You’ve got (spam) email

Oct 01, 2023
This bloggers inbox is overrun by scams. Source: Getty

My email isn’t what it used to be.

Where once I received a few pertinent and very welcome emails each day, now I can receive upwards of a hundred unwelcome items of junk mail. My email account has become a magnet for scammers and spammers. For a start, I am fairly sure I receive promotional material from every shop or business from which I have ever made a purchase or enquiry. I also receive emails from companies like DoorDash (which was fined $2 million recently for sending out more than a million spam emails and texts) with which I have never dealt.

Sometimes, I get multiple copies of newsletters and promotions, as well. Yes, I know I can unsubscribe, but what’s the point? Each time I make a new purchase, I cannot complete it without providing an email address and a phone number and – you guessed it – the newsletters and promotions quickly find their way back to my email account all over again.

Some of the most common scams that arrive by email are laughable. Who hasn’t heard (often several times) from that generous stranger living in a faraway land who desperately needs to deposit large sums of money into your bank account if only you would provide them with your banking details? Who isn’t assailed with emails spruiking penis enlargement devices or treatments or medicines to banish impotence or “introductions” from beautiful young (foreign) women who can’t wait to satisfy the naughtiest desire of the lusty man of their dreams (or some such). Of course, those particular offers are not much of a drawcard for those of us who are female, but mass mailings are free and scammers really don’t care about the gender of intended recipients so long as some sucker responds.

Australians lost over $3 billion to cyber criminals last year. Romance scams, investment/cryptocurrency scams and online shopping scams have proliferated online. These frauds generally fall under the category of if something (or someone) sounds too good to be true, then it (they) probably is (are). False billing scams, hacking, identity theft and phishing scams are more difficult to avoid. Cybercriminals always manage to stay ‘one step ahead’ of our defences and scammers are producing fake documentation that is so realistic that we cannot discern what is legitimate and what is not.

With that in mind, surely it is not the right time for us to switch to paperless bills and automatically deducted payments. Nevertheless, in their ongoing quest to cut costs to the bone and maximise their profits, this is precisely what the companies with whom we must deal are urging us to do. Moreover, companies actively discourage their customers/clients from opting for hard copy (paper) bills by tacking on a monthly fee for them.

A quick (Google) search for “paperless bills” has Synergy, Sydney Water, Telstra and Alinta (just for starters) lining up to tout the convenience of receiving your bills by email and allowing payments to be automatically deducted from your bank account. Maybe some consumers are happy to make the switch, but not me.

Call me old fashioned (and I am sure someone will), but given the prevalence and success of phishing scams, I do not want to receive invoices or renewal notices (complete with links to payment) via email. Given the sophistication of cyber criminals and their ability to clone legitimate documentation, the safer option for me is to choose a paper bill/account/renewal sent through Australia Post and to pay my own bills. That may not stop phishing scammers from sending me fraudulent emails seeking my banking or credit card details, logins or passwords, but it can make them irrelevant to me.

I do not want my personal and banking details to be held by corporations and companies, either. They have demonstrated that they cannot be trusted to keep my information safe. Earlier this year, 14 million Australians had their personal information stolen in a cyber-attack on Latitude Financial. Other major data breaches have occurred at Medibank (9.7 million customers exposed), Optus (9.8 million customers exposed), Australian National University (400,00 students exposed) and Service NSW (104,000 clients exposed). In the public sector, even the Australian Parliament House and the Northern Territory Government have been hacked.

Data breaches are not the only reason I am wary of companies wanting to automatically deduct payments from my bank account. Only last year, a technological glitch caused 78,000 Sydney motorists to be incorrectly charged for road tolls, and in over half the cases, the motorists had been charged double the correct amount. The Roads Minister, Natalie Ward, admitted the mistake affected more than 120,00 E-Toll accounts!

Cybercriminals have everyone in their sights, but there is no doubt that senior Australians are generally softer targets. Unlike most other Australians, seniors are not digital natives. Many of us are not ‘tech-savvy’ and they may lack the experience or knowledge to discriminate between what is a risk and what is not. For example, many do not know that checking an email’s return address is a straightforward way to establish the sender’s credentials. Many seniors also have eyesight, hearing or mobility issues that reduce their confidence when dealing with computers and payments online. Moreover, because seniors grew up in a time when institutions were trusted and ethical business practices were the norm, they are less inclined to question official-looking documentation. Fortunately, pensioners are generally able to choose hard-copy bills without charge (for the time being, at least), but what about everyone else?

Last year, 76,000 cybercrimes were reported in Australia. That’s one every seven minutes. Your best protection is to stay informed, be suspicious and not divulge any personal information if you are unsure. You can start by visiting Scamwatch which is our national anti-scam centre to check out the latest scams and be prepared.


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