Beware: Top 10 scams

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Unless you’re a recluse with no internet, cellphone, bank card or car, you will have encountered a fraudster intent on scamming you. The more advanced the technology, it seems, the more imaginative the con.

Like most South Africans, I receive an attempted scam via e-mail almost daily, most often purporting to come from my bank, prompting me to do something online that would result in my account being cleaned out.

And recently, I had my credit card “skimmed” at a popular Joburg restaurant, and within 24 hours R4 000 was withdrawn in cash from my account.

But arguably the most unconscionable scams are perpetrated on people who are lonely or naively generous, like the women who fall for “419 heartbreakers”, confidence tricksters who romance them online and then con them out of money.

Hawks spokesman MacIntosh Polela says cybercrime costs SA millions every year, even though the scamsters have to work hard to get a “hit”. “Only a few will respond and among those who respond, very few of them will pay the money,” he says.

But someone will always take the bait, unfortunately, which is why scamming continues to be a widespread scourge.

The only defence against the scam is awareness. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it is. And never respond to an e-mail, SMS or phone call requiring you to submit personal information, even if it’s in the form of a threat to your account being suspended due to some third-party interference.

Never participate in any “sale of goods”, “survey”, “competition”, “lottery” or “inheritance” scheme requiring any personal information over the phone or the internet.

If you’re selling something, confirm payment with your bank before releasing the goods, and if you don’t remember entering a competition or buying a lottery ticket, you haven’t won anything.

The top 10 scams to look out for:

1. The 419 heartbreaker scam

The 419 scams have been around since the dawn of the internet, the oldest one speaking of an inheritance worth billions that the sender is due, but your bank account details are needed to deposit the funds, in return for which you’ll get a percentage. Another oldie is the e-mail from Western Union telling of a “deposit” into your account and requiring your personal information.

But the 419 scam is always evolving. The latest is the “419 heartbreaker” scam. In a recent episode of M-Net’s Carte Blanche, Monique Roeloffse nearly got scammed by after meeting “Josef Werner” on an online dating site. After romancing her for a few weeks, he came up with a story that he’d been in a submarine accident and had lost all his money. Inevitably he asked her to send a cash advance, but fortunately, she smelled a rat before it was too late.

The 419 heartbreaker’s correspondence looks authentic and oozes charm, but the reality is that these are being generated by criminal syndicates, usually made up of people of different nationalities, says Polela.

2. Phishing

These are the e-mails purportedly from your bank requesting various online actions, all to gain access to your bank accounts.

A young woman who got caught, Phindile, says she got an e-mail from her bank prompting her to verify her details. What she didn’t realise was that the link provided was to a fraudulent website.

“The website page that I clicked on to looked exactly the same as my bank’s site, and I even received an RVN number (a one-time PIN) on my cellphone, so I thought it was all legitimate.

“Next thing I knew an amount of R15 300 went out of my account. The money came out in two large sums, R9 000 and R4 000,” she says.

In all these attacks, it’s your banking information that the fraudsters are after. Without the account holder’s banking details and passwords, the fraud would simply not be possible. Don’t go there, ever.

3. Smishing

SA has one of the highest cellphone penetration rates in the world, so it’s a wide open field for the SMS version of phishing. Many people have received an SMS requesting account verification or, occasionally, an alarmist message requesting you to make a call rather than go to a false link.

The person on the other end of the line is a fraudster adept at eliciting critical information, including your PIN code. Remember, as banks keep telling us, you will never be asked for your PIN over the phone.

4. False payment confirmations

Lyl, a complainant on, says she advertised furniture on Gumtree that was bought by someone called Max. “He said he’d deposited money into my account, and I received an SMS confirming this, but when I checked with the bank, no money had been cleared,” she says.

The hoax payment confirmation by SMS usually appears to come from your bank. Always verify that the money is indeed in your account before releasing the goods.

5. Unethical app downloads charges

Criminals and unethical developers are now using premium-rated SMSes to defraud people via the mobile applications they download. At the end of 2011, Google removed 22 applications from the Android cellphone market because they conned people into agreeing to premium SMS charges.

“This is not strictly fraud but certainly unethical in that the charges are hidden by misleading terms and conditions and the application’s sign-up process doesn’t give the customers any other option other than to agree to the premium charges,” says Pieter Streicher, MD of

The first line of defence against any SMS fraud is to diligently check your phone bills for any unusual amounts being deducted. And only download the more popular apps.

“You also need to check the permissions that you grant the application on installation: you should be sceptical if a basic game, for instance, requires access to address books and the internet, or needs the ability to send SMSes,” says Streicher.

6. SIM swops

One of the outcomes of a phishing scam could be a SIM swop. The fraudster already has your cellphone number and can get enough additional information to request a SIM swop from your network operator. They then have access to both your bank account details and the SIM card needed to complete transactions. Fortunately, the networks have tightened up on their SIM swop processes and this type of fraud is decreasing, says Streicher. “However, it is still worth knowing about, and if your cellphone ever stops working for no reason, you should assume the worst and contact your bank and network operator immediately.”

7. Credit card skimming

Card skimming is a global problem and usually takes place when fraudsters capture card data on devices similar to those used for legitimate point-of-sale or ATM transactions. The devices fit snugly over the card slot on an ATM and can even include a camera to record the PIN. But the main point of compromise is when you hand your card to someone to do a transaction.

As I was personally caught out, I know how easy it is if you’re not concentrating. In my case, the waiter took my card away briefly and when he returned, I entered my PIN without covering with my other hand. Never let your card out of your sight and when entering your PIN, cover the PIN pad.

8. Unscrupulous subscription services

Cellphone users need to be aware that unscrupulous Wasps (wireless application service providers – the companies that typically provide much of the mobile content that people buy) can bill any SA cell number and can even detect and record your cellphone number if you browse their websites using your cellphone.

Unlike the desktop internet where credit card numbers need to be entered and orders need to be confirmed, on a mobile device all that is needed to bill you is your cellphone number.

A notorious one is Mobthumbs, which sends you an SMS saying you’re now subscribed to it, at a cost of R20 a day.

The Wasp Association advises sending “Stop” in reply to a message received. The service should in most cases be stopped, or alternatively result in an error message which would contain details regarding how to properly unsubscribe from the service.

And again, you need to check your phone bills looking for charges you didn’t authorise or ongoing charges for subscription services that you didn’t realise weren’t one-offs.

9. Counterfeit merchandise

If you’re buying anything expensive, beware of fakes. It’s big business, and a lot of it’s happening online. Just recently, police arrested four men who tried to con a businessman into buying fake gems, which were ostensibly worth R250 000. The businessman set up a sting operation and the men were arrested. The “gems” were nothing more than four pieces of glass covered in the melted silicone tube of a TV set.

10. Microsoft scam

These scamsters call you on your cellphone or home phone claiming to be a Microsoft employee. They tell you they have found out you have a problem with your computer (who hasn’t?). Then they ask you all sorts of questions and prompt you to do all sorts of things with your computer “to sort out the problem”. Their aim is to get into your computer remotely, and to access all your private info.

Alternatively, you’ll be told you’ve won the “Microsoft Lottery”, and that Microsoft “requires credit card information to validate your copy of Windows”. Another one is an unsolicited e-mails from “Microsoft” requesting a “security update”. Don’t go there. – The Star

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