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Scam alert in France: Watch out for online energy fraudsters

Energy cost scams have soared by 127% this year as costs rise, with more fake-but-convincing websites popping up. Here’s how to avoid falling victim

A photo of a woman looking shocked at her phone

The scam websites can look very convincing and it is easy to be fooled Pic: fizkes / Shutterstock

People in France are warned to watch out for new online scams in which fraudsters look to profit from customers struggling with rising energy bills.

The scams invite unsuspecting users to log in to fake websites that look almost identical to genuine energy provider sites.

The offers are usually sent to consumers via a link, by text or even via a Facebook post. These messages and posts generally look genuine and may appear to come directly from the energy provider. Users then click the link, and enter their details.

At this point, the scam is revealed, with some users reporting that instead of saving money, they are charged hundreds of euros. This money goes to the scammers.

One victim, Didier, told Le Figaro: “It was a fake offer. I was debited €786.”

Hundreds of people have reported falling victim to the scams, which have appeared across the energy industry. These include ‘offers’ for electricity, gas, wood pellets, or logs for wood-fired stoves.

The scammers are seeking to prey on people who are looking for ways to save money on their energy bills, as prices continue to soar.

Scam websites soar

Fraud reporting website Signal-arnaques said that this kind of fraud has increased by a factor of 10 compared to last year. The online fraud detection company FranceVerif found the same.

It said that the number of scam websites with ‘offers’ on wood-burning stoves and wood pellets had increased by 127% compared to the same time last year.

Fake websites that appear very similar to genuine sites are part of a scam technique known as ‘phishing’. Users click on a link or a post via text, email, or social media, and enter their details on the website, without knowing that it is fake.

This gives the scammers access to your details and money. 

Often, the links and websites are very convincing. The scammers may go to great lengths to make them appear genuine, including logos, colours, and website address details.

Facebook and social media ads

An increasing number of scams are being reported on social media, especially Facebook and Instagram. Fraudsters buy or hack their way into existing Facebook accounts, and set up an advertisement with a link that goes to the fake website. 

This means that they can get away with setting up an advert without being detected by the social media platform. Using Facebook advertising tools also lets scammers target specific kinds of audiences, and tailor their adverts towards people who may be more likely to click.

Laurent Amar, founder of FranceVerif, said: “Like all brands, cybercriminals have access to marketing tools, which helps them to better target potential victims by age, and interest.”

Cybercrime expert Jean-Jacques Latour explained that scammers are becoming more dangerous, organised, and professional. He said: “We’re no longer looking at the stereotype of a teenager in their bedroom behind a screen.”

He said that hackers are now able to create up to 80 fraudulent websites per day, and work in networks of people with specific roles, such as customer service, marketing, and development.

This means that online websites can be more convincing than ever. They may not have the spelling mistakes and poor grammar typical of older scam sites.

Florence Sède, IT professor at the Université de Toulouse, said: “Criminals are even capable of buying https protocols (which secures the connection), to make their website appear credible.”

One such high-profile example was the website bois-energie-plus.com, which was a scam website that sold suspiciously low-cost wood for wood-burning stoves. Signal-Arnaques maintains a list of known scam websites, including this one for wood-burning stove fuel.

Mr Amar said: “When an energy supplier's website is in every way similar to the real thing, anyone can be fooled, even professionals.”

Tips on how to avoid being scammed

There were 26 million victims of online purchase scams in France in 2021. The fake websites can be particularly difficult to get rid of, as scammers can simply disappear before reappearing with a brand new website under a different name.

To avoid being scammed, tips include: 

  • Do not click on links for offers sent to you by text, email, or on social media. Instead, search for the page yourself or type the real website URL directly into your browser bar
  • Be suspicious of any too-good-to-be-true or ‘out of the blue’ offers
  • Do not agree to offers immediately. Take your time. If someone pressures you to buy immediately, step away
  • Never type in your bank details or personal ID information into a website accessed via a random link
  • Always search for and log onto a website separately yourself, rather than one accessed via a link
  • Report a scam on Signal-arnaques if you see one or fall victim

FranceVerif is also working on a new app, which uses artificial intelligence to discern scams based on hundreds of data points. These include the type of payment method used, the domain name, and the date that the website was created.

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