In today’s article, we are going to deal the topic of online scams that harm ‘made-in-Italy’ export. These are clever and, often, very well designed tricks performed by professional criminals targeting honest companies with the goal of stealing their money or large amounts of goods.
Here at Bell Italia, we have been subjected to several scam attempts too, and on some occasions we nearly fell into the trap: for this reason we want to share our experience with all the readers of our blog, because we think that being informed is the first defence weapon against scams and tricks.
Not only that: we invite all those that are willing to add some further details or to tell us their misadventures (hopefully with a happy ending) to contact us or to comment this article.
A premise is a must, and it concerns the export of Italian food. According to Coldiretti, 2019 could be a record-breaking year for Italian agri-food products abroad: the data of Istat regarding the month of February confirm a double-digit percentage growth compared to the same period in 2018.
Almost EUR 3 billion exported in a single month, with Germany still being the main European partner, and the United States the foremost non-EU buyer. Excellent prospects, therefore, that are the result of the daily commitment of the many companies that invest in research, development and communication, to keep the high quality standards of their products and to contribute to spreading the ‘made in Italy’ in the world.
Every day, Italian companies must face challenges that lurk everywhere in the market: high taxation, the competition of foreign countries with lower labour costs, the Italian Sounding phenomenon, duties and embargoes, the uncertainty of Brexit, the fluctuating currency exchange rates, the difficult access to bank credit… just to name a few.
As if that wasn’t enough, along come the scammers, that are often capable of designing such diabolical plans that may ruin sound and hard-working companies.
Unfortunately, it is true: online scams seriously jeopardise ‘made-in-Italy’ export. However, we should point out that criminals don’t care about the nationality of their potential victims: be they in Germany, France or in any other place, all companies are appealing to them, and a potential target.
Nevertheless, Italy is particularly attractive to cheaters for two main reasons: the first is that in our country many SMEs have a low level of computerization. Many are family-run businesses, where the generational shift has not yet occurred, and that adapted to the new technologies by necessity, although not fully able to use them to the fullest. These companies are more vulnerable because they lack the ability to inform themselves properly through WEB tools to unmask any scams before they are accomplished.
Second reason: the crisis, the low turnovers and the business prospects claimed by the scammers. Many Italian businesses, as mentioned, have to face obstacles of any kind every day and are in difficulty. When a potential customer shows up with a very big order, that may beef up the turnovers and maybe even resurrect the fortunes of the company and of its workers, also showing a detailed (and fictitious) series of guarantees, they may be convinced they are dealing with a serious interlocutor.
This is a scam that was devised several years ago and which is recently becoming popular again. A Mike Coupe, pretending to be the purchasing manager of the big British chain Sainsbury’s, reaches out Italian companies of the agri-food sector, asking for quotations; however, as soon as he receives the prices, he makes a big order in record time, pointing out that the payment, by company bylaws, won’t be made earlier than 7 days after receiving the goods.
When required, Coupe even sends a copy of the bylaw, making himself available to sign an official contract between the two parties. A very well designed plan, because emails are absolutely credible: they are written in very good English, complete with telephone numbers, VAT number and company logo, obviously faked. The clever Coupe even made himself a Linkedin profile.
It is therefore easy to fall for it, also because the orders are substantial and the business prospect really tempting. Too bad there is no Mike Coupe in Sainsbury’s organization chart and that the delivery address is only a temporary store, ready to be emptied as soon as the goods are received. Of course, no payment is really made.
Given the dangerousness of the scam, already six years ago the Italian Institute for Foreign Trade had invited Italian companies to make appropriate checks (link) if contacted by self-proclaimed English buyers (in addition to Sainsbury’s, it seems that also the chains Tesco, Asda and Morrisons were involved without their knowledge.)
Finally, it has to be said that large organized chains rarely contact suppliers directly, nor they send an order before physically checking the wares. Behind such simple and immediate negotiations normally there is a scam!
So-called retailers send promotional price lists of fast-moving consumer goods, offered at very convenient prices (even 30-40% cheaper than the average prices found on the market on products like Lavazza, Ferrero, Rio Mare, etc.). Excellent buying opportunities that are very attractive to retailers and small wholesalers.
Moreover, the price lists are very credible because they are complete with forwarding addresses, VAT numbers and internet address, corresponding to an active site. Once he gets a reply, the “fraud supplier” quickly confirms both the quotations and the availability of the wares, and specifies that the payment can only be made on delivery, through a bank draft.
What better guarantee for the customer, than not being able to verify the goods before paying? Everything perfect… But here comes the fraud.
Once he received the order, the supplier sends a pro-forma bill and asks the customer, as a guarantee, to send a picture of the bank draft via e-mail or whatsapp. Nothing but a guarantee: the image is printed on simple paper and the scammer runs to cash the check without ever delivering the wares.
This clever trick is not only used in the large-scale distribution sector, but also in other fields such as the used cars re-sale. Recently also the newspaper La Repubblica talked about it too (link).
The fraud of bank transfers with a false IBAN (International bank account) is a skilled computer trick: a hacker enters the mailbox of a supplier, spies on their communications and sends all the customers an e-mail indicating their own IBAN code (instead of that of the supplier) so that they will use the fraud’s bank details to pay their overdue invoices, instead of that of the supplier.
See how it works? The customers pay regularly and in good faith, but they don’t know that their money will not go to the customer’s account, but to that of the frauds, who cleverly replaced the supplier’s IBAN number with theirs.
When the supplier claims the payment they never received, both they and the customer will realize that the money has disappeared, and the false bank account with it. This fraud, known under the name of “Man in the mail” or “Man in the Middle”, has caused, according to FBI, an estimated loss of EUR 12 billion from 2013 until the present day. There is a solution, and it is very simple as well: the supplier should warn the client that any variation of their IBAN code will be communicated in written, non-telematic form.
If you were victims of one this online scams too, or if you know some other tricks and frauds, tell us your story in the comments. Thank you!