Australia's Biggest Scams (And How To Avoid Them)

The unpleasant reality: many people are dishonest and will try and scam you or your loved ones. Awareness is your biggest defence. Here are the most prevalent scams in Australia, and how you can avoid them.

Picture by Bo Hughins

Floods of spam mail about Nigeria and your genitalia might make you think the internet is the predominant source of scam activity in Australia, but you'd be wrong. According to the annual Targeting Scams report released this week by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), the biggest source of scams is the phone.

Of the 83,000 scams reported to the ACCC in 2011, 43,000 were received via phone. Many of those would have been the familiar fake call claiming to be from Microsoft or Telstra which is used to install spyware and other nasties on unsuspecting victims' machines in the guise of "tech support". Others might pretend to be from Australia Post and demand a fee for a non-existent undelivered parcel. As you can see in the table below, phone dominated all other methods:

For many Lifehacker readers, these calls are an annoyance and also a source of potential amusement, since it can be fun to string along a scammer and waste their time. However, we shouldn't ignore the fact that these scams also cost real people real money. The estimated impact of the reported scams is $85 million, and that doesn't include people who are too ashamed to report the incidents, or don't realise that they can do so. With that said, 88 per cent of scams reported to the ACCC are from people who didn't fall victim, so awareness is growing. You can help by recognising common scams, not falling for them yourself, and keeping less tech-savvy friends or relatives up-to-date on potential issues.

Here are the five most common scam types, according to the report:

  • Advance fee scams (30,426 reported, 36.6% of reported scams). Includes requests for payment for package delivery, or promises of a large inheritance followed by requests for a "processing fee". Why would you send money to a stranger you've never met?
  • Computer hacking scams (19,473 reported, 23.4% of reported scams). Callers say a problem has been detected on your machine and offer to walk you through how to fix it. This in turn makes your computer vulnerable to spying and potentially part of a botnet. Social media scams also fall in this category.
  • Lottery and sweepstake scams (7.863 reported, 9.5% of reported scams). Remember that lottery you never entered? Apparently you've won money and can receive a fortune in return for a small up-front payment. There's only one person getting rich in this scam, and it isn't you.
  • Banking/phishing scams< (5,430 reported, 6.5% of reported scams). Emails which ask you to confirm account details to avoid account cancellation or read an online statement, then redirect you to a non-bank site. The aim is to steal your login details.
  • Online auction and shopping scams (5,012 reported, 6.0% of reported scams). Auctions or web sales for non-existent or counterfeit products.

Despite the range of these scams, avoiding them comes down to three simple rules:

Never respond to unexpected mail

Spam detection on modern email platforms eliminates many of the obvious nasties, but some still get through. Ignore any message claiming you have a lottery win, an unexpected bill, a tax refund, a parcel awaiting delivery, or so on. Contact the relevant institution (bank, ATO, Post Office) directly if you're concerned, but don't rely on details in the suspicious email to do so.

Don't give any personal information on calls

If someone calls claiming to be from Microsoft (or anywhere else) saying a problem has been detected with your PC, simply hang up. If someone claims to be from your bank or the tax office, ask for a phone number where you can call back — and double-check the number with other sources before doing so. (Most scammers will refuse to supply a number.) Never give out any personal information on a call you haven't made yourself.

You're not about to get something for free

You have not won the lottery. A dying widow is not about to leave you a fortune. Forwarding a message won't make Facebook give money to a cancer victim. You can't have an iPad for $2. If it sounds too good to be true, it's a scam.

None of this is rocket science. Staying safe often means simply stopping to question what is happening. In this area, cynicism is a far better friend than hope.

ACCC

Lifehacker's weekly Loaded column looks at better ways to manage (and stop worrying about) your money.


Comments

    I love getting the "I'm from Microsoft, we have detected a problem with your computer"

    The first one I got I played along for like an hour. Most of the time confusing the guy into going around in circles. Ended up getting transferred to a "Supervisor" that seemed to take offense to me calling him a scam artist

      Ahh how I love those calls. Apparently I had problems with my brand new computer that didn't even have a motherboard in it yet. Guy seemed pretty confused when I told him it had never been powered on before.

        Sometimes I tell them I don't have a computer. They really don't know how to handle that.

      Well ige get plenty of those too.. Every email u get should be put in trash folder.. unless u have complicty been in touch with site etc;.. DELETE EVERY OTHER CRAP! !!!!!!!!!!!!!

    "cynicism is a far better friend than hope"
    Brilliant !

      When they gives your instructions " - just follow them and slowly repeat the instructions but substitute "computer" for the word "microwave".

      Or what I have done in the past is act as though you really care for 10mins and pretend your doing everything they are saying (even a few phrases like; "logging in now" - "we will have to get this virus, glad you called mate") then go; "Wait a sec....... I dont own a computer!" Haha - Trust me, they always hang up first.

    I can't wait for "Microsoft" to call me again regarding my computer problems. I'm looking forward to making them wait while I "boot my computer".

    always reminds me of this http://xkcd.com/570/

    "Advance fee scams (30,426 reported, 36.6% of reported scams). Includes requests for payment for package delivery, or promises of a large inheritance followed by requests for a “processing fee”. Why would you send money to a stranger you’ve never met?"

    These also include the phone calls from people claiming to be from your financial institution or the department of fair trading (or similar) and advise you that you've been overcharged fees and you just need to pay a small fee to reclaim those overcharged fees.

    Many people get caught out by these phone scams not because the scammers are particularly good at using language and psychological triggers to get you to believe what they are saying but instead because they likely called you a month or two beforehand to conduct a "customer satisfaction survey" and have gotten enough of your details from that call to call you back a month or two later and actually sound like they are calling from your financial institution or government department who would have all that information.

    I love the microsoft one.

    I had the girl at the other end explain to me firstlty how microsoft had tracked me, my IP address and matched that to my contact details. Then explain to me under what conditions had microsoft released my details to her company.

    I asked her to provide the serial numbers of the products in question (she didn't want to do that), so I asked her which products where sending my private details, which she kindly informed that Windows was...then had her try and explain to me how that actually wasn't illegal only to inform her of my confusion over the fact that I don't run any MS products (using Macs)....

    The silence was golden.

    I vividly remember getting into an argumen with my bank when they called me about a banking matter and asked me for verifying information and I bluntly refused and asked them challenge questions instead. After a much debate about their belief that bank policy is akin to gospel they said I could call them back, which led to a second debate because I refused to call on the number they proceeded to try and give me.

    That was two years ago, and in glad that now they do it the other way around. If they call they either give a reference number for a call back o r they tell me things only the bank should know.

    Glad they make an effort and change to their customer needs in some areas.

      I love receiving a call from Vodafone or something where in order for them to sell me a plan upgrade they just need my 4-digit access PIN.

      You called me, b*tch, you tell me YOUR PIN.

    I know of 2 other scams: Vodafone and the Australian Government.

    Not quite related to this, but interesting note - there is actually a variant of the age-old card con, Nim, that's called "Australian Blackjack."

    My sister gets calls quite often about a virus on her computer.

    Which is strange as she does not own one.

    The last Microsoft scam that called me was a female, i asked her what colour her panties were, she called me a bastard and hung up.. go figure..

    None of them call me anymore, not even telemarketers... Must have something to do with the 20 minute interrogation they get on how they got my silent number in the first place.
    I know this isn't very PC but I love it when you get these Indian telemarketers so flustered there already poor English fails them.
    Usually at that point I hang up.

      "their" - it's "their already poor English fails them."

        Get a life Afta so you passed 6th grade English, have another drink!

    The unfortunate thing about these scams is that while the technosavvy crowd that reads lifehacker wouldn't be fooled for an instant, aged citizens who dabble in IT to stay in touch with family are routinely duped.
    My 80+ year-old Mum was 'touched' by one of the "we've detected a problem with your computer" scams and, being a novice and largely trusting of people on the phone who identify themselves as someone she 'knows' (Telstra, in this case), not only capitulated with their demands but gave them both her credit card and debit card details. I was horrified when I found out about a week later. The computing elements were straightforward to address, but the money was gone. And they had the balls to ring back several times to say that the payment had failed they wanted to do it again! And then they rang when I was there!
    BTW, getting fraudulent transactions reversed by PayPal when you don't have a PayPal account is essentially impossible, but that's a different gripe.

      Getting your money back from Pay Pal is a snip. Reverse the transaction with your bank. You have 180 days, no questions asked. Don't go into a long discussion about it with them, say you don't know where the transaction came from, and you want it reversed. They will give you a form. I've been doing online payments since 1995, that iso creating systems to do them, and I know how the banks work. A credit card transaction is a very loose promise to pay.

    My mum got a call about an issue on her PC, she hates telemarketer calls at the best of times, so she just told them her son would look at it. I always worry they will get caught out at some point, especially my dad who tends to worry when the slightest thing happens to the computer.

    Best defence - cancel your landline. No more telemarketers, scammers, or call at dinner. And with all the family on capped mobile plans, we're saving so much money.

      I do not understand why anyone would have a landline. How inconvenient to be tethered to one spot. Every time you move house, your number changes. I've lived in seven different places in the last six years, including two months in the middle east, and how I could do that shackled to a landline is beyond me.

      .... maybe when I buy a house I'll get a landline too, just so I can get telelmarketers for teh lulz.

        How do you make an emergency call if your mobile phone has run out of power, and your internet is having issues (preventing VOIP from working properly)?

          Fail. You make one too many assumptions.
          Why not add another: (how do you make an emergency call...) if your landline is broken?

          The problem with this way of thinking is that you are traditionally thinking that landline is pretty much unbreakable - and later techs are. What if people kept on afraid of dangers of flying? After all, in early 1900s, trains and ships are much more safe and convenient.

          Personally I don't want to be rung when I am out. I much prefer someone leave a message on my home phone. That way I can respond at a time that doesn't interfere with the activity I am doing right now.

        Well how frightfully cosmopolitan of you Liraniel! I'm not sure how the little people live with such antiquated notions either but I do believe that in those areas that aren't cities (you know with trees and shrubs and kangaroos and whatnot) that mobile phone coverage isn't very good and the poor dears live so far from civilisation that they need a reliable way to contact people. The very thought of it has me guffawing into my martini!!!

        I have a land-line, but really it's only there so other people can call me without paying exorbitant fees if they happen to know my number (family, friends). Anyone else gets mobile only. My land-line is essentially free anyway (VoIP) with my broadband, and I get an amount of free calls, which I don't use anyway.

    I think the biggest scams in Australia are most of the SALES SALES SALES where discounts are off the RRP instead of the regular price that the item is sold for.

    I'm ashamed to admit that I almost fell for one of these scams several years ago.
    Well, not quite, but still, I acted pretty stupidly.

    I got a call from RACV. They called to tell me that my membership had lapsed (it had) and that I could renew on the spot via credit card. I had forgotten to pay my membership and I remembered getting the renewal and the reminder notice, so to avoid paying a 'new member fee' to renew my membership I agreed to immediate payment via credit card.
    I proceeded to give my credid card details to a complete stranger over the phone and authorised payment of the annual fee.

    As soon as I hung up I felt like an absolute idiot. I realised that while the caller had given me correct information, they could have gotten that by stealing my mail. Steal a reminder notice of an unpaid bill, then call the person and offer to clear it all up right away via credit card.

    I called RACV on their main number and confirmed that the caller was legit. That's great.
    But I still don't think they should do this as it cements in peoples minds the idea that it is OK to give personal information over the phone to a caller.

    I got lucky this time, and I'll be smarter next time.

    I got a call from "Optus" the other day telling me that if I promise to stay with them for another year I will get 25% off my total bill in that period of time. Then they asked me for my personal information to verify, at which point I asked them if I can call them back to verify that they are indeed Optus. The person hung up.
    I called Optus, and they told me that they do this all the time as outbound marketing sales is contracted to another company outside of Optus. I am a bit annoyed.

    Unfortunately, there are still tons of scams out there…There is a new iPhone app recently released, called Scam Detector, which exposes like 500 scams. It is worth checking it out, if you have an iPhone. The app is also online - they have a free web version, if interested. Google it, it's kinda cool, actually.

    Dun and Bradstreet, scamming businesses using a loophole in anti racketeering laws. Companies have to pay a certain sum of money to have their credit historys listed as credit rating 1, they say it is to keep your details up to date. If you decide not to utilise their services your credit is downgraded to a lower rating., regardless of whether you have a perfect record or not. There is plenty to be read on the net if you look for it. It's just like in the old days when the mobsters were putting the muscle on businesses in the form of protection rackets. Hope they repair that hole soon. Australia seems to be a soft touch for these foreign companies and this one is particularly huge and comes with the muscle to push you around, but if we all say no then they may just go away unless they are legislated out of the piture sooner.

      Commonwealth Bank reckoned Dun and Bradstreet is a very reliable resource and passed their customer information on to them for credit check. Resulting a perfect record customer being downgraded. Dun and Bradstreet updated the current details of the perfect record customer to the poorer rating customer's file.

        Thanks for the info. Hopefully I will never have to do business with Commonwealth Bank. Just got a cold call from Dun and Bradstreet. I googled them while they were on the phone and found heaps negative comments. I told them off. Someone should report the scam to Today Tonight or A Current Affair and get these crooks exposed!

      I just received this cold call from an automated system. When I did an online search on the phone number it came up as Dun & Bradstreet and had lots of other people saying it was a scam.

      It sounded just plain dodgy.

    I received a brochure in the mail from blanche equity international (based in Brisbane) about a horse racing system unfortunately i joined I have been bleeding cash since, this so called investment offer best left alone

      Ceejay,
      I run the website aussiescamalert.com
      I cover a few of the investment scams and was starting to look at Blanche Equity.
      I would like to hear more about your experience so I can write up about it.
      You can contact me through the website

    Inform that scammer that all "transactions" will be done after Ramadan ! Ask him if he will like a free kebab !

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