Settlement Guide

How to protect yourself from scams during COVID-19

Different scams cost $22 million to the culturally and lingusistically diverse communities in Australia in 2020. Source: Getty Images/Peter Dazeley

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission says 2020 was the biggest year of scam reports and losses for Australia, warning that this year could be even worse.

Scammers stole $22 million from culturally and linguistically diverse Australians in 2020, according to ACCC’s Scamwatch.

This represents a 60 per cent increase in financial losses compared to 2019. 

ACCC Deputy Chair Delia Rickard, who is one of Australia’s leading authorities on scam disruption, forecasts even bigger losses this year amid COVID-19 induced lockdowns in Australia.

The impacts of COVID-19 on scams

As people spend more time online, under stress and unable to make transactions in person, scammers are quick to exploit any new opportunity.

Scamwatch received 5,400 scam reports in 2020 that directly referenced COVID-19, amounting to $6 million in losses.

Puppy scams alone cost Australians $2 million, while health and medical scams have seen a 2000 per cent increase since the pandemic began.

people using laptops
Online scammers prompt people to click on a link to access their devices.
Getty Images/izusek

Business and COVID-19 – the gateway to your personal information

The rate at which businesses have moved online and acquired customers has “gone through the roof in the past 18 months,” says Kynan Albassit, Product Director at the Australian Institute for Internet Marketing Services.

Lockdowns and restrictions have spurred this rapid growth, with an increasing number of people sharing their data with businesses while transacting online. 

“The problem is the implementation. How business stores people’s data is the most integral and sensitive transition to the digital world,” explains Albassit.

“Businesses need to be very careful about building a website, creating a QR code or an online shopping cart, how secure it is and what measures they put in place to safeguard the consumer. Many don’t understand the importance and take shortcuts, because it’s not a cheap process.”

Commonly scammers will use business data to identify your email address and send fake offers prompting you to click on a link. 

This link is the gateway into their device.

A thief on a computer
The ACCC has recorded a huge spike of complaints about an SMS scam called 'Flubot'.
Getty Images/RUSSELLTATEdotCOM

Once scammers gain access, they are then able to extract all the information they need from the device, such as online banking and forms of identification.

The solution is simple. Never click on a link from an unknown sender. 

Scam alert: three of the most costly scams for CALD communities

“It’s very evident that online scammers are specifically targeting the vulnerable, including the non-English speaking community and the lower-income earning demographic,” says Kynan Albassit.

Delia Rickard says that all scams are basically variations on a theme.

It’s just the cover story that changes to fit with the times of the zeitgeist.

The investment scam

Investment scams are where the CALD communities are hardest hit, reports the ACCC.

Ponzi schemes such as the hoax ‘Hope Business’ app are responsible for substantial financial losses and are heavily promoted through social media.

Scamwatch received 400 reports and recorded $1.5 million in losses from CALD communities alone, says Delia Rickard.

"The standouts are Burmese and Sri Lankan communities and recent immigrants."

Consulting a qualified financial adviser is crucial before making any substantial investment.

Google and Apple are working to remove these types of apps from their stores.

The threat-based scam

Almost half of all scam losses begin with a phone call.

Demands for personal information or money by scammers claiming to be from government agencies, such as the Department of Home Affairs or the Australian Taxation Office, have increased by nearly 250 per cent compared to 2019-2020.

CALD communities are particularly vulnerable as scammers create a sense of urgency to target those who could be waiting on visa or tax information, for example.

Scammer
Getty Images/SEAN GLADWELL

Impersonations of Chinese authorities are very common, where scammers threaten victims with deportation or arrest for committing purported offences.

“These scams continue to disproportionately target Mandarin speakers in Australia,” says Delia Rickard.

The dating scam

The ACCC reported more than $3.8 million in losses to dating and romance scams in CALD communities, recording over a 100 per cent increase since 2019.

Romance ‘baiting’ uses dating apps to lure people into investment scams. They are extremely under-reported in Australia. Unlike other scams, they defy the expected demographics, with half of all losses attributed to people under 35.

‘Flubot’ – the new scam on the block

The ACCC has seen a huge spike of complaints about an SMS scam called ‘Flubot’.

An SMS sent to Android phones tells you that you have a missed call and prompts you to click on a link to download an app (Voicemail 7.apk) to retrieve the voicemail. Once downloaded, Flubot installs malware onto the device which can initiate phone calls and texts to your contacts and access your data.

If permissions are granted, scammers can access your personal and sensitive information, including banking login details.

Flubot SMS
Flubot scam operates by sending a text message with a link which installs malware on the receiving device.

Flubot is easy to avoid. Simply delete the message. Never click on the link or return the call.

Telstra and Optus are working hard to eradicate Flubot. You can read more about it on the Telstra website.

Scams and social media

Cybercriminals create accounts on Facebook and other social media platforms to befriend you, scan your profile and extract your personal information.

“If you have a public profile, it’s going to be a broader range of people you let in. You’re letting in people you don’t know,” says Tim, an entertainment industry professional who has many followers.

He says he and others have watched the number of fake profiles on Facebook skyrocket during the pandemic, as physical distancing pushes people online for social interaction.

“A lot of performers connect with me. At first glance, I can’t tell a fake profile from a real one. In the area of entertainment, the lines are often blurred between real and imagined, and I have definitely clicked (on a fake profile) by mistake.”

Simple tips so you don’t get caught out

  • Scammers can pretend to be anyone, so if a stranger sends you a link, delete it.
  • Always check an email sender’s address. The header (sender’s name) of the email may be masking their real email so double click on the header to check.
  • Limit how often you use public Wi-Fi.
  • When shopping online, purchase from a website that has an online security certificate; Check for a lock button on the URL (address bar).
  • Research online businesses and find reviews and customer experiences.
  • Never give away personal information over the phone such as banking or superannuation details.
  • Never allow remote access to your computer.
  • As they say, if it sounds too good to be true it probably is.
    The Little Black Book of Scams
    The ACCC's 'The Little Black Book of Scams' provides information about all the scams.
    ACCC

Little Black Book of Scams

Available as a download and audiobook, the ACCC’s Little Black Book of Scams provides all the scam basics.

Available in Arabic, Simplified Chinese, Croatian, German, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Macedonian, Spanish and Vietnamese, with more African languages in the planning. 

 

This story is also available in other languages.
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