mortar retail outlets. A poll conducted by Red Points also revealed that 27.4% of millennials admitted to predominantly shopping impulsively online, and that those impulsive buyers are prone to following online promotional offers on social media, where fraudsters and hackers often target potential victims. According to data gathered by IP Watchdog, millennials lost an estimated $482 million buying fake items on Black Friday in 2017.

While people who buy counterfeit goods during sales events such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday in most cases do so inadvertently, a new study suggests that some consumers are willing to accept the risk that they might be purchasing a bogus item as a factored in hazard while seeking out bargains online. According to a poll commissioned by US trade organisation the Toy Association ahead of the holiday season, many parents are willing to take a risk by making a purchase from unverified online vendors if they believe they might get a bargain or secure an item they might not be able to source elsewhere. The survey revealed that the top reasons parents would consider buying toys from unverified sellers included toys being out of stock everywhere else (32%), or if the toy was exactly what their children wanted (31%).

For those unwilling to risk it, consumers can take several steps to make sure they are not hoodwinked during events such as Black Friday and Cyber Monday by only buying from websites and sellers they are familiar with, or failing that, by doing their research into sources they do not know. Fundamentally however, the best way of steering clear of counterfeiters and hackers during these types of sales extravaganzas is to resist the pressure they seek to create and keep in mind that if a deal appears too good to be true, chances are it will be a scam.

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The voracious greed of sports organisations is driving TV piracy

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greed of sports organisations is driving piracy

The international rise of online TV streaming services has created a cash bonanza for sports broadcasting rights holders. So much so in fact, that a recent report from research firm Rethink TV forecast that media sports rights revenues will hit $85.1 billion by 2025, rising from $48.6 billion last year. Rights to football broadcasts alone are expected to make $31.9 billion by 2025, up from $12.8 billion in 2018. Yet despite this incredibly healthy outlook, some in the sports broadcasting industry are worried that rising levels of piracy might be about to bring on a reversal in their fortunes, and expose them to the types of risks and profit loss that the film and music industries have known all too well over the past few decades.

Speaking earlier this month at the Leaders Week Sport Business Summit in London, boss of Qatar-based beIN Media Group Yousef Al-Obaidly told delegates that the sports media rights “bubble” was about to burst as a consequence of the growth of broadcast piracy across the globe. “I’m here to tell you how the endless growth of sports rights is over,” Al-Obaidly said. “Not only that, but in certain cases, rights values are going drop off a cliff, and the very economic model of our industry is going to be re-written.”

Al-Obaidly has more reason than most to be pessimistic about the effect piracy is having on the global sports broadcast rights market, having fought a protracted battle with Saudi-based pirate TV channel beoutQ and Riyadh-headquartered satellite provider Arabsat, which jointly stand accused of barefacedly stealing beIN’s content and repackaging it as their own. Back in January, beIN published a “dossier of evidence” on a special website that outlined how the two organisations had stolen its sports and entertainment content on “an industrial scale”.

Almost one year on, beoutQ is continuing to repackage beIN’s content as its own. Last month, a report commissioned by football’s world governing body Fifa confirmed “without question that beoutQ’s pirate broadcasts have been transmitted using satellite infrastructure owned and operated by Arabsat”. The study was published after BeIN said in June that it had laid off a fifth of its workforce in Qatar, citing Saudi piracy for a downturn in revenues. Around the same time, pay-TV operator OSN blamed piracy in the Middle East and North Africa for its decision to close its cricket channel, saying in a statement: “Illegal streaming sites, pirate IPTV decoders within OSN’s licensed territories, has made it difficult for OSN to continue offering [the service].”

In September, Eurojust announced that it had led an international coalition of judicial and police authorities in a day of action that resulted in the shutdown of a pirate TV network that broadcast stolen content to tens of millions of people across the globe, including programming taken from sports live-stream service Dazn. Earlier this month, the UK’s Premier League revealed it had successfully taken legal action against a man for selling illegal streaming devices that provided viewers with access to Premier League broadcasts repackaged by beoutQ, suggesting that rights holders might now focus their attention on smaller scale pirates having had little success in pursuing larger pirate networks. This conviction came after police in France said in June that they had arrested five people after receiving a complaint about the distribution of pirated broadcast content from Canal+ Group, beIN and RMC Sport.

While stories such as these might secure a moderate level of media attention, rights holders are deluded if they believe they can prosecute their way out of problem. Sports content piracy will continue to rise while consumers are charged to access content they want to see at a price they are unwilling to pay. Factor into this the fact that the broadcast of sports is often fragmented across numerous different paid-for platforms, often forcing consumers to pay multiple subscriptions to access the content they want, and it is not difficult to see why the pirates are thriving.

Sports organisations would do well to take a leaf out of the music industry’s book and explore delivery options and pricing models that are more palatable to the fans who consume their content, and ultimately account for a large proportion of their revenue. According to figures collated by London-based MUSO, music was only the third most-pirated medium in 2018, thanks in no small part to the popularity of online streaming platforms such as Spotify, Deezer and Apple Music. Rather than seeking to sustain a status quo that actively encourages piracy, the sports industry should look to establish a broadcasting model that will protect the interests of rights holders over the long term, as the music industry has done. If it fails to do so, Al-Obaidly’s gloomy predictions are likely to be proved prescient.

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