Scammers stole over $2 billion from Australians last year — more than double 2020’s total: ACCC

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Days after the call from “the man from Microsoft”, Brian realised he had been scammed of his life’s savings.

The well-spoken caller had rung out of the blue, offered to fix a problem, taken control of Brian’s computer, and withdrawn $38,700 from the retiree’s online bank account, leaving $300.

“It’s my complete life savings,” Brian, 76, said.

“It’s absolutely terrible — I haven’t been too well since. I haven’t been able to sleep properly.”

Stories like this have become increasingly common, with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission reporting a record increase in scams last year, many of them targeting vulnerable elderly victims.

Scammers stole more than double the amount from Australians in 2021 than they did the previous year, according to the ACCC’s Targeting Scams report, released on Monday.

The report compiles data from the scam-reporting portals Scamwatch (operated by the ACCC) and ReportCyber (developed by state and federal police and Australian security agencies), as well as major banks, money remitters, and other government agencies.

Reported losses to all organisations totalled almost $1.8 billion. Factoring in the estimated number of unreported scams, actual losses were over $2 billion, ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard said.

“Even our figure of plus $2 billion is still underestimating the amount lost,” she said.

“It’s a very scary figure, and we know this year is going to be worse still.”

What’s behind the rise?

Losses from scams offering fake investment opportunities more than doubled to $700 million in 2021, according to the ACCC report.

A major cause of this was the rise of cryptocurrency investment scams, which saw reported losses increase 270 per cent to $99 million.

A typical method involved scammers setting up fake investment and cryptocurrency trading platforms to steal money from people looking to invest in cryptocurrency.

This sometimes morphed with romance scams, so that the targets were introduced to the fake investment platforms through their love interest.

“People don’t understand how to go about purchasing cryptocurrency, but they also don’t want to miss out,” Ms Rickard said.

“As a consequence, we’re seeing so many people lose large sums of money.”

There was also a large increase in losses relating to pyramid and ponzi scams, largely due to ponzi investment scam apps.

These modern versions of pyramid schemes see targets innocently invest money in fraudulent schemes that only serve to pay existing investors.

Other than investment scams, the other type that saw a big increase was payment redirection.

This involves scammers impersonating a bank, a business client, or even a property settlement agent, to get the target to send them money.

Remote access scams, like the one that targeted Brian, also went up.

Losses reported to Scamwatch almost doubled to over $16 million, with people aged over 65 losing almost half the money.

Are scammers getting better?

Yes they are, Ms Rickard said.

“I’ve heard stories from overseas where traditional organised crime groups are getting out of drugs and into scamming.

“There’s a huge fortune to be made — and there’s a whole marketplace on the dark web selling everything you need to become a scammer.”

The figures from last year show that the rise in reported scams during the height of pandemic lockdowns was not an aberration or one-off event.

Pre-COVID, in 2019, Australians lost an estimated $634 million. In 2020, that increased to $850 million.

At the time, the increase was attributed partly to the pandemic, and people spending more time alone and on their phones, where they were vulnerable to such things as email phishing.

This involves scammers impersonating a bank or another authority to trick targets into giving out personal information, including passwords.

The number of reports of phishing scams increased 183 per cent from 2019 to 2020.

It may have been hoped that fewer Australians in lockdown, and therefore isolated from one another, would see a decrease in phishing attacks.

But in 2021, these attacks increased another 62 per cent.

Last year even saw the largest scam text message campaign in Australia’s history.

From August 2021, thousands of Australians received text messages about missed calls, voicemails, deliveries and photo uploads.

The message asked them to click on a link. Doing so downloaded malware that gave scammers access to passwords and accounts.

Reported losses from the scam, known as Flubot, were under $11,000 in 2021, but the real figure was probably far higher, Ms Rickard said.

“What people lost was a huge amount of personal information,” she said.

“I think they managed to access many people’s banking passcodes. I don’t think we saw the full extent of financial losses from that.”

What’s being done?

The big increase in losses comes after years of concerted activity by Australian government agencies trying to stop scammers.

“The frustrating thing is I’ve never seen more actions on scams than in the last two years,” Ms Rickard said.

“It’s a bit like an arms race. Every time we put in place a successful strategy, they work around it.”

An example of this was scam calls, she said.

In December 2020, the telecoms industry introduced a voluntary industry code to detect and block the calls, at the recommendation of the Australian Communications and Media Authority.

In 2021, the telcos blocked 357 million scam calls, resulting in a reduction in reports of such calls to the ACCC of almost 50 per cent in 2022.

But scammers simply changed their tactics, focusing on SMS, like the Flubot scam.

In response, Telstra introduced an SMS scam filter in April this year.

Again, scammers changed their tactics, Ms Rickard said.

“Now we’re seeing an increase in scams on encrypted apps like WhatsApp.”

But banks could do more, she added.

In Australia, banks processing online transactions do not check whether the account name matches the account number.

This makes it easier for hackers to conduct payment redirection scams, impersonating a business or another legitimate party, and asking the target to send payment to their account.

Australian government agencies have been calling for banks to introduce name verification, also known as confirmation of payee, since at least 2020, but so far the banks have refused.

“The introduction of confirmation of payee in the UK saw a significant reduction in payment redirection scams,” Ms Rickard said.

“People are losing hundreds of millions of dollars, the technology is available [to stop this] and we would like to see it introduced ASAP.”

What’s 2022 looking like?

Early figures suggest losses will double again this year, Ms Rickard said.

Reported losses to Scamwatch are already approaching 2021’s total.

Brian’s $38,700 loss is part of that 2022 figure.

The retiree from Albany in Western Australia was scammed just weeks ago and has already sold a beloved Commodore to restore the bank balance.

“I’ve worked all my life to have this beautiful car,” he said.

“And now I don’t have it anymore.

“I’m totally embarrassed about this whole thing that’s happened to me.”

By technology reporter James Purtill (Original ABC Article)