AUTHORITIES has lifted the lid on scams triggered by COVID-19 and warned against fake online shopping websites particularly this Christmas, phishing for personal information, and superannuation or taxation fraud.
According to Scamwatch, sophisticated digital technologies are favored tools by scammers to steal money or personal details from vulnerable people.
Since January, more than 5,000 incidences of scams netting $6M were investigated by police fraud squads.
Over 12,000 scams uncovered involved online shopping with $7M in losses, or an increase of 42 percent this year. COVID-19 frauds surfaced during the lockdown with initial 94 reports on bogus online sales of products and investment opportunities.
The statistics quickly climbed on multiple reports of phishing for personal information sent via email or text messages claiming to be official information on Coronavirus.
The Federal and NSW Police and Scamwatch, run by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) immediately ramped up public education campaigns to deter the escalation of evolving COVID-19 crimes.
“We’ve had a wide variety of scams reported to us, including fake online stores selling products claiming to be a vaccine or cure for coronavirus, and stores selling products such as face masks and not providing the goods,” said ACCC Deputy Chair Delia Rickard in a media statement on 20 March 2020.
By April, Scamwatch noticed pet scams were going viral and by November, a staggering 2,111 various puppy breeds worth $2.1M Was lost to scammers who took advantage of people’s loneliness being in lockdown.
Difficult to determine the origin of the scams
Fraud investigators found it difficult to determine if the spike in puppy scams were “real or scams” so they tracked down the reports since April how online sales went up five times more than the 2019 puppy scams that only netted $360,000.
Scamwatch recorded the losses to fraudsters: 568 vehicles worth $808,571; 356 laptops/computers/drones/ipads – $205,496; 428 phones – $258,199; 569 pairs of shoes – $81,502; 250 types of clothes – $35,693; 204 toys – $39,498; 182 games such as Nintendo/X-Box/Jigsaw – $38,000; 110 handbags – $55,782; and 172 BBQ products – $55,782.
By July, scammers made the matters worse by impersonating the World Health Organisation, Australian government departments such as the Department of Health at Federal and State, the Department of Human Services, Australian Federal Police (AFP), the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) as well as businesses such as travel agencies and telecommunication companies.
From January to July this year, Scamwatch recorded 7,100 incidents of impersonating frontline government departments dealing with health and financial hardship cases of jobless Australians as businesses affected by the pandemic closed.
The cases include 67 identity theft reports impersonating the health departments and human services with $8700 lost to scammers; 443 involving the AFP with $176,000 losses; 1,070 reports involving Services Australia with $94,000 losses; 1,638 fraudulent MyGov claims with $105,000 losses; 2,016 Department of Home Affairs scams with over $99,000 losses; and 2389 ATO scams with $905,000 losses.
Initial estimate of losses is $1.2M but in reality, Scamwatch statistics are likely to go much higher as police investigations continue into the New Year.
There has been a surge in scams victimising various age groups during the annual tax reporting period from July to October such as fake text messages claiming to be from ATO or DHS or cold callers claiming they can help gain early access to superannuation of which 84 cases were recorded.
In 2019, the 45-54 age group lost over $6M to superannuation scams but COVID-19 victims were mainly younger age groups buoyed by the unemployment crisis to access their superannuation savings when the government allowed it in April.
In a statement raising the alarm on impersonators, Ms. Rickard said investigations on the scam involving government departments, threats, and phishing for information were “quite convincing and can lead to significant financial losses or even identity theft.”
Local resident’s warning
North Parramatta resident, Karin Lee, who experienced an identity theft scam before the pandemic has offered sage advice.
“My suggestion for people to avoid identity theft from online shopping is to look for legitimate and trustworthy websites which source of payments are reputable,” Ms. Lee said.
Ms Lee’s wallet containing her bank and credit cards went missing and was investigated by the local police.
She is the founder of Florapeutic, a not-for-profit community organization that regularly runs crowdfunding campaigns so they can make more flower bouquets for every elderly person suffering from Dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, or are lonely in nursing homes in Western Sydney.
“We had to find a reputable platform that can be trusted by the people who donate cash for our community activities online.”
As a former Westpac bank employee, Ms. Lee said she was aware of how thieves aim to steal money from bank accounts.
“I am always alert for signs of identity theft. That experience was daunting to have my identity stolen. “Now when I shop online, I make sure I have checked the landing pages are real and source of payment can be trusted such as PayPal or Stripe.”
Last October, NSW Police warned the public against transferring cash, gift cards or iTunes cards online to people they do not know.
Police were investigating the case of a young woman from Western Sydney who lost $1000 to impersonators that claimed the 24-year-old owed ATO in unpaid taxes and will be arrested if she fails to pay immediately.
Phishing scammers’ tactics include sending an email or text message claiming to represent a government department and asking for sensitive personal information such as tax file number, superannuation account number, driver’s license and Medicare card number to confirm their eligibility for government assistance if they have been exposed to COVID-19.
Scamwatch urged anyone who received these types of messages to contact the concerned government department.
Police also urge the public to share any information that can assist curb fraud and scams, stop the manufacture of false identification, create bank accounts, driver’s licenses using fake details, conducting money laundering activities, and mail theft.
For more details on how to avoid being a victim of fraud or scam, click on https://Scamwatch.gov.au/get-help or https://www.police.nsw.gov.au or call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000
By Elizabeth Frias
PHOTO: North Parramatta resident, Karin Lee.