Online payment scams are booming

Online payment scams are booming

Australians lost close to one billion dollars last year to scammers. Over $851 million in losses was reported from 444,000 victim reports in 2020 but these numbers are probably understated.

On average, victims lose $7,677 per incident reported to the ACCC’s Scamwatch

“We expect the real losses will be even higher, as many people don’t report these scams,” said Delia Rickard, Deputy Chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

“Scammers continue to become more sophisticated and last year used the COVID-19 pandemic to take advantage of people from all walks of life.”  

Fake investment schemes are the number one type of scam, costing Australians $328 million in total during 2020.

Romance scams are number two, costing Australians $131 million.

Fake business billing and payment redirection scams resulted in $128 million of losses.

Other favourite scams of criminals in 2020 included hacking, online shopping and classified scams, remote access scams, identity theft, inheritance scams and threats.

Fake investment schemes are by far the biggest type of scam faced by ordinary Australians.

The ACCC says they are getting more sophisticated.

“It appears to be increasingly difficult for people to identify legitimate investment opportunities from scams. Scammers no longer just rely on professional looking websites. They now have the ability to contact people through phone, apps, social media and other means.

“We saw more fraudulent celebrity endorsements of investment opportunities advertised across digital platforms as well as scammers posing as romance interests to ‘bait’ people into scam investments.”

Romance scams are a cruel trick on people who join online chat groups or dating apps.

“Romance baiting was a new type of scam that emerged in 2020 …

“Victims are contacted on a dating app, typically moved off the app and then lured into an investment scam, often involving cryptocurrency. People aged 25 to 34 years lost the most money ($7.3 million) to romance baiting in 2020.

Lockdowns and restrictions caused by COVID-19 gave unscrupulous criminals the opportunity to dupe people into paying online for unseen products.  

“We saw scammers claiming the government restrictions meant people could not see items in person before purchase,” said Delia Rickard.

“This was a common ruse in vehicle sale and puppy scams.”

“Victoria, which was significantly impacted by the second wave of the virus, recorded the highest losses nationwide for the first time.

“Victorians reported $49 million in losses to Scamwatch, more than double those in 2019.” said Ms Rickard.  

As people spent more time online during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, reports and losses for some scams also increased.

Fake bills, fake emails, real money lost

Phishing activity also thrived during COVID. Criminals are particularly enjoying impersonating government departments and there were over 44,000 reports of phishing scams, up 75 per cent on the year before. A phishing scam involves an email or message being sent to the intended victim asking for a payment or personal or financial details.

A phishing email or message carries the logo and look/feel of a genuine institution, like a bank or the Tax Office, but is fake and seeks to fool the recipient into believing they are dealing with a trusted organisation.

Police have been warning recently about a spate of phishing scams impersonating mygov and the ATO:

Scammers pretending to be from the ‘myGov customer care team’ are emailing people and telling them they need to verify their identity by clicking on a link. The link goes to a fake myGov logon page designed to steal their personal information.

If you receive an email like this, don’t click any links and don’t provide the information requested.

A genuine ATO, myGovID or myGov message will never ask you to access online services via a hyperlink.

One organisation that is consistently a favourite target of impersonators is Telstra. says these fake bills have links to a webpage that serves up a malicious file download. Because Telstra is a large company with millions of customers it is popular with criminals for phishing campaigns.

Telstra has this page for advice on how to tell a real Telstra email from a scam email.

Nude pic threats funded by Bitcoin

A frightening but growing scam is threats. A criminal, or even a former friend, may claim to have embarrassing or nude pictures/videos and sends a message to the victim threatening to share the material unless they are paid.

This is often called image-based abuse, sextortion or is simply an extortion threat scam. The criminal may demand payment in Bitcoin or other online payment method that makes detection difficult.

The 2020 Targeting Scams report includes data from Scamwatch, ReportCyber, other government agencies, and 10 banks and financial intermediaries.

Online scams are booming and in 2021 will clearly exceed one billion in losses to Australians.

There is plenty of advice about how to avoid being scammed. Keeping track of your spending in the real world with cash is a good start to limiting your exposure to possible online theft and scam attempts.

The ACCC reported that “less traditional payment methods” are increasingly being used by scammers.

“Whilst the highest reported losses are still experienced via bank transfers, we received reports of over $50 million in losses via Bitcoin or ‘other payments’.

“These include cryptocurrencies such as Ethereum, charges to phone bills, Neosurf vouchers and digital payment apps such as Zelle or Skrill.”

You can report online scams to ACCC Scamwatch, the Police, your bank or the Australian Cyber Security Centre.

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