“Hi Dad I’m texting you off a friends phone I’ve smashed mine and their phones about to die. Can you text my new number 089949**** please x.”
The message arrived after 6pm and for an instant alarm bells started ringing. By chance, my oldest child was hundreds of kilometres away on a school trip and it was entirely believable she could have smashed her phone.
Then the alarm bells were replaced by the familiar sound of a scam artist cranking up their machine of malice.
While smashing a phone was indeed possible, it was not remotely plausible that a child of mine would have had the wherewithal, either financial or logistical, to replace it and get a new number in a couple of hours in the Irish college where a week of “study” was ending.
The good news was they’d made it to a repair shop and had a workable phone. But there was bad news too
Rather than ignoring the message, I responded with a question. “You smashed your phone?”
My phone pinged immediately with a message telling me the sender was super stressed. The good news was they’d made it to a repair shop and had a workable phone.
But there was bad news too.
“I have an invoice that’s due today but because I changed my number the confirmation code to make the payment is going to my old number and the bank said it would take 72 hours for my new number to come up on there system any chance you can pay it for me and I’ll pay you back first thing tomorrow morning,” a new message said.
‘Overdue insurance repayments’
They were clearly in a hurry and had nothing by way of a back story so I asked what the €1,900 they needed might be for.
“A bunch of overdue insurance repayments,” came the response followed by a question about which bank I’d be sending the money from.
Overdue insurance payments? On a Thursday night? They weren’t even trying.
They asked again what account I’d be sending the cash from. I replied Ulster Bank and immediately they said Ulster Bank had shut up shop here.
One point for the scammer.
An “invoice” – it was really just the Irish bank account details of a man called Richard – landed followed by more urgent pleas for the money.
Again they asked if the money had been sent and I suggested I was struggling with the technology so they helpfully asked for my bank login details, saying they’d be able to help
I hinted it was on the way.
“Thank you so much I was even embarrassed to ask,” the criminal replied without a hint of shame.
When I asked who Richard was, they explained he was a “personal provider” and when I asked what a “personal provider” meant they said it would be easier to explain in person next time we met.
Again they asked if the money had been sent and I suggested I was struggling with the technology so they helpfully asked for my bank login details, saying they’d be able to help.
I kept them hanging.
Minutes later, another message. “Mum, have you sent it?”
Mum? I told the scammer I was dad. There was an awkward silence before they said they’d lost all their contacts as if that explained this schoolboy error.
It was clear they were not terribly bright.
Over the hours that followed, they repeatedly asked if the money had been sent and demanded photographs of the confirmation screen on my banking app.
The last message on the first night came after midnight, with the first message on the next day landing at 6am .
When I asked – as any parent might – how they slept, they said “not too well... I was on edge.”
To take them off the edge I asked about a fictitious party. They told me they were looking forward to it. I expressed surprise given what the made-up host had said to my made-up child.
They did their best to handle the silliness with wisdom. “It’s not like we both didn’t know that before.”
And then it was back to the “did you send the money?” carry-on.
With the scam attempt ongoing, I went to the Bridewell Garda station and when I told the garda at reception about it he pulled out his phone.
“Was it like this one?”
He had been contacted by my “child” the previous night too. He recorded some details, saying the first step would be to freeze the bank account used by the criminal but, given the amorphous nature of cybercrime, he wasn’t confident of bringing anyone to justice.
Niamh Davenport wasn’t optimistic on that score either. The head of financial crime at Banking and Payments Federation Ireland sighed heavily when she heard about the message.
“They just keep coming,” she said. “This mam or dad scam popped up last Christmas and while most people can see through it quickly there will always be vulnerable people who can be taken in.”
She described my fake child’s attempts as “completely ridiculous” not least because they wanted an absurdly high amount of money with a flimsy backstory my five-year-old could have identified as dodgy. “The amount alone is a red flag. It’s normally just a couple of hundred euro and the stories are usually more credible,” Davenport said.
If you get a text from a random number, don’t let your emotions take over. The first thing you should do is contact your child on their actual number, or even text them— Niamh Davenport, head of financial crime at Banking and Payments Federation Ireland
She noted that the scammer knew Ulster Bank had closed but stressed it did not mean they were local. “Fraudsters always know what’s going on in the country that they are targeting.”
When I googled the unusual name attached to the “invoice”, there were only a handful of matches in Ireland, including some teenagers. Davenport said it was likely it was a mule account. “I don’t think younger people understand what they’re getting themselves into and they just see it as a quick €200 to let someone use their bank account.”
She predicted that the volume of messages purported to be from stranded children would spike over the summer as students from Ireland travel overseas.
“If you get a text from a random number, don’t let your emotions take over. The first thing you should do is contact your child on their actual number, or even text them.”
When I checked in with my scammer, it was clear the game was up and it had dawned on them that the money they wanted lodged in their “personal provider’s” account to cover those “overdue insurance repayments” was not coming.
“Why did you lie?” they asked.
I was asking the same question.