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Scam Awareness Week

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By Alicia Hill, Principal and Benjamin Caddaye, Law Clerk, MST Lawyers.

Since 2005, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) in partnership with other Federal, State and New Zealand Government organisations have operated the Scam Awareness Network. The purpose of the network is to work alongside non-governmental and private sector bodies to protect consumers from fraud. Every year the Network runs ‘Scams Awareness Week’, which will be held 21-25 May this year.

The ACCC is the agency responsible for consumer protection. It has an important role in educating the public about how scams operate and what do if they are the victim of a scam.

Threat-Based Impersonation Scams

This year, the ACCC has decided to focus on one of the more devastating kinds of scams that can occur, known as ‘threat-based impersonation’ scams. These occur when a person is contacted by someone who is purporting to be from a government agency (normally one with a large amount of coercive power such as the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) or Department of Home Affairs), or a well-known company, and are threatened. The threats generally operate along two lines, either requesting funds to be paid to a certain account, or requesting personal information, and if that action is not taken then a litany of things may happen (court action, penalties, fines, arrest or even deportation).

These scams are most likely to occur via a phone call, and to a lesser extent via email. In 2017, the ACCC’s Scamwatch website received more than 33,000 reports of these types of scams, and it cost Australians nearly $5,000,000.

Telstra and the ATO

The most commonly impersonated entities making up 57% of scams reported in 2017 were Telstra (35%), followed by the ATO (22%). What is most troubling about these types of scams is that they prey on the most vulnerable members of our society; the elderly, the financially disadvantaged and those from non-English speaking backgrounds.

Eliza, a single parent from the UK (with no other family in Australia), received a telephone call from someone claiming to be from the ATO and was told that she was being charged with Tax Fraud. Furthermore, the caller said that unless she made a $500 instalment on the $4,900 ‘debt’ she owed, a warrant would be issued for her immediate arrest. The phone call lasted for nearly an hour, and during that time Eliza was even threatened with the loss of her passport and deportation back to the UK. She was in emotional shock at the prospect of this and agreed to hand over credit card details in order to avert this. However, shortly after this harrowing ordeal, she became suspicious and rang her bank. The bank confirmed that two withdrawals had been made, totalling $4,900. She had been scammed.

Similarly, another victim, Georgia, was contacted by phone by someone claiming to be from Telstra, telling her that her NBN service was being used by someone illegally without her knowledge. The caller told her that it required immediate attention, and asked her to download software onto her computer which would allow a ‘Telstra technician’ to remotely access her computer to ‘solve the problem’. The supposed technician then viewed her emails and altered her Pay-Pal settings so that it didn’t require a password each time purchases were made, scamming her out of $600 spent in the US on gift cards.

Ways To Protect Yourself

Despite the myriad ways you can be scammed, the ACCC does recommend a simple measure we can all take to ensure that we are harder to scam. The key message in this year’s campaign is to ‘Stop and check if it’s for real’.

The most effective way to ensure that you do not become the prey of a would-be scammer is always to double-check when contacted by someone asking for money or personal information. The ACCC is urging people to hang up, and then call back that organisation using the phone numbers available from trusted sources such as government websites, rather than the number the callers calls from or gives you. This way, you can be sure that the person you are speaking to is who they claim to be and you can verify the information put to you by the mystery caller.

It only takes one quick google search to determine if something is amiss. The ATO has specific instructions in relation to any purported debt owed to it. The ATO will never;

  • contact you via email, text message or use social media to ask for personal information or banking details;
  • ask for money to be transferred to an account that is not with the Reserve Bank of Australia; or
  • require immediate payment. You will always be advised of a debt owed to the ATO before it is due.

Furthermore, when it comes to suspicious material online, it is always safer not to open pop-up windows, emails, links or attachments if they are unexpected and from an unknown source purporting to be a company or government department. Most importantly, under no circumstances should you give someone remote access to your computer. If something is wrong with your computer, contact a local and trusted computer service provider.

Looking out for yourself and your family

A total sum more than $90,000,000 was lost by Australians to scammers last year, and a staggering 161,528 scam incidents were reported. If something does not feel right, then it is always safer to check first before handing over any money or personal information.

This year during Scams Awareness Week, we here at MST Lawyers encourage you to have a conversation about fraud. Whether it is with friends, family members or elderly parents, there is no harm in having a conversation with them about always checking to see if it is real before acting. That one conversation could save a loved one from falling victim to a fraudster.

Scam Prevention at MST Lawyers

MST Lawyers has been working hard to ensure that our internal processes protect clients against scams. This year we are introducing two new protocols to strengthen the firm. When lawyers of the firm make a payment back to a client or to an external party, they will personally call that party to ensure the payment details given to the firm are correct before the payment is made. Furthermore, we will also contact clients personally when providing information for a client to make a payment. This greater level of communication will ensure that client funds are completely secure.

Lawyers at our firm are always happy to discuss easily adopted steps to minimise risk within your business in order to increase protection levels.

The ACCC’s website ‘scamwatch.gov.au’ also details a range of ways you can protect yourself and your business against scams. If you would like to know more, your most reliable source of information is this website. This is also the place to make a report if you think you have been scammed.

If you have any questions about the content of this article or issues raised by it, please feel free to contact us by email or call phone +61 3 8540 0200.