"Stay vigilant": Online scams expected to rise over holiday period

Indigenous communities are among the most vulnerable.

By Rachael Hocking

Indigenous consumers have lost almost $60,000 to online shopping scams this year, with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) warning people to stay vigilant this holiday season.

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The consumer watchdog has warned scammers are targeting Australians across the board and that online shopping, parcel and travel prize scams remain the biggest threat.

"The problems affecting the Indigenous communities are the problems affecting the rest of Australia," ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard tells CHOICE. 

The issue of online scams is getting worse, while some people remain more vulnerable than others, says Rickard.

"Some of these scams, the losses will be relatively small, but some people can't afford to lose anything. It's the sheer exploitation of people," she says.

"They are so ubiquitous, so hard to spot. And with the online shopping, scammers can now create complete clones of legitimate well-known retailers."

There are many ways consumers can avoid being scammed if they stay on their guard:

  • Beware of any strange emails you might receive, such as those saying you have won a large sum of money or a trip overseas.
  • Don't click on links or files in emails from unknown persons.
  • Don't allow someone online remote access to your computer, unless you've initiated contact.
  • Type in the web address of known retailers – don't click through to sites from social media.
  • If it's a shop you've never dealt with before, search online to see what other consumers have said about it.
  • Be careful about what personal information you share online.

Relationship scams targeting the vulnerable

Jon O'Mally from the Indigenous Consumer Assistance Network (ICAN) says online shopping and travel scams are not the only ones the community needs to look out for.

He says feelings of loneliness tend to crop up more over the holiday period, and while this is normal it does make it easier for scammers targeting vulnerable people through romance and dating scams.

"If you're living in a remote community it's understandable that sometimes you might be bored, be prone to loneliness," O'Mally says. 

"[The scammer] might add you on a social media platform, chat to you, and eventually convince you to transfer money to their bank account so they can visit you."

That amount can sometimes be thousands of dollars, but they never visit.

It's a tactic being used more and more to target all Australians. In May it was reported that Indigenous people lost more than $850,000 to romance and dating scams in 2016.

For those who live pay cheque to pay cheque, the impact can be devastating.

It's important to stay vigilant and question all friend requests on social media platforms that you don't immediately recognise, O'Mally says.

"Check how many friends they have. Do you have friends in common? If not, that should raise a red flag," he says.

Being tricked into sending money to a scammer can often lead to feelings of shame, but O'Mally says it's important to remember you're not alone and it's not your fault.

While it is extremely difficult to retrieve money once you've sent it, particularly if it's overseas, O'Mally says you should contact ICAN and your bank as soon as you think you have been scammed.

Other tips to avoid being conned by romance scams include:

  • never providing financial details or funds to people met online
  • running a Google Image search to check if photos are authentic
  • being wary if you're asked to chat in private – this helps scammers avoid detection
  • not sharing intimate photos, which can be used to blackmail victims
  • contacting your bank immediately if you believe you've fallen victim to a scam and reporting it to Scamwatch.

This article also appears on NITV's website.