In Greek mythology, the Hydra was a much-feared multi-headed monster – every time a head was cut off, another popped up in its place. Today, this monster comes to us in a different guise and with a different name – we call it The Scam.
It comes sneakily, stealthily as a phone call, or an email. Or, more often, as a text. That’s how it came to me, on the Saturday morning before Christmas.
It started innocuously enough; a text beginning “Hi Mum” purportedly from my daughter, telling me she’d broken her phone and until it was fixed could I please text her via WhatsApp, supplying me with a new number on which to do so.
I don’t use WhatsApp and didn’t think she did either but assumed she must have a good reason. It all seemed harmless enough.
Next morning, when I was dashing around trying to get things done before going out to an appointment, the second message came – she had a couple of urgent bills to pay and could I do this for her and she’d pay me back on Monday.
It’s a long story that lasted most of the day but the gist of it is that I tried to help her, was foolish enough to photograph my debit card and send it, and dithered about so much that the scammers got a bit desperate and made mistakes that alerted my bank.
I didn’t lose any money but I wasted many hours on the phone to my bank’s fraud department, had to wait two days to unlock my bank account and then wait for a new debit card – in the week before Christmas when I had no other ready access to money!
But the worst thing was the overwhelming fear, first that I might have lost money; second that someone had come close to scamming me when I am usually so vigilant; and third, that we live in a world where we are so closely watched and easily invaded through the wormholes of our phones and other devices.
And, as banking and police fraud experts will tell you, most scams target the vulnerable and often gullible elderly.
Andrea Wu of a major bank’s Scan and Fraud department says new scams are targeting us every day and it costs the banking industry billions of dollars a year in trying to stay ahead of them – costs which it is not unreasonable to suppose are passed on to the customer.
Banks have increasingly sophisticated technology to detect unusual account use and usually intervene very fast … but not always fast enough if customers give away details such as credit card and account information, and passwords.
Scams cost Australian victims $8.7 million last year and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) Little Black Book of Scams lists 15 common scam types.
These include the already mentioned “Hi Mum” (or Dad) scam already mentioned, post office parcel waiting, your (Apple) Wallet is in danger, bogus lottery or other prize wins, taxation office demands and tech support.
Some scams are crude and obvious but they still claim victims. Others are amazingly cunning. Facebook Marketplace has been targeted by scammers seeking PayPal or PayID details, mainly for larger items.
Farmers are being targeted by bogus heavy equipment “salespeople” and recruitment scams are rising.
Dating sites are plagued by scammers. Jim, 74, tried a well-known dating site because he was lonely after his wife of 46 years died. He met an “African woman” whose exoticism he freely admits was an enticement.
Before long she was asking him for small sums of money and then a larger amount for her sick mother’s operation.
“Yes, I’d heard of such scams,” Jim says. “But this was so cleverly done and we exchanged photos, family information., I even sent her an air fare so she could visit her children.”
Alas, after he’d done this, he never heard from “her” again. And although he is too embarrassed to say how much he lost, it was “over $100,000”.
Margaret, 67, received a call from her bank – or so she thought – asking for certain information following a possible cyber crime attempt on her account.
“He had an accent that we have come to associate with scamming,” she says, “And so I was suspicious and asked him for a number to ring back. Before I did that, I rang my bank and found it indeed WAS a scam attempt.
“When I rang the number the scammer gave me, it was some factory on the Gold Coast.”
Margaret immediately reported the attempt to Scamwatch, the online monitoring agency.
Bevan, mid-80s, was not so lucky. He responded to a text from his insurance company – or so he thought – telling him he was due a rebate.
To claim this, he was required to make a small, initial payment to cover supposed administration fees. Due to an apparent glitch he was then asked to provide his credit card details – and the scammer got away with a few hundred dollars.
The problem with this scam is that some insurers do indeed pay rebates. I received such a message last year from my vehicle insurers, and because I thought it was a scam and ignored all their messages they eventually had to send me a cheque.
These are just three of the people who responded to my call on social media for scam stories. I was inundated by messages and some of the stories were pathetic indeed.
Most of the sums involved were small, under $100, but this can be devastating for somebody on a pension and there’s also the inconvenience of being on the phone for hours trying to sort it out, and often the need for a new credit card.
Far worse, though, is the fear, embarrassment and sense of helplessness suffered by scamming victims.
Bevan is a case in point. His health has deteriorated and he has developed palpitations and agoraphobia.
“I just feel sick every time I think of it”, he says. “It’s not just feeling old and stupid at being scammed, it’s the sheer number of scams out there that are trying to trap you every day. I feel like I’m surrounded by unseen enemies.
“We never had this sort of thing when I was young and I don’t bloody understand why the government is not protecting us from it now!”.
One sad result is that Bevan, like so many other scam victims, has withdrawn from online engagement. He has cancelled his MyGov and medical apps, refuses to write or receive texts and emails – and drives to the bank.
Just at a time of life when older people need to use digital technology to stay connected, they are becoming afraid to do so.
Nan Bosler, digital advocate and president of Australian Seniors Computer Clubs Association (ASCCA), sees the need to reassure seniors that, despite the constant scamming threat, being digitally savvy is an essential part of ageing today.
The organisation has partnered with NBN to initiate ScamFit which runs webinars to equip people with the skills to avoid potential scams.
The ASCCA also operates the Scamwatch monitoring agency whose website provides information to consumers and small business about the latest cyber crimes. If you’ve been scammed, that’s the place to report it and the site is well worth a visit anyway.
Bank websites also warn against latest crimes and their high-tech fraud prevention and security teams remain our best protection. But they will not refund your money if you are gullible enough to give away ID and pin numbers or give scammers access to your computer.
The Queensland Police Financial and Cyber Crime Squad also offers advice but, like the banks, it’s very general and of little use once you’ve actually been tricked out of your hard-earned savings. All they can tell us is stay aware and be vigilant.
Cyber scammers are rarely caught and punished.
Their crimes are complex and sophisticated so that highly specialised skills are required to detect, track, trap and identify them.
And even when this has been done, they are usually located in countries where efforts to arrest them are hampered by low legal standards and bureaucratic corruption, such as Russia and Nigeria.
Because scamming is trans-national it takes cooperation between Interpol and the law enforcement agencies of many countries to bust cybercrime.
One such operation a couple of years ago resulted in 10,380 locations raided, 21,549 cybercriminals arrested, 310 bank accounts frozen and $USD153, 973, 709 worth of illicit funds intercepted. It all took a lot of time and money and revealed only the tip of a very large cybercrime iceberg.
There is still a lack of recognition in Queensland of the severe effects being scammed can have on health, with anxiety and depression being the two worst outcomes. Specialised counselling is obviously needed.
But beware of websites offering legal redress and “support”, if money is involved – they may not be what they claim. Some have turned out to be – you guessed it – highly sophisticated scams!
So all we can do is not respond to unsolicited texts, calls or emails from unknown people without a thorough vetting (my mobile phone is set not to take calls from anyone except those on my contact list), as well as regularly check our bank websites and Scamwatch for the latest alerts and advice.
And if someone tries to scam you, spread the word in any way you can because until our techno whizzes come up with an effective method of scambusting, the only enemy scammers have is public exposure.