'Hitting where it hurts': Scammers steal millions from Australia's vulnerable communities

Community groups are calling for a grassroots approach to raise awareness of scams, as bad actors target Indigenous Australians and people who speak English as a second language.

Online scams has increased.

Indigenous Australians and those whose second language is English have been badly affected by scams in the year to date. Source: Getty Images

Indigenous Australians and those whose primary language is not English have lost tens of millions of dollars to scams over the past 10 months. 

Concerning new data from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commissions's scam-reporting service, Scamwatch, shows scammers stole $36.2 million from people who spoke English as a second language between 1 January and 31 October this year — up almost 93 per cent when compared to the same period last year.

Indigenous Australians were also badly affected, with total reported losses amounting to $4.6 million over the same period, an increase of about 138 per cent year-on-year.

The data also revealed what types of scams these communities were most affected by.

Indigenous Australians and people who speak English as a second language made 3067 reports about phishing — a tactic bad actors use to trick victims into handing over personal information, such as their bank account details.  

Almost 2090 reports were received relating to scams where criminals demanded money and issued threats if the victim did not cooperate.

Scamwatch also noted 1674 reports of identity theft from these groups, while 1454 related to online shopping scams and 1062 were about false billing — where a scammer requests payment for a fake invoice.

Scammers are 'hitting where it hurts'

Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia CEO Mohammad Al-Khafaji labelled the figures "very concerning", and said multicultural communities were particularly vulnerable to this type of crime.

"Today I received a call from someone pretending to be from the Australian Border Force," Mr Al-Khafaji said. "So you could imagine when a migrant family, especially those who have recently arrived or haven't been in Australia for too long... If they receive a call or email pretending to be Centrelink or the government, they don't automatically think it's fake. They take it very seriously."

"People will try to comply because [the scammer] is hitting where it hurts."

Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia CEO Mohammed Al-Khafaji.
Source: SBS

Alex Walters, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service's principal managing lawyer of civil law and human rights practice, said clients were typically affected by scammers pretending to be from the Australian Taxation Office (ATO).

"The common one is the robocall claiming to be from the ATO," Mr Walters said. "The robocall message suggests that there's an outstanding tax debt and threatens prison time."

"Other clients have reported another robocall which claims their identity has been stolen and there is a warrant out for their arrest."

"Some of these effects of that scam is in part because it cites the justice system, and for First Nations who are disproportionately represented in it... I suspect that's probably something that makes it particularly dangerous for our clients," he added.

What needs to be done to raise awareness

Mr Al-Khafaji said the COVID-19 pandemic had highlighted the importance of raising awareness among diverse communities on health matters at a grassroots level. 

The same should be done for scams.

"We know that organisations like Scamwatch and the Australian Taxation Office have translated materials... it's all well and good to have them and for them to be buried deep in their websites, but if people can't access them, they're no good to anyone," he said.

He said partnerships should be formed with community organisations, and resources should be provided to them because "they know the community better than anyone else."

"Whether it's about scams or whether it's about getting vaccinated... in our experience, what's been really successful is investing in community development and making sure you allocate enough money to community organisations on the ground so that trusted messengers can get the word out," he said. 

Mr Walters agreed that this approach was vital.

"Delivering this sort of information is always most effective when you go into communities and talk to people," he said.

Mr Walters said a telecommunications industry code with appropriate privacy safeguards that blocked spam calls and text messages would also be welcomed.

You can find out more on how to protect yourself against scams here

Published 9 November 2021 at 7:51pm, updated 10 November 2021 at 10:05am
By David Aidone
Source: SBS News