Roy McCrindle, 82, had noticed his computer was slow so he was relieved when Microsoft called him to offer a solution. The caller directed him to a website to download a program costing $70.
Roy watched as the bogus company accessed his computer and fiddled around on his screen. It wasn’t long before he realised something wasn’t right. “It wasn’t as if I didn’t have problems with my computer; this is why I fell for it,” he says. “I knew the guy was telling me lies but I somehow still went along with it.”
Once the call was over, he called his son immediately. “Dad,” he said, “You’ve been scammed.”
Immediate action saved Roy’s computer – and bank accounts – from further attack, but the incident left Roy wondering how he could have been duped so easily.
He’s not alone. Roy was one of more than 20,000 Australians over 65 who reported being targeted by scammers to the ACCC’s Scamwatch last year. Many victims, however, do not report their experiences. While all of us are vulnerable, there has been a huge growth in the number of older Australians affected: they comprised 26% of reports made to Scamwatch in 2016, up from 21% in 2015.
Delia Rickard, deputy chair of the ACCC, says more over-65s than ever are cashed up and active online, making them obvious targets. “The message – for everyone – is never, ever give anyone who contacts you access to personal information or remote access to your computer,” she says.
Cybercrime is big business – very big business. Almost $300 million was lost in Australia to more than 200,000 scams in 2016, according to the ACCC.
While Australia has some of the best detection and prevention measures in the world, sophisticated criminal syndicates continue to find new ways to breach cyber defences and target the weakest points in the system.
“All consumers should be aware of scams,” says Clive van Horen, executive general manager, retail products and strategy, at the Commonwealth Bank. “Scammers target customers who are less digitally savvy, more trusting and less likely to pick up anything suspicious.”
We’ve identified five of the most common scams that target the elderly.
1. TELEPHONE SCAMS
Older people are often approached by phone as they are more likely to use a landline. A popular scam to emerge recently starts with a phone call to your landline purporting to be from the bank. When you call your bank to check, the scammers are still on the line ready to take your personal details and then clear your account. “We’ve seen literally over $100,000 taken out of people’s accounts this way,” Rickard says.
Or, as in Roy’s case, telephone scammers call offering to fix your computer so you give them remote access. Another ploy is to convince you that they need your banking password and login to help catch a scammer, and empty your account in the process.
What to look out for: Telephone scams are automated calls, sent at random until someone picks up. Generally there is silence at the start of the call, then the scammer starts talking when they know you are on the line.
Always ask for the name and employee ID of the person you are speaking to, and never share your personal, credit card or online account details over the phone unless you made the call. Microsoft and Telstra do not monitor your computer. If in doubt, just hang up.
2. EMAIL SCAMS
You’ll receive an email thinking it’s from your bank, a utility company or another reputable source. You click through to the link provided or open an attachment, which allows the scammer to download software so they can access your computer and trace everything you do. Sometimes the email asks you for personal information such as your username, passwords or credit card number, which the scammer then uses to access your account and take out money. It’s known as ‘phishing’.
“A bank would never ask you for your password,” stresses van Horen. “A real warning sign is if they ask you to click a link and enter your password.”
According to Craig McDonald, CEO of Mailguard, a web and email security service, scammers are very clever at what they do. “It’s becoming much harder for people to identify what’s real and what’s not.”
What to look out for: Check all emails carefully. Look at the logo and the email address. Are there spelling or grammatical mistakes? No bank will request personal information via an email. Ever. “It’s just not in companies’ interests to communicate via email as emails go astray,” advises McDonald. “Just click delete.”
If you’re suspicious, do an internet search using the exact names or wording of the email. You’re likely to see hundreds of others have also been targeted. Many scams are identified this way.
3. INVESTMENT AND ROMANCE SCAMS
Often the amount you might lose to a scammer is relatively small – more than half of people who reported losing money to the ACCC lost less than $500. Criminals send out thousands of spam emails or automated phone calls knowing that if just a small percentage is successful, they will make money. But some scams are ‘low volume, high value’ – where the scammer must invest a significant amount of time grooming the victim, for a much higher pay-off. These scams caused financial losses of nearly $50 million in 2016, with older Australians the most common victims, according to the ACCC.
The scammers make contact with you via email or social media, offering either love or an unbelievably good investment opportunity. Over time they build a relationship with you until you’re in so deep you willingly start sending them money.
What to look out for: Any offer that looks too good to be true generally is. Never send anyone money unless you know them personally and trust them.
4. ADVANCE FEE FRAUD
One of the most common scams involves the scammer asking for an up-front fee for a boon, such as a cheap holiday, a prize or a loan. For example, the scammer might tell you that you’re entitled to a rebate, inherited a large sum of money or won the lottery, but you have to pay a fee to receive it. If you pay the fee you will never get the prize in return, or if you provide your credit card details you may find they take out more than they said.
What to look out for: Any unexpected exciting or valuable offer that comes via email, letter or phone should be regarded as suspicious, especially if it asks you for an up-front cost such as administration, postage fees or shipping costs. Never send money or give your credit card details to people you don’t know. Legitimate businesses such as banks or loan providers will not ask you to pay an advance fee. And again, if a get-rich-quick scheme seems too good to be true, it is.
5. STAND-OVER TACTICS
Like the hit men of old, scammers will go to extraordinary lengths to extort money from people. Often, the scammer pretends to be someone in authority, such as an employee of a government agency to which, they say, you owe money. They’ll threaten you with fines, charges or even arrest until you agree. Some of the most commonly impersonated Australian agencies include the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, Australian Taxation Office (ATO), Centrelink and the Australian Federal Police, while in New Zealand the Inland Revenue Department and Immigration New Zealand are also favourites among scammers. “The guy was so authoritative – he shut down any of my queries with ‘I’m the one asking the questions, not you’,” says one recent victim of a tax scam.
Other varieties of these nasty scams involve you accidently downloading ransomware that locks your computer until you pay a fee, or even hit man scams, where someone contacts you out of the blue pretending to be a hit man who’s been hired to kill you. Of course, they’ll spare you if you send them money.
What to look out for: Representatives of government agencies will never threaten you for money, and will provide their name and affiliation. If you’re suspicious, call the switchboard and ask to speak to the person.
Just as cybercrime is growing and becoming more sophisticated, so are government and business attempts to thwart it. Scamwatch works to educate the public and disrupt scammers, for example by liaising with banks and credit transfer agencies to help them recognise the latest scams. They also work with Austrac, a government financial intelligence agency that monitors criminal financial transactions to identify and warn people who could be unwittingly sending money to scammers.
According to van Horen, the Commonwealth Bank is investing huge amounts of money in prevention and detection technology. “Scamming costs a lot of money and we would rather provide customers with peace of mind and 100% security guarantee,” he says. “This means using sophisticated monitoring tools and algorithms, and even artificial intelligence to identify at-risk customers who might need more monitoring.”
The best advice? If in doubt, pick up the phone and check it out. Banks and businesses have departments dedicated to helping customers who are being scammed, and they’re waiting for your call. “Customers feel embarrassed,” admits van Horen. “But pick up the phone and call the 24/7 helplines. We try and protect customers’ money – there is no downside to seeking help.”
Tips to avoid a scam
- Protect and regularly change your passwords.
- Stop and think before you click on any email or attachment.
- Pay for anti-virus software on your computer. This will be available from your internet service provider, a computer shop or a professional provider in your area.
- Safely store or dispose of your personal and financial information such as statements, receipts and financial documents.
- Check your statements regularly to identify any irregular transactions. Know when your utility bills are due and who your providers are. If an online bill comes at the wrong time or from a company that isn’t yours, delete it.
- Don’t do internet banking using a public computer or public Wi-Fi.
- If you think you’ve been scammed, call your bank. In some cases your money may be refunded, but you need to be quick.
- Most banks offer facilities that enable you to lock and block certain types of transactions immediately. You can do this online, by phone or in the branch.
- Always access internet banking sites by typing the bank’s address into your web browser, not by clicking through from email links.
- In Australia, report scams to Scamwatch at www.scamwatch.gov.au/report-a-scam or the Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network (ACORN) at https://report.acorn.gov.au/. In New Zealand, report scams to netsafe.org.nz/report; or call 0509 NETSAFE (0508 638 723). Every report helps these agencies to build a profile of the scammers so that they can warn others.