By using Google Translate or Microsoft’s Translator, criminals were able to translate the country’s complex language for scams, police say in a Nov. 22, 2019 story. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

By using Google Translate or Microsoft’s Translator, criminals were able to translate the country’s complex language for scams, police say in a Nov. 22, 2019 story. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Isolated Iceland newly vulnerable to computer scams

REYKJAVIK, Iceland — “Hi, I hope you are not busy?”

The treasurer of the Icelandic soccer club Afturelding got the email from his manager late in the afternoon, soon before banks were about to close. The words “Sent from my iPhone” were at the bottom, suggesting urgency, and through a series of exchanges, the manager asked that a quick payment be made.

It was a scam, perpetrated from someone posing as the club manager – and part of a sudden rush of online fraud that is catching Icelanders unprepared.

Online apps have now become good at translating the country’s complex language, a version of Old Norse spoken only by about 400,000 people. And the government has lifted limits on money transfers out of the country that had been imposed since the financial crisis. The combination over the past two years has attracted scammers to target a population that has not developed the same habits of caution about online fraud as other such wealthy, high-tech countries.

“The trick is always the same, but the Icelandic gets better and better,” said Audur Thorsteinsdóttir, manager of The Icelandic Youth Association, an umbrella organization regularly warning member clubs against fraud emails.

Large and small enterprises, from vehicle inspection companies to residents’ associations, have been shaken this year by someone posing as the CEO or chairman seeking a swift payment. By using Google Translate or Microsoft’s Translator – the two apps that can translate Icelandic – the criminals were able to sound credible, police say.

Known as “CEO fraud” – when criminals pose as high-ranking executives after thoroughly researching the company structure – the scams did not exist at Icelandic workplaces in the early days of online translators. Software offered poor, often comically inaccurate, results: Icelandic for “youth” for example, was translated as meaning “Youtube.” The apps have since improved.

“The text has the kind of errors Google Translate makes,” such as awkward capitalization and syntax, said police detective Dadi Gunnarsson. “But it reads remarkably well, and that fools many.”

Recent scams have amounted to the largest thefts the island nation has ever seen. Geothermal energy company HS Orka recently lost $1.5 million and a total of $13 million has been lost to foreign scammers over the past twelve months, the police estimate.

In another case, a series of promoted ads on social media promised to explain how to bounce back from bankruptcy. The link brought users to a website mimicking a respected business paper, with its trademark pink background. It was a bitcoin scheme meant to defraud.

Icelandic was introduced to Google Translate in 2009, earlier than many other more widely spoken languages as a Reykjavík-born employee at the tech company wanted his mother tongue included as soon as possible. Dozens of students and faculty at Reykjavík University volunteered to help Google gather samples for voice recognition.

Still, the translations were incomplete and spotty for many years.

“The learning curve has been steep for Iceland,” said Morten Tandle, director of the Nordic Financial Cert, a Norway-based organization co-ordinating cyber security responses between large companies in the region.

Experts say that as artificial intelligence improved, translation apps only really became good enough at Icelandic around 2018.

That was just months after the government removed limits on the amount of money that could be transferred out of the country that had been imposed since the financial crisis over a decade ago.

It was like foreign scammers had been waiting for the day, police said.

Cases of online fraud began piling up, with the number this year about six times higher than the year before, according to Landsbankinn, a large commercial bank. Victims rarely get their money back.

In most countries, Tandle said, people learn to be cautious online because someone around them has been scammed or hurt by messages with malicious software. The country’s isolation from such trends until recently made its sudden exposure all the more painful.

The rule of thumb, experts advise, is to always respond to financial inquiries through a different medium, like replying to an email with a phone call.

Icelanders pride themselves on their sense of community and have one of the highest levels of “social trust” in surveys measuring people’s belief in each other and in honesty and integrity.

“Social trust is the desired quality of every society,” said Gunnar Helgi Kristinsson, a politics professor at the University of Iceland. “It makes the economy more dynamic, democracy stronger and people happier and healthier – in academic literature nothing bad is ever associated with healthy trust.”

Yet police and cybersecurity experts note that online scammers successfully exploit it and are urging more caution.

“Digitalization of finance and public service needs to be followed by more awareness,” said Jarno Limnéll, a professor in cybersecurity at the Aalto University in Finland. “We should approach the internet like driving: Always on the alert.”

Kristján Ásgeirsson, a fishing industry entrepreneur known as Fiskikóngurinn, “the King of Fish,” made a splash in local media recently speaking about the shame and distrust he felt after falling for a scam.

Ásgeirsson received an email from what appeared to be a trusted American business associate asking for the next invoice to be paid to a separate account for tax purposes. Someone had hacked Ásgeirsson’s inbox and was posing as his contact under a false email address. He lost $68,000 and only discovered the scam weeks later.

“I felt like a complete idiot,” Ásgeirsson said. “It can happen to everyone,” he added, before pausing and revising his statement: “It is happening to everyone.”

By The Associated Press

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Red Deer teacher Janelle Van Tetering had her students write letters to attach to Blankets of Hope, which will be donated to the Mustard Seed. (Contributed photo)
Red Deer teacher, students donate ‘Blankets of Hope’ to those in need

A Red Deer teacher and her students are giving warm blankets and… Continue reading

RCMP have charged a Sylvan Lake man for allegedly defrauding five people of more than $100,000.
Advocate file photo
20-year-old woman killed in collision: Blackfalds RCMP

A 20-year-old woman was killed in a collision on Saturday, says Blackfalds… Continue reading

Patrick Malkin, co-owner of The Granary Kitchen, says he wants the provincial government to lift COVID-19 restrictions that shutdown in-person dining. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Red Deer restaurant owner ‘frustrated’ in-person dining restrictions are still in place

Dr. Deena Hinshaw announced the restrictions won’t yet be eased this past Thursday

As of Friday, Alberta has under 10,000 active COVID-19 cases. (Image courtesy CDC)
Alberta identifies 573 new COVID-19 cases, 13 deaths on Saturday

There are currently 9,727 active cases of the virus in the province

A firetruck sits in front of a home on Harvey Close in Red Deer Saturday afternoon. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
Firefighters respond to Red Deer fire

Red Deer firefighters responded to a blaze in the north part of… Continue reading

Terrance Josephson of the Princeton Posse, at left, and Tyson Conroy of the Summerland Steam clash during a Junior B hockey game at the Summerland Arena in the early spring of 2020. (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
QUIZ: How much do you know about hockey?

Test your knowledge of Canada’s national winter sport

A woman injects herself with crack cocaine at a supervised consumption site Friday, Jan. 22, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Drug users at greater risk of dying as services scale back in second wave of COVID-19

OTTAWA — Under fluorescent lights, Wendy Muckle surveys the supervised consumption site… Continue reading

The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) headquarters Connaught Building is pictured in Ottawa on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. nbsp; THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Taxpayers’ watchdog sees complaints spike, raising worries about pandemic tax season

OTTAWA — Canada’s taxpayers’ ombudsperson says his office has seen a steep… Continue reading

Wet'suwet'en supporters and Coastal GasLink opponents continue to protest outside the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, February 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
‘We’re still in it’: Wet’suwet’en push forward on rights recognition

Tensions had reached a boiling point over a natural gas pipeline in… Continue reading

An Uber driver's vehicle is seen after the company launched service, in Vancouver, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. Several taxi companies have lost a court bid to run Uber and Lyft off the road in British Columbia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Taxi companies lose court bid to quash Uber, Lyft approvals in British Columbia

VANCOUVER — Several Metro Vancouver taxi companies have lost a court bid… Continue reading

Lights on an internet switch illuminate a network cable in an office in Ottawa, Thursday, February 10, 2011. A Federal Court is ordering Canada's internet service providers to block websites for a company that's offering pirated television streaming online. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
‘Deeply disturbing:’ Nunavut internet still slower, more costly than rest of country

IQALUIT, Nunavut — In Nunavut, it’s not unusual for the internet to… Continue reading

RCMP say missing teen Hope Tivendale has been found. (File photo by Advocate staff)
No foul play suspected after burned body of homeless person found in North Vancouver

VANCOUVER — A burned body, believed to be of a homeless person,… Continue reading

The central zone experienced a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases Thursday, rising from 454 to 508 active cases over the past 24 hours, with 10 people in hospital. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)
Spartan Bioscience says Health Canada has approved its rapid COVID-19 test

TORONTO — An Ottawa company says it’s received approval from Health Canada… Continue reading

Most Read