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‘Breaking my heart’: Police insider on Aussies losing life savings to scams

·6-min read
Australian money notes staked on top of each other and two Australian police officers cross a road.
Australians have lost millions of dollars to scams this year and now a Victorian Detective is sharing his personal experience (Source: Getty)

A Victorian Police officer has revealed the human face - and full extent - of the enormous pandemic- induced spike in successful scams.

Merran Faure, an acting detective sergeant with the Stonnington Crime Investigation Unit, contacted Yahoo Finance to raise awareness about just how many cash-strapped Aussies were falling victim… and just how much money they were losing.

“These people are intelligent, and they are just ashamed and embarrassed they’ve been scammed,” Detective Faure said.

“I ask victims to talk to the media to warn other people how much danger they’re in but oftentimes victims haven’t told their families or sometimes even their spouse.”

The official Scamwatch agency, run by the ACCC, has reported an 89 per cent jump in scams this year compared to the same period last year.

Losses had already surpassed those for the entirety of 2020: $175.6 million.

“I’m hearing so many stories of people losing their life savings, it’s breaking my heart,” Detective Faure told Yahoo Finance.

You’re most at danger from phone scams

Phone scams have exploded, accounting for 31 per cent of all total losses. That’s more than $63 million.

It’s even worse than that sounds though; of the 213,000 reports made to Scamwatch so far this year, 113,000 were about phone scams.

“Phone scams are by far the most prevalent,” Detective Faure said.

And she was at pains to say they had become so sophisticated and persuasive that it was easy to fall for them.

“The people talk quickly and sound official, saying they’re from the ATO or immigration, for example … it’s easy to feel pressured in the moment,” she said.

For instance, one rip-off ruse involves a call from someone purporting to be from the ATO, saying: “You owe $50,000 but if you pay $10,000 now, we will waive the other $40,000.”

Another targets foreign students, who receive a call from someone saying they are from the Immigration Department warning that if they don’t cough up a fee immediately, their visa will not be renewed.

It’s intimidating and sounds legitimate.

The old-school letter scam – in reverse…

There is a new and quite terrifying phone iteration of the classic letter scam too. In that one, bank account details are needed to “receive” money for some involved reason, but that account is instead emptied.

Fraudsters will ring from, say, an energy provider.

The script will go something like: “You are owed $200 due to an inaccurately calculated discount.”

Happy days … except, naturally, you need to also send your bank account details.

But here is where Detective Faure says it gets unconscionably clever.

“They don’t deposit $200. They actually deposit $20,000, for example,” she says.

It’s not really deposited though … it’s just sitting there as an uncleared item in your credit column. Then the pleading and pressuring begins for you to refund that $20,000 ‘mistake’, $20,000 that is not yet really there.

“The victim will send back the money, but it will be their own and they’ll lose that money,” Detective Faure said.

This is because scammers are now more easily able to whisk your savings offshore, Detective Faure said, because of the evolution of the credit check system.

You don’t have to face up to open a bank account anymore; you can do it online with a driver’s license or passport that in fact might not be your own.

This means that, although the money might look like it’s going into a bog-standard Australian account, the ownership is actually an overseas person.

And that means your money is gone.

How scammers now manage to look legit

There are three ways scammers now manage to look completely authentic.

The first is that they’ve managed to get mobile phones to display the official institution name when they call you. Yes, ATO, NBN or Telstra.

For instance, a helpful NBN person might contact you saying your service is faulty. All you need to do is give them remote access to your computer to fix it.

Or you may get a call from the electricity company because you are owed a credit. They will “deposit” money owed into your account.

This commences as a phone scam but then becomes a remote-access-to-your-computer scam.

The idea is to do everything from empty your bank accounts to take out fraudulent loans in your name.

Then there is the way swindlers make websites look completely trustworthy: make them one tiny character different from a genuine one like, perhaps, the London Stock Exchange.

“A lot of victims think it’s legitimate because often a dot in the middle of a URL is the only thing that will separate a fake site from the proper one,” Detective Faure said.

“One man lost $70,000 on an investment that looked legitimate and when I spoke to him he said: ‘Can you please call back later? My wife doesn’t know’. He was too scared to tell her.

woman holding mobile phone with incoming call from unknown caller
Scammers can pretend to be your energy or internet provider (Source: Getty)

How con artists have up-levelled in COVID

“Missed delivery?” Don’t click!

The voicemail version is known as a Flubot scam.

Many Aussies have been getting messages about missing deliveries. That’s super clever when so many of us have been clicking and ordering from our couch.

These could be called message ‘agnostic’, meaning they are on different delivery mechanisms. They could arrive via text, call or voicemail.

In every case, the goal is to get you to click on a link that will infect or give remote access to your device.

The second and probably most exploitative and upsetting tactic in today’s challenging personal conditions is the romance scam.

“A lady contacted me recently who had paid out $250,000 and was just so embarrassed,” Detective Faure explained.

“The stories that meant he needed money were one after the other – his credit card had expired, the flight was cancelled … he just never showed up.

“In the pandemic, people have been lonely, people have been at home and they’re getting taken in.

“It is tragic, but people should never feel too ashamed to report a crime.”

The Detective’s 5-step scam safety test

Detective Faure said although scams were becoming so sophisticated, there are some key warning signs to look out for.

If you are contacted by anyone, anyway, virtually about anything, apply these five scam safety techniques:

  1. Slow it down if they’re talking fast and you feel pressured. Only criminals will try to rush or panic you.

  2. Take five and think it through.

  3. Run it past a friend, family member or even a colleague. Have they had a similar call recently?

  4. Google search any of the scams above and Scamwatch will tell you exactly what is happening and how.

  5. Just say, “I’ll call you back”, then search for an official phone number online and never use the number they have provided.

Detective Faure’s message to you:

If you believe you are the victim of a scam you can make a report to Scamwatch via www.scamwatch.gov.au/report-a-scam and the Australian Cyber Security Centre via www.cyber.gov.au/acsc/report

Nicole Pedersen-McKinnon is the author of How to Get Mortgage-Free Like Me, available at www.nicolessmartmoney.com. Follow Nicole on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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