Strangers on the line

JOAN politely answered a call from a Telstra technician who, introducing himself as Mick, said he was calling to let her know her computer had been hacked and contained a virus.

The 60-year-old Brisbane woman had no reason to believe a professional cyber-criminal was rubbing his hands with glee. He had a target – his victim hadn’t hung up.

Now he set about working slowly and resolutely to gain her confidence.

Supposedly completing the service to remove the virus the caller went on to suggest Joan (not real name) was the type of person who could assist Telstra catch these vile criminal hackers.

So how did a member of the Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network (ACORN) feel having to tell Joan that she would never see her savings again?

 “It hurts every time,” a member of the ACORN team said.

“There’s nothing we can do to recover funds for victims such as Joan who have sent funds overseas, including via gift cards.”

Soul destroying for the Queensland Police cyber-crime team is the daily occurrence of the same scams.

“We see the same thing over and over again.”

 Before you shake your head and say how could anyone be so stupid to hand their money to a stranger over the phone, just know that the ACORN team’s victims include professionals, academics and the young.

A detective with ACORN is quick to explain that anyone can be a victim.

 “We have had police officers scammed, we see doctors, lawyers, teachers, people who have worked hard for their money,” he said.

The detective added that thinking that only the mature aged and computer illiterate were the targets is a misconception.

 “The younger generation think they are smarter, but they are more likely to click on things and download malware. The older generation has more money and so they are singled out,” he said.

“The 40-year-olds with children and mortgages cannot afford to pay a scammer.”

Even so why would a hard-working, honest person buy $88,000 worth of gift cards for a stranger over the phone?

Because they are of the generation to have respect for authority and care for their community.

They are anxious to make a difference by helping an authority such as Telstra to trap cyber criminals.

Implausible as it sounds, the gift card scam that late last year stripped Joan of her life savings is becoming increasingly common.

The day I asked, the Queensland Police ACORN team had responded to five gift card scam victims, individual losses ranging from $200 to $19,000.

Here’s how it works.

After using the old trick posing, for example, as Microsoft, Telstra or Optus to say there’s a computer virus, scammers add the twist that with the victim’s help they can use their computer and online banking to trap these evil scammers.

The victim is told the method used to trap the criminals is via the purchase of gift cards.

The cyber-criminal then pretends to deposit funds into their victim’s bank account for this purchase.

They adjust their script and when Joan said she didn’t have a car, the scammer said Telstra would pay for a taxi.

The scammer then transferred funds into the account Joan was looking at but, unbeknown to her, it came from another of her accounts.

Often scammers will transfer from a credit card or mortgage account.

Following precise instructions from her “handler”, over two days Joan went from store to store purchasing 185 gift cards, most at $500 each.

The scammer stayed on the phone with her for up to six hours.

Some large retailers question a purchase of more than $2000 of gift cards, but the scammer quickly says: “Say they are for your grandchildren”.

A Queensland Police Snr Constable said there were so many cards in this case that Joan carefully wrote down the serial numbers before reading them back to the scammer.

“The moment she tore off the strip and read the code to the scammer the cards are redeemed and sold on, often at a discount. The plastic card is then useless,” she said.,

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission Deputy chairman Delia Rickard put out an alert in September 2017 announcing that during the previous 12 months, 1236 Australians lost nearly $540,000 by gift cards being used as fake payments.

The previous year, the losses were $480,000.

“This is a growing trend and scammers can become threatening and aggressive if they sense they are ‘losing’ their victim or if they are starting to cotton on,” she said.

The rule to follow is that you never, ever give remote access to your computer to a stranger over the phone.

And no company, including Centrelink, asks for payment with a gift card.

But there’s more.

The long running: “This is Microsoft and we are calling to advise your system has been hacked,” has been upgraded to more threatening calls such as: “This is Telstra and your internet will be shut down in one hour.”

But less obvious and more cunning is the use of fake accounts from known authorities including the Australian Taxation Office, Centrelink, banks, energy providers and constant favourites, the telecommunication companies Telstra and Optus and now, even the wholesaler (they do not talk to users), the National Broadband Network (NBN).

This writer took a call a few days ago.

“Hi. I’m Nicole from the Australian National Broadband Network, we are disconnecting the internet your area and need your cooperation.”

Knowing this to be a scam I stayed on line to see just where I was to be led.

First, after hitting the one key on my phone I was addressed by a chap with an American accent advising me I was being transferred to a technician.

Then it was on to David who revealed he was from the Philippines but with Optus in Sydney.

(I’m with Telstra).

He led on with the tried but untrue script that he needed to access my computer to “fix up the internet connection”.

Pleading senility, I said my son would have to fix the connection when he came home and please give me a phone number.

He did. When I duly called (02) 800 51472 Frank answered saying he was a Telstra technician.

He hung up when I said I was writing a story on scammers.

From boiler rooms around the world, and now in Australia, professional criminal cyber gangs are updating their scams in style and from landlines to mobile phones and emails. Claiming to be from the Australian Government offering a solar rebate of up to $5000 is currently common. 

“I’ll check with my federal member,” is a wise response.

Claiming to be from an insurance company regarding a member of the family involved in an accident is also doing the rounds.

Alarmingly, scammers are now using the actual company logos to produce fake invoices, and even stocks and shares.

The ACCC reports that people over 65 are being targeted with fake power bills.

Hang up instantly and then check your previous account.

Missed calls on mobile phones are also now in play by scammers. The area codes are for Belarus, Latvia, Serbia, Valparaiso and others, or often simply 02 or 03 suggesting Sydney or Melbourne.

If you hit recall you have opened the back door to your house and into your phone which, of course, contains your contact list, banking, credit card and often passport details.

Then there’s the scam messages i.e. “You missed a call on 07 xxxxxxx and a lost suitcase is being filed under your name. Call back immediately.”

The range of scams is exotic and ever evolving.

Your car has recently been involved in an accident and there is an outstanding claim.

Your computer has a virus.

You owe money and a warrant is being issued in your name.

There is a warrant out for your arrest due to unpaid taxes, fines, insurance etc.

The moment you respond, a scammer will work to gain your trust until they have your money.

Ding, they are gone.

You gave voluntarily.


ARE YOU in control?

Or is there an unseen stranger in your house? Who to contact if you believe you have been scammed.

Queensland –  Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network (ACORN) at 3364 6622.

Federal – Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) to report a scam or subscribe to Scamwatch.

Victims of identity theft can contact:  ID Care – Cyber Security.
1300 432 273.


  THE Australian Institute of Criminology’s:  ‘Estimating the costs of serious and organised crime in Australia 2016–17’ report tell us: Consumer fraud has been estimated to cost Australia almost $1 billion annually, although the full extent of the losses is unknown as many choose not to officially report their experiences. Although victims of scams can lose as little as $1, some send substantial amounts to criminals, occasionally exceeding many hundreds of thousands of dollars. Those who send such large amounts frequently feel ashamed of what they have done, or apprehensive that they might have acted illegally. Victims may also receive little sympathy for having been victimised and may be blamed for being gullible. These factors act to deter victims from formally reporting the scam to police. When the full circumstances of cases are known, however, the sophistication of the deception makes it clear that victims have been enticed by a serious and concerted campaign of trickery which preys on their weaknesses and vulnerabilities.