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16 Oct 2021 14:56
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  •   Home > News > International

    Phone scams are 'exploding' and costing vulnerable Australians millions, new data shows

    Phone-based scams are costing Australians more money each year and Indigenous people have seen a sharp increase in losses in 2021.


    If you have received more than the usual amount of suspicious calls or text messages this year, you're not alone.

    Phone-based scams are "exploding" and costing vulnerable Australians millions of dollars each year, according to new data from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

    In 2021, phone scams have also led to a sharp increase in financial losses for Indigenous Australians.

    How much money are Australians losing to phone scams?

    Australians have lost $63.6 million to scams involving unsolicited calls or text messages so far this year, according to the ACCC's Scamwatch program.

    That's 30 per cent of the $211 million Australians have lost to all scams so far in 2021, compared with phone scams making up 27 per cent ($48.2 million) of all losses last year and 23 per cent ($32.4 million) in 2019.

    Of the more than 213,000 reports received by the Scamwatch website so far this year, more than half have been phone-related.

    When you include all other kinds of scams, there has been an 89 per cent increase in scams compared with the same period last year and we've long-surpassed the $175.6 million in losses reported for the entirety of 2020.

    We're losing more money on average

    Financial losses from phishing schemes that trick people into giving out personal information, such as these phone scams, are up 261 per cent in 2021, compared with last year.

    A victim's average financial loss has also increased this year, according to data encompassing all scam types and not just those involving phones.

    ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard says while the proportion of reports involving a financial loss is dipping in 2021, people who do lose money are losing larger amounts.

    "The average loss so far this year is about $11,000 compared to $7,000 for the same period in 2020," she says.

    "It's very concerning to see these scams evolving and becoming more sophisticated to steal even more money from unsuspecting people."

    Impact on vulnerable communities

    There has been a notable increase in Indigenous Australians reporting significant financial losses from phone scams in 2021.

    For all of 2020, Indigenous people made 1,515 reports of phone scams with losses of $223,947, according to Scamwatch.

    So far in 2021, Indigenous people have made 1,783 reports with losses of $2.2 million.

    When you include all types of scams, Indigenous Australians have experienced a 172 per cent increase in reported losses compared with the same period in 2020.

    So far this year, Australians aged 65 and over have reported losses of $20.5 million from phone scams, making up around 32 per cent of the country's financial losses to such schemes and surpassing the $18.3 million they lost to phone scams last year.

    People who speak English as a second language have lost $6.5 million to phone scams so far this year, after losing $7.8 million to phone scams for the entirety of 2020.

    Of those people, those aged between 45 and 54 have lost the most this year, reporting $2.2 million in losses so far.

    How do phone scams work?

    Ms Rickard from the ACCC says scammers usually call or text people and claim to be from well-known businesses or government bodies, in order to attempt to steal personal information.

    "Scammers are pretending to be from companies such as Amazon or eBay and claiming large purchases have been made on the victim's credit card," she says.

    "When they pretend to help you process a refund, they actually gain remote access to your computer and steal your personal and banking details."

    A phone-based malware scam known as Flubot also took off in Australia in August, through fake voicemail and parcel delivery messages.

    The ACCC said this particular scam led to more than 13,000 reports in just eight weeks.

    "These scams are particularly concerning in our current climate, as many people are turning to online shopping because of the COVID-19 lockdowns," Ms Rickard says.

    Why are phone scams "exploding"?

    Paul Haskell-Dowland, associate dean for computing and security from Perth's Edith Cowan University, said there were multiple reasons why phone scams have increased dramatically in the last few years.

    This includes the fact many people are now working from home amid COVID-19 lockdowns and may not have many people nearby to raise potential issues with.

    "There's less incentive perhaps to communicate with people who are not immediately next to us," he says.

    "We don't have that ability to bounce ideas off of others and that leaves us potentially vulnerable to making bad decisions … in terms of clicking on a link or installing an application."

    Dr Haskell-Dowland says many people are aware of potential scams involving desktop computers and suspicious emails but are not as aware of potential issues on mobile devices.

    "I think because [phone scams] haven't been that prevalent previously, people are not as switched on to the risks," he says.

    "They might not be thinking about the risk of applications which could be installed through things like the SMS scams for deliveries, which we're currently seeing an increase in."

    Experts urge vigilance

    Ms Rickard from the ACCC said it was important people know how to protect themselves.

    "Remember, you never know who you are dealing with online," she says.

    "Do not click on any links in messages that come to you out of the blue and never provide any of your personal or banking details to someone you don't personally know and trust."

    Dr Haskell-Dowland says people should not panic if they think they've been targeted by a phone scam, as some of them are easily dealt with.

    "If you've received a spam message or message that you're not sure about, but you haven't done anything with it, then you're pretty much safe," he said.

    He says people should delete any suspicious messages and ignore them.

    If a message or caller claims to be from a bank, business or organisation and you're not sure if you requested their service, he says people should reach out to the organisation directly (and not by using any contact details provided in the message or call, as they may be fraudulent) to check if the request is legitimate.

    How to report a phone scam

    The ACCC says it shares phone numbers of alleged scammers with telecommunications providers for investigation and potential blocking, so members of the public should report apparent scams to Scamwatch, even if they haven't lost money or their personal details.

    Anyone who has provided their banking details to a scammer should contact their bank or financial institution as soon as possible, while anyone who suspects they may be a victim of identity theft should contact the free government-funded service IDCARE.

    © 2021 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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