Fionn Davenport thought he knew better. He has been around the tech block a few times over the past three decades and for years has been his 82-year-old mother’s go-to guy when she needs to check if an email or a text message is a scam or legit.
He thought he was – to use his own word – savvy and he figured that if anyone was safe from scam artists, it was him.
Davenport was wrong.
The travel writer, broadcaster and podcaster admits to a degree of mortification over the speed and ease with which a criminal took money from him this month and suggests that a confluence of events plus just a hint of impatience to make a sale on his part sowed the seeds of his downfall.
While the amount he lost was small, he is acutely aware it could have been much larger and admits that he would most likely have fallen for the scam even if a larger sum had been involved.
And he says the experience has left him feeling more exposed and more vulnerable as well as having to deal with all manner of headaches given the integrated nature of personal finances in the 21st century.
His story starts with a push bike. “I wanted to sell this bike I have,” he says. It’s a pretty decent bike – a cross between a mountain bike and a racer – so he was optimistic it would fetch a good price.
His wife routinely sells stuff she no longer has any use for on Facebook Marketplace – along with a billion other people who regularly use the platform – so that is where Davenport turned.
He listed the bike for sale on the social media platform for €500 and almost immediately his phone pinged alerting him to a message from a potential buyer.
It was from someone by the name of Elena. “We’ve sold a lot of stuff to people from across Europe who are living in Ireland, people who are looking for bargains and it’s always been really easy and very friendly,” he says.
His story takes a mini diversion at this point but it is a diversion that is key to how things played out.
Davenport’s dog had fallen seriously ill over the weekend he had decided to sell his bike and his wife was out of the house on the way to the veterinary hospital to check on its progress when he listed it for sale.
“So I was distracted by that,” he says. “Then this woman sends me a message asking if the bike is in good condition and what’s the best price I’d accept. So I responded by saying that it was in very good condition and asking what price would she like to offer. She came back with €470 and I accepted immediately.”
The trap was laid and Davenport was about to walk straight into it.
Elena told him she would love to collect the bike in person the very next day and hand over the cash but, unfortunately, she was unable to do that because she was working. But, it was okay, Elena had a plan.
“She told me she was going to send a courier to my house with the money in cash in an envelope and then once I had checked the money, the courier would take the bike and the deal would be done,” he says,
Everything sounded hunky dory so Davenport agreed and she messaged him again almost immediately to say she had made contact with DPD. It was late on a Sunday night but the lateness of the hour and the speed with which she had been able to arrange for the pick-up did not cause Davenport any concern.
Elena told him that all that was needed from him was his address, his Eircode, the value of the item and his email address. He supplied the information immediately and was told to keep an eye out for a notification from the courier company so he could arrange for the collection of his soon-to-be-former bike.
“She asked me to confirm the registration of the mandate,” he says. “I wasn’t sure what that meant but she was Eastern European and English wasn’t her first language so I assumed it was fine and something was being lost in translation.”
Then Elena told him that while she would cover the cost of the courier, there was an insurance element to the delivery because she was sending a relatively large sum of money. She asked if he would be happy to pay DPD the €50 insurance fee for delivering the cash and she would add that money to the envelope she was sending in the morning.
“I’m like ‘that’s great’,” he says. “Then she asked me to check my inbox and there was a notification from DPD telling me I had to buy this insurance for €50 and then they sent me to a French fintech company where I bought a €50 cash token and sent it to DPD,” he says.
Or at least that is what he thought he had done.
“Almost immediately I got an email back to say that it was all fine and the transaction had worked but that I needed to pay another €50.”
It was close to midnight at this stage and the penny was starting to drop. “I suddenly felt this cold fear wash over me and I started thinking this is all wrong,” Davenport says.
“I went back and looked at the email that had supposedly come from DPD and realised that it was a gmail address and then it dawned on me that I had just sent the voucher to a random email address. I’ve never, ever been scammed before and I always pride myself on being really good at spotting the scammers a million miles away.”
He got straight on to Elena. “She told me she didn’t know why I was being asked for extra money and I said it was because it was a scam but she was insistent it was all above board. Then she said she had been on to DPD and had been told the extra money was because of the large sum being sent and told me that she had added another €50 in cash to the envelope she was going to send me.”
He told Elena that he had realised he had sent the first €50 voucher to a gmail address.
Even though the alarm bells were now deafening, like most of us his default position is that people are decent so a part of him still thought that Elena might be legit and he asked if she could send the money via Revolut.
“Then she just disappeared out of the chat.”
He says that part of the reason he was caught out was because it was late in the evening and there was a lot going on in his world and in his head.
“But that was only part of it and ultimately, I had put up the bike for sale and within 30 minutes someone had offered me a price that I was happy with and I was thinking this is great because I had reckoned it could take weeks to sell it so if I am being honest there might have been an element of greed on my part to it.
“I pride myself on being kind of wary or savvy enough but then all of a sudden I’m a bit tired and I’m distracted because I’m worried about the dog and thinking I can make a quick sale so I was caught out.”
He says that after “the embarrassment, I felt vulnerable and exposed. I cancelled my card and spent the next few days checking my bank account online. And of course because I cancelled the card I am getting all these notifications from the likes of Amazon and Netflix telling me that my card has been declined because it has been cancelled which leaves me feeling more wary and more exposed.”
As with so many people who have fallen victim to a scam, he is blaming himself. While understandable, the blame is entirely misplaced and the responsibility rests exclusively with the criminals behind the enterprise.
And they were not acting alone or at least they were not the only ones circling Davenport’s bike with a view to making a quick buck.
Since that first message from Elena he has received five or six other Facebook Marketplace messages from other phoney buyers saying pretty much the same things as she did.
“I got one from one person with an Irish name and I went into her Facebook profile and it looks completely legitimate and is full of family pictures but the messages are exactly the same as the ones that came from the other criminals.”
Davenport knows that while he lost some money, it could have been much worse and it is a lesson hard learned. The good news is that at the time of writing his dog was on the mend. The not so good news is that he still hasn’t sold the bike.
Red flags for buying and selling online
Facebook Marketplace is a very good place to buy and sell but, as Davenport’s story makes clear, you will need to have your wits about you and keep an eye out for scammers. There are some red flags you would do well to watch out for.
- If a product seems very cheap, there is a good chance it either doesn’t exist or is counterfeit. The old maxim that if something seems too good to be true then it is too good to be true is rarely more appropriate than when buying or selling on Facebook Marketplace.
- Someone who says they can’t meet in person to make an exchange might be entirely above board. But then again, they might not. At the very least if someone gives you a reason why they can’t collect or receive the goods in person, it’s time to pause and ask some hard questions.
- Be very, very wary of someone who offers to send a courier to pick up a product.
- Don’t rent a property on any platform unless you get to walk around the property and are handed the keys directly.
- If you are asked to take a conversation off the platform where a transaction is taking place – be it Airbnb, Facebook Messenger, eBay or wherever – and to communicate directly with the seller via text messages or WhatsApp, it is a clear indicator they are up to no good.
- If anyone asks for money in the form of a gift card or voucher, walk away. Such payments are hard to track, harder to stop and beloved of criminals.
- If someone asks to be paid in advance or if they ask for a deposit to be paid or for you to cover the insurance before they complete the sale, just say no.
- The moment someone tells you they have inadvertently overpaid you and need you to return the difference, you can safely assume that they are a scammer.
- Speed is the friend of the scammer and the enemy of rational decisions. Often criminals will put their marks under pressure to act quickly or risk the deal falling apart. Always take a breath and if someone is telling you that you must do something faster than you are happy with, the alarm bells should start ringing.
- Do some research and by research we mean Google it. One of the simplest things to do is to copy and paste some of the text used in correspondence with you into the search engine. There is a good chance the results will reveal that a message is commonly sent as part of a scam. For instance, we Googled Facebook Marketplace and courier and immediately were alerted to the scam that Davenport was taken in by.
Scams are costing Irish people and businesses hundreds of millions of euro each year, according to the communications watchdog ComReg.
Last year about €115 million was lost as a result of scam text messages with €187 million disappearing due to scam calls. In 2022 alone there were about 365,000 cases of fraudulent scams and as many as 89 million annoying/irritating communications and 31 million distressing communications.
ComReg has said that more than 5,000 businesses were victims of fraud after receiving scam calls and texts.
“These scams are a blight on society and cause significant financial and economic damage to all sectors of society including consumers, business and public bodies,” it said.
“Scams also diminish the trust placed by consumers and businesses in calls and SMS,” it noted, adding that the “prevalence of scam calls and SMS has increased in recent years, with the vast majority of mobile users reporting to have received scam calls or SMS”.
While banks tend to get a lot of blame when people lose money to scam artists, telecoms companies whose platforms and networks are routinely used by criminals must also share a degree of responsibility as must social media platforms.
It is good to see ComReg taking action or at least opening up a period of consultation – that will last until July 28th – before it takes action. It recently outlined the bones of a plan that would create a much more hostile environment for the scammers and while it may never be possible to eradicate the “blight” of scams, it should be possible to marginalise the criminals and make their lives more difficult.
ComReg is proposing new rules which will force telecoms companies to implement a number of technical interventions, including the introduction of more rigorous call blocking systems to stop fraudsters abroad spoofing Irish numbers to make scam voice calls.
It also wants a “protected number list” to be introduced to stop fraudsters using numbers not yet in service or allocated to a telecoms operator.
And it believes operators should take steps to allow businesses and organisations to secure their numbers and introduce an SMS Sender ID Protection Registry to allow legitimate businesses and organisations to register a SMS Sender ID while blocking those not on the register.
It is also proposing advanced voice firewalls to block spam calls wherever they originate and assessing scam filters which would block scam SMS messages and protect against future more sophisticated scams.
“The SMS Scam filter is an essential measure to prevent criminals from attempting to defraud Irish customers because, like the voice firewall, it is a dynamic intervention that reacts to the latest scams,” ComReg said.
However, it noted that it would require legislative change and said it was engaging with its parent department, the Department of Communications. It accepted there is “a compromise here between privacy and fraud prevention but considers the measures to be proportionate given it is aimed at stopping this very serious fraud”.