Scams come in all shapes and sizes. It might be somebody trying to steal personal information or lure you into sending them money, or an online advertisement offering a lucrative investment or an employment opportunity, but the outcome is usually the same – you lose your money and the scammer vanishes into thin air.
But with an understanding of how scammers operate, you’re in the best position to protect yourself. It doesn’t matter whether your new online friend is asking for money or somebody claiming to be from the tax office is threatening you on the phone, you’re the one in control.
But what steps should you take if you, or a friend or loved one, become the target of a scammer?
Firstly, you need to know the basics, such as not sharing passwords, security codes or PINs with anyone (not even your closest family and friends). Never install software on your computer or mobile device that someone online or on the phone has asked you to install.
Beyond that, though, Michelle White, an executive manager in fraud investigations at Westpac, advises that you trust your instincts and act immediately.
“It’s okay to delete an email, throw out a letter, close the door and hang up the phone if you think it is a scam,” she says.
Sometimes, though, scammers are less obvious, she points out.
“It is important to remember that scams are constantly evolving and can be both simple and sophisticated, making them difficult to detect. Scammers can impersonate a company you already have a relationship with, and this can cause additional uncertainty,” White adds.
Starts at 60 readers are a savvy bunch when it comes to investment scams – you already know that if something sounds too good to be true, then it almost certainly is.
That hasn’t stopped scammers from flooding the internet with offers like ‘a lucrative online business opportunity that’s perfect for retirees’, and ‘earn a secure 12 percent return, paid monthly’.
Luckily, financial services is a heavily regulated industry, and it’s easy to find out whether an investment opportunity is legitimate or not. A quick check on ASIC’s Financial Advisers Register will tell you whether somebody selling a product is authorised to give financial advice. Product providers, meanwhile, must also provide you with a product disclosure statement (PDS).
Just because an adviser is licenced and has a PDS to show you doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good advice … but if there’s no licence and no PDS, walk away.
You can find out more about common investment scams at the Australian Securities and Investments Commission’s (ASIC) MoneySmart website.
ASIC also has a list of companies that you shouldn’t deal with because they don’t have a current Australian financial services or credit licence or are known to plague Australian consumers with unsolicited calls. If you think you’ve been offered a dodgy investment opportunity, you can call ASIC on 1300 300 630 to report it.
Have you noticed that your phone always seems to ring around dinner time? That’s because salespeople – and scammers – know that’s the best time to catch you at home. Sometimes, you get so many unsolicited phone calls it can be hard to tell the scammers from the sales calls!
It’s up to you whether you take the time to talk to people trying to sell energy plans or telephone and internet packages. But if you suspect it’s a scammer on the line, take their details and hang up the phone. You have plenty of time to check the legitimacy of their claims and report the call to ACORN (Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network).
If it’s somebody claiming to be representing the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), you can be assured that the ATO will never demand payment over the phone or threaten you with arrest or legal action if you don’t hand over cash or even request that you purchase gift cards immediately. In fact, the ATO encourages people to call it on 1800 008 540 to check whether a call is legitimate or to report a scam. And it’s worth mentioning that the ATO will never request you make payment with iTunes cards or other gift cards, and nor will any other legitimate business.
You can also register your phone number with the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s (ACMA) Do Not Call Register, which prevents Australia-based telemarketers from contacting you.
The register applies to overseas-based businesses that make calls to Australian numbers, although some may choose to flout it. If you do receive a call from an overseas telemarketer 30 days after your registration is complete, you can lodge a complaint with ACMA.
You might have read stories about people who try to turn the tables on phone scammers – keeping them on the line as long as possible or trying to extract personal information from them. It’s even got a name – scam baiting.
Don’t do it. Remember that the scammer is trying to get your personal information and by answering the phone, they already know that the number is connected, and a real person will answer!
They know the day and time that someone is likely to answer the phone. And it’s not impossible for a criminal to track down your address once they have your phone number. Instead, just hang up as soon as you realise it’s a scammer on the line.
But even if you’ve taken every precaution, sometimes, the scammers still get what they want.
If you think a scammer has access to your personal information and banking details, it’s vital that you contact your bank or credit union as soon as you can. Be honest with your bank about the situation you’ve found yourself in, even if you’ve been encouraged to spin a story to your bank about your transactions. Although it’s very difficult to get money back from a scammer, if you act quickly, there’s a chance you could limit the damage and put a halt to any further losses.
Your bank may be able to stop any transactions that are in progress or close your account if there’s a risk of further unauthorised access.
If you’ve become the victim of a scammer, Westpac’s Michelle White says there’s another government agency, the Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network (ACORN), worth contacting.
“Always report scams to ACORN, as this information is passed onto law enforcement,” she says.
While ACORN itself doesn’t have investigative powers, it refers your report to not just police, but the relevant government agencies. It’s a one-stop-shop for reporting cybercrime, if you like. (Cybercrime includes hacking, scams, fraud, identity theft and attacks on computer systems.)
If you’re concerned that you’ve been the subject of identity theft, you can also get in touch with IDCARE, a community organisation that provides support and advice to victims of cybercrime.
As we said earlier, scams are constantly evolving, and even the most tech-savvy Baby Boomers can become victims.
If you’re one of them, it’s important to report your experiences and talk to your friends and family to help them protect themselves. You may not recover your money but you’ll be helping stop scammers take advantage of others.
And while scams come and go, you’ll always have a solid defence if you understand how scammers operate, stay vigilant on data security and don’t share too much personal information online (including on social media!).
Things to know: The information in this publication is general information and factual only. It does not constitute any recommendation or financial product advice. It is an overview only and it should not be considered a comprehensive statement on any matter or relied upon as such. You should consider obtaining your own independent professional advice. © Westpac Banking Corporation ABN 33 007 457 141 AFSL and Australian credit licence 233714.
IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your financial situation, objectives or needs. That means it’s not financial product advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a financial decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get independent, licensed financial services advice.