Data Protection Commissioner to prosecute phone scammers

17 Jun 2011

The Data Protection Commissioner plans to bring prosecutions against individuals found to be involved in the current spate of internet scams where ordinary individuals are being phoned up by fake computer engineers and are conned into giving up their credit card numbers.

It said it is not surprised at the extent of an internet scam that has resulted in one in four Irish people receiving a phone call from scammers claiming to be computer engineers who trick them into downloading malware or giving up their credit card numbers.

Yesterday, Microsoft released a report including a survey of 7,000 computer users in Ireland, the UK, the US and Canada, finding that 15pc of people have been contacted by fraudsters claiming to fix their PCs. Ireland seems to have been targeted in particular, with 26pc of residents saying they received these calls.

Irish people were less likely than the average to fall for the scam – just 16pc of those who were contacted, which is equivalent to 4.6pc of the total Irish sample set. This compares to 22pc of people who were called and tricked across the four countries that were surveyed.

Posing as computer security engineers, scammers call people at home to tell them they are at risk of a computer security threat. They tell their victims they are providing free security checks and add touches of authenticity by claiming to represent legitimate companies and referring to their victims by name, Microsoft said. People who receive the call are given instructions, which typically involve allowing the caller to access their computer remotely and downloading software code provided by the criminals. Alternatively, they are asked to give their credit card information to pay for their system to be ‘cleaned’.

Most of the people tricked in this way (79pc) suffered some sort of financial loss, the Microsoft survey found. Some 5pc of Irish people had money taken from their accounts, compared to 17pc in total, while 25pc reported their passwords had been compromised and 9pc said they had suffered identity fraud. Almost half (49pc) said they suffered subsequent computer problems.

The average amount of money stolen was €596 across the entire survey set. The lowest amount stolen was €56 from a user in Ireland, with the highest recorded in Canada – up to €1,077. The average cost of repairing damage caused to computers by the scammers was €1,185, but just €110 in Ireland.

Protection against scams

John Shine, director of commercial practices at the National Consumer Agency, said the most effective protection lies in consumer education to prevent people from becoming victims in the first place. “It is encouraging that despite being targeted more, Irish consumers were less likely to be deceived. It is important that consumers remain vigilant at all times, and in any circumstances, regarding unsolicited offers.”

Shine said he was concerned that the survey showed 30pc of Irish people who had received these calls did nothing about it afterwards. “We encourage people, if they do fall victim to the scam, to report it to the Garda Siochana and get straight onto their bank or credit card company if they gave any personal finance details.”

The Office of the Data Protection Commissioner has confirmed to that it is continuing to investigate individuals based in this jurisdiction who are suspected of being involved in these phone scams and it intends to bring prosecutions in due course. “However, this investigation targets a particular form of this scam that has an Irish link. These scams have a much broader base and it will continue to be necessary to ensure a high level of public awareness of the problem,” a spokesman said.

Commenting on the latest survey results, a DPC spokesman said: “Based on the number of people who have contacted the office to seek advice in relation to this issue, the figures quoted are not surprising.”

These types of phone scams are not new. This time last year, there was a similar wave of scam calls to members of the public using landlines and mobiles. An investigation by Symantec traced the origin of some of these calls to India. In January this year, Microsoft and the DPC issued a further warning to the public about these scams. The DPC added that it is continuing to work closely with An Garda Síochána and the telecoms regulator ComReg to warn the public about the issue.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic