Con artists, fraudsters, swindlers or scammers – call them what you will. They all refer to roughly the same thing: people using various influencing techniques to get you to part with your personal information and your hard-earned money.
A skilled scammer can be extremely convincing, just like any good salesperson. Obtaining your confidence and trust is an essential part of the scammer’s toolkit, whether it’s on the phone, via email, online or at your front door.
A scammer does not discriminate – anyone can fall victim to a scam at any time. Often it can be at a time of vulnerability or following a major life event – experiencing grief after the loss of a loved one, a change in your financial position, or a time when you are simply distracted with lots of things on your mind. Unfortunately, each year more and more people are scammed.
Our consumer watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), reports that scammers swindled Australians out of almost $490 million in 2018 and the losses made by Aussies aged 65-plus alone increased by 22 percent on the previous year. That is just from the scams that are reported – it is anticipated the real loss is much higher. Often people chose to not report their scams as they can feel embarrassed and unaware of the support and help available.
Fortunately, Baby Boomers have something most scammers lack, and that’s life experience.
Most people with a few years under their belt can tell when something isn’t quite right, which is a good thing, because older Australians are a prime target for scammers.
Couple that experience with an eye for common scam tactics and you’ll be well-prepared to protect yourself against scam attempts. To provide you with the latter, we’re going to take a closer look at common scams, so you can spot when a crook is trying to part you from your savings.
Now we’re in the internet age, most scammers have moved online or ply their trade on the phone. But a hardy few – representing around 4 percent of scammers – still try their luck the old-fashioned way: knocking on doors.
For decades, direct sales were a legitimate, respectable way of doing business. An army of Avon ladies sold cosmetics door-to-door between 1963 and 2018. And who could forget the persistence of the salesmen flogging the 32-volume Encyclopedia Britannica? Not to mention your local life insurance agent.
These days, though, door knocking is the main domain of energy retailers, home improvement representatives, art dealers, phone companies, charities … and scammers.
Door-to-door selling is legal but much more strictly regulated than it used to be. Any sales agreement you make with a door-to-door salesperson must be provided by them to you in writing, and the buyer gets a ten-day cooling off period.
Plus, if you ask a salesperson to leave, they can’t return to your premises for 30 days, and if you display a ‘do not knock’ notice outside your home, the seller can’t approach your residence at all.
That makes it a little easier to spot the scammers, who will ignore these regulations. Scammers are also often trying to sell poor-quality goods or services that are never delivered (an offer of cheap roof restoration, painting or home repairs is a common scam).
In most cases, they won’t be able to provide a written agreement that outlines your legal rights or confirms their business name or ABN. Some will pretend to be charity fundraisers but can’t supply the correct identification, will not be wearing a uniform or charity badge or do not have an official receipt book. Asking for any of these identifiers and taking the time to check their legitimacy online or with a phone call to the company or charity the door-knocker is purporting to represent, is an easy way of protecting yourself from scams. Always source the phone number from an independent, publicly available resource – do not rely on the phone number that they encourage you to call.
And don’t agree to any work on or around your home without taking the time to obtain comparison quotes – it’s highly unlikely that any repairs are so urgent that you don’t have the time to take this simple precaution.
Meanwhile, if somebody claiming to be from the tax office or a service provider knocks on your door demanding payment, close the door immediately – no reputable company, and certainly not the Australian Taxation Office, operates in this fashion.
Many scammers deploy more sophisticated techniques than door-knocking though, and you’ll never meet them face to face. It’s much more likely that you’ll speak with them on the phone.
Michelle White, an executive manager in fraud investigations at Westpac, says that according to the latest ACCC targeting scams report 61 percent of all scams are phone-based, either by call or text message. The nature of scams is constantly evolving.
But they all have one common aim – to get access to your money and personal and financial information. Just as you wouldn’t hand your car keys to somebody you didn’t know, it’s not a good idea to give a complete stranger access to your computer (or your smartphone or tablet).
If someone stole your car, what’s the worst thing that could happen? You may never see it again and you will have to go through the process of making an insurance claim. But hand somebody access to your computer, and you could lose a lot more – your personal information, your money and even your identity.
In other words, treat your computer like your personal bank vault, and recognise that plenty of scammers are keen to get access to it. Fortunately, White says there are ways to recognise when a scammer is trying to gain access to your computer – for example, receiving unsolicited calls.
The caller could claim to be from a technical support site or well-known tech company. They may claim that you have a virus or malware on your computer or require an important software update, and request access to your computer using remote access software so they can ‘fix’ it.
White advises that you should never install remote access software, or indeed any unfamiliar software, as a result of a call.
“If you share access to your computer via remote access software, remember someone else has control of your computer. Activities like signing into your banking could become compromised or transactions can be initiated and completed,” she explains.
While scammers often pretend to be calling from legitimate organisations such as Telstra, Microsoft or the NBN, their phone manner can be far from businesslike.
“They can be aggressive in tone, particularly when demanding you take prescribed actions,” White says. “They may even claim you’ll be arrested or jailed if you don’t perform the action requested within a tightly specified timeframe.”
She also warns against sharing online banking passwords and security codes with anyone, noting that these codes are “how banks like Westpac help keep your money and personal information safe from scammers”.
If you do unwittingly allow a scammer access to your computer or are considering transferring money to someone you suspect may be a scammer, it’s important that you alert your bank immediately and turn off your computer. If you have already made a money transfer, advise the bank quickly, so they can put steps in place to help protect your personal and financial information online.
Most banks also offer online advice on how to protect yourself against scams. Westpac, for example, has plenty of information on how to spot scams and how to protect yourself and your devices against scammers, plus how to report a scam if you’ve been targeted.
Phishing is when scammers make contact (often mimicking a genuine business) in an attempt to fraudulently obtain personal information, including banking and credit card details.
Phishing is very, very common (if you check the spam folder in your email account, chances are it’s full of phishing attempts).
It’s not just email, either. You’ll also get phishing attempts via phone, Facebook or text message. Usually, it’s an attempt to make you visit a fake website, which might even look like the real deal. Often a bank or government agency is used to entice you to click on a link – scammers put a lot of effort into replicating legitimate emails and sites.
If you get a phishing attempt via email, you’ll often pick up some warning signs:
If you look at who the email is from, you’ll notice that it’s similar to the address you’d expect, but not an exact match – the company name, for example, may be spelled a little differently or it may have a domain other than the ones you’re used to, such as .com and .com.au. The link in the email might read correctly, but if you hover your mouse over the text, you will soon see that it’s not taking you to the suggested site.
Likewise with any replica site – it’ll look OK, but not quite right, if you examine the little details.
The ACCC suggests there’s a simple way of dealing with emailed phishing attempts – if an email looks suspicious, don’t click on any links, just delete it. The same goes for text or other phone or social media messages.
There’s no way you can ever be completely protected from the efforts of bad people who are trying to get hold of your money and your personal information – no matter how hard your bank, the government and law enforcement agencies try to protect you – because many scammers targeting Aussies operate from outside Australia and manipulate you into completing seemingly legitimate transactions.
What you need to do is be cautious and keep an eye out for warning signs whenever you’re contacted by people you don’t know. One easy way to do so is to register for the free government alerts from Scamwatch and Stay Smart Online, which will keep you up to date on the latest scam tactics. Visit the security pages on your bank’s website for the latest scam information.
Another easy way to protect yourself is to never share your passwords, security codes or banking PIN with anyone, no matter how much you trust them, and to be cautious of any person or organisation demanding that you pay them using money transfer agents, iTunes or other gift vouchers – that isn’t something a legitimate government agency, organisation or business will request.
And don’t forget to use your intuition and your gut instinct.
If you feel unsure about any unsolicited communication you receive, the best response is as simple as closing the door, hanging up the phone or deleting an email without clicking on a link or providing information. This gives you time to research the situation or discuss it with a trusted person: a relative, friend or your local banker.
If you have fallen victim to a scam, help and free support services are available. Your bank will be able to guide you.
What giveaway signs have you spotted when approached by scammers? Do you help other members of your family spot scams?
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.