SMS scams on the rise in France

Scam messages sent by SMS involving bank card details and unregulated premium-rate numbers have risen in France during the coronavirus pandemic.

28 May 2020
Man using smartphone. Reports of SMS scams have increased in France during the coronavirus pandemic (Norwood Themes/Unsplash)Reports of SMS scams have increased in France during the coronavirus pandemic (Norwood Themes/Unsplash)
By Joanna York

Scammers in France, operating largely via text message, have been exploiting the Covid-19 pandemic by playing on people’s fears to con them out of money.

Phony websites taking orders for hand-gel, sham texts from medical authorities, and hoax deliveries are just some of the methods that have been used to extract money from members of the public in France.

Jérôme Notin, director of government organisation Cybermalveillance, which helps victims of cyber crime, confirmed: “At the beginning of the confinement, we observed a rise of 400% in reports of scams by SMS and email.”

He added: “The current period is fertile ground for scams, as individuals have increased their digital activity against a background of high stress.”

Websites selling fake products

Almost 12,000 French consumers were scammed by seven fake websites selling products such as face masks and hand gel. Products which, once they had been ordered, never arrived. 

One of these websites, Pharmacie-Auvergne.fr, sent a burst of phishing messages via SMS, which prompted France’s consumer watchdog (la Direction Générale de la Concurrence, de la Consommation et de la Répression des Fraudes, DGCCRF) to publish a list of common online scams related to coronavirus.

These included fake medicines, travel attestations, collections for key workers, and financial investments.  

The seven fake websites have since been investigated and removed by the French police.

Fake medical messages

French health insurance provider, Ameli, has also made published its own anti-fraud advice reminding users that the provider will never “ask for communication of personal details (medical information, social security number or bank details) by SMS".

This comes in response to two SMS scams.

The first is a message which appears to come directly from Ameli, informing users they need to click on a fraudulent link to receive reimbursement for medical treatment. 

The second involves recipients receiving a message informing them that someone they have been in contact with has tested positive for Covid-19. They are then provided with a link leading to a questionnaire which asks for personal security information. 

France currently does not use digital tracking measures to monitor the spread of coronavirus between individuals, but the voluntary StopCovid app will be available in France from Monday June 1. 

Read more: How did France obtain your number to send SMS?

Read more: France warned against Covid-19 scams and fakes

Fake deliveries

The most common scams are focused on one objective: getting bank details. Getting the right details can allow scammers to siphon money directly from a victim’s bank account. 

Common ways of getting this information are by either informing recipients that they are owed money (as with the Ameli reimbursement scam) or asking recipients to pay a small amount of money. 

During the coronavirus pandemic, scammers have done this by exploiting increased reliance on online deliveries. Victims are sent messages claiming parcels are waiting to be delivered, upon payment of customs fees, or extra payment for stamps. 

The SMS texts demand a small fee, and provide a link for recipients to enter their bank details and provide payment. France’s customs authority (La Direction Générale des Douanes et Droits Indirects) denounced the scam via Twitter.

Rare SMS scams

Scams involving unregulated premium-rate numbers often require victims to call an expensive number without making it clear they will have to pay to do so.

Typical SMS such as these can inform recipients they have won the lottery, or must call a number to get information about a parcel they are waiting for.

In addition, texts might invite recipients to download an app vis an SMS link, which can allow the scammer to install software directly onto their smartphone. 

However, these kinds of scams are much rarer and the technology required to run them is more complex.

What to do if you’ve received a scam SMS 

The golden rule is to never click on any links received by SMS from unknown numbers, especially if the attached message suggests you may need to pay or receive money. 

Scammers often rely on reaching the right person at the right moment. They may send out thousands of SMS, in the hope of hitting on one person who is anxiously awaiting an urgent package, or already worrying about a health insurance reimbursement and is, as such, vulnerable to their message. 

If a message you receive hits a nerve, Jérôme Notin advises that, rather than clicking on the link in the message, you “make the effort to open your personal account using your own identification and password to make sure that the message also appears there. Or find the real phone number for customer services and ask them in person if the message is legitimate".

If you have already transferred money to a source you are not sure is legitimate, Mr. Notin suggests cancelling your bank card.

He said: “This takes time and energy, but it's better to spend a few hours doing that than find yourself with an enormous problem that will take up much more time.” He notes that fraudulent activity can take weeks to show up in bank statements, as scammers may not use the details they succeed in getting until weeks later. 

If you receive a scam SMS you can also forward the sender's number to France’s mobile multimedia association (Association Française du Multimédia Mobile, AFMM) for free on 33700.

The AFMM blocks numbers that are frequently reported. 

Scams can also be reported to Pharos, the reporting platform for France’s ministry of home affairs, who have the power to close websites and launch legal proceedings. 

Related articles:

France may get controversial StopCovid app this week

Data of 9m EasyJet clients hit in cyber-attack

Warning over fake Leclerc voucher scam

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