12 online scams and how to avoid them

Don't be taken in by scammers.

Watch out for these scams

Is there anyone who hasn't been on the receiving end of an attempted scam or phishing expedition aimed at getting personal and banking information in recent years? Whether it's a Nigerian prince with accounting issues, a panicked 'friend' inexplicably stranded in some exotic locale, or a text message telling you you've won a European lottery you never entered, it seems like we're constantly being barraged with offers that are actually too good to be true.

And yet despite the seemingly obvious warning signs and programs run by various government departments to increase awareness of them, Australians reported losing over $89m to scammers in 2013. So what are the top scams you (or perhaps your more trusting friends) should be aware of?

Check out our list of scams doing the rounds:

1. Online dating scams

Online dating scams are such a concern that the ACCC has recently announced they'll be identifying potential victims by analysing international transaction data for patterns consistent with fraud and sending them warning letters. According to the ACCC, while online dating and relationship scams made up just 3 per cent of their complaints, they were responsible for 28 per cent of the money lost last year, with an average loss per person of $21,000. 

And the devastation isn't just financial. "It's a big problem because of the emotional devastation. We hear stories of suicides related to online dating scams. I think they're one of the nastiest of the scams going around," ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard says.

When it comes to online dating scams, the person contacting you could claim to be an aid worker stationed in Africa or some other difficult-to-access locale. Maybe they're an entrepreneur setting up a business overseas. Perhaps they're running a charity and need your dosh to help the local community, or they've got a relative suddenly in need of an operation. While the story you're told may vary, the thirst for your money is the same.

And with increasingly sophisticated methodology, the time spent grooming potential victims can be significant, meaning it's not immediately obvious that your online paramour is actually more interested in your wallet than your heart. "It can be weeks, often months, in some cases even years before they start asking for money. They're very patient," says Rickard. "You can actually buy six months' worth of scripts for online relationships on the black market that caters to scammers."

2. Military romance scams

A close relative of the online dating scam, military romance scams prey on lonely hearts with a penchant for uniforms searching for love online. How do they work? He's an American soldier stationed in the Middle East. You strike up an online relationship, but his isolation seems the perfect excuse not to talk to you on the phone, or to avoid meeting up face-to-face. Suddenly, his computer breaks down and he needs money to buy a new one. Maybe he wants to visit but won't be allowed until a "leave pass" is purchased. Perhaps he's even had a terrible accident and his doctor needs you to transfer payment.

Rickard says there are several reasons for the popularity of the military romance scam. "They've got a reason not to be present and a reason to have trouble accessing their funds. Some people will find people in uniform particularly attractive. Often scammers steal real people's identities - whole personalities."

Military scams are so rife that the US Army has issued a warning about them, telling people to be especially suspicious if they never speak with their online lover on the phone or are told they can't write or receive letters.

3. Social media emergency scams

To get past your defences, scammers may use your social media network to phish for information. A stranger, perhaps from a group you're in, or with a profile crafted in order to appeal to you, might send you a friend request. You may get a friend request from a scammer who has stolen the name, profile details and pictures of a person you know. Or they may hack into an email or social media account of one of your friends or family members.

Once they're connected to you, they try to extract your cash in any number of ways. They might use the ruse of a medical emergency, sending out a desperate call for help. Some of the common scenarios involve someone (perhaps a relative) getting sick or injured, or a robbery that has left them unable to pay living expenses, a hotel bill or the police. They might claim to have been arrested or kidnapped and ask you for money for bribes or ransom.

If you receive an urgent request for money via email or social media from someone you know, try to contact them or someone close to them directly by phone to check the story. Don't reply directly to the request email or Facebook message as there's a good chance it will go straight to the scammers.

4. Tech help/Microsoft scam

The Microsoft scam is still around despite a crackdown in 2012 that was meant to have brought an end to it. Scammers call you up, usually on a landline, posing as Microsoft engineers or technical support. The scammers may claim to have identified issues with your computer and demand remote access to it to fix it, and then ask for payment for the bogus IT services. Telstra has also recently warned that scammers are targeting their customers in the same way.

The scammers gain access to the person's computer by getting the unsuspecting victim to enable remote access, or by sending them to a virus-infested website that allows the caller to link up to their computer. They can then alter security or anti-virus settings, change passwords, add a key-stroke recorder which registers personal or secure details during online banking or internet trading.

Consumers around Australia have paid for the sham services using their credit cards, in some cases forking over hundreds of dollars. Refusal to pay may be met with changed passwords to lock you out of your computer.

5. Tax scams

Fraudsters may also try to get past your defences by posing as Australian Tax Office agents bearing gifts around tax filing time. They contact you out of the blue by phone or email, claiming you have overpaid your tax and are now entitled to a refund. To obtain it, they ask you to first pay an administration or transfer fee, or enter your financial details so they can transfer your refund. The ACCC warned in July that $300,000 has already been reported lost to these types of scammers this year.

6. Small business false billing scam

False billing scams attempt to trick busy small businesses into paying invoices for unwanted or unauthorised services, such as advertising, office supplies, or renewal of non-existent domain names. The ACCC revealed a 45 per cent increase in complaints about these scams in 2013.

"False billing scams continue to be the most common scam targeting the small business community, with 3672 reports received in 2013 and almost $725,000 reported lost," ACCC deputy chair Dr Michael Schaper said. "It pays to take a moment and check if invoices are the real deal."

7. Unexpected prize scam

It's a classic. You get a phone call, text or email telling you that you've won something substantial like an overseas lottery, a free holiday, or a scratchie, and all you have to do is send money or provide personal information to claim the winnings. Scam.

8. Inheritance scam

You've been left a large amount of money by a long-lost aunt/best friend/secret admirer. The scammer poses as a lawyer, banker or other foreign official and needs your bank account details and/or an up-front payment to release your windfall. Scam.

9. "Nigerian" scam

You're offered a cut of a large sum of money that a Nigerian (or otherwise) royal/businessman/random benefactor needs help transferring. They could be after an initial up-front deposit, or they could be money launderers. Scam. Scam. Scam.

10. Job scams

Job and employment scams have various purposes. They can be a way for criminals to illegally launder money - the scammers offer you a job, often with an overinflated salary, which involves transferring money. In other cases, you're offered a job in exchange for an up-front payment. Needless to say, the job never eventuates, and your money is gone for good.

11. Hitman scams

Here's one to file under C for crazy: some scammers go so far as to send you death threats claiming to be from hitmen who've been hired to kill you. Typically, an email arrives with a message to the tune of: "Someone paid me to kill you. If you want me to spare you, I'll give you two days to pay $xxxx. If you inform the police or anybody, you will die, I am monitoring you." The WA police strongly advises against responding to the scammers – it will let them know they've snagged a target and may lead to an escalation in their intimidation and attempts to get your money.

12. ACCC email hoax scam

The ACCC has recently issued a warning about hoax emails claiming to come from the regulator itself telling recipients that they're entitled to $400 as a result of the ACCC's actions against a scammer. The email tells you to call a +009180133XXXXX number. The email looks like its coming from the ACCC, but is in fact a Gmail address: "ACCC GOV_AU" <acccgovau@gmail.com>.

"It is yet another variation of the reclaim scam that sees scammers claim to represent the government, a bank or some other trusted organisation and offer refunds, grants or other monies," says Rickard. "If you are contacted out of the blue and told that you are entitled to money in exchange for an upfront fee, delete it – if you hand over your money, it's gone."

Who is vulnerable to being scammed?

According to Delia Rickard at the ACCC, scammers pick up all sorts of victims. "There are slightly more women than men, but it's close enough to call it 50/50. We see the full gamut of age ranges, but the 45 to 65 age group seems to be their favourite target." she says, "They often research their victims beforehand so they can go in and create an instant rapport. They target people who are vulnerable – recently divorced, widowed, retired. There's also a good chance they have money built up."

And it's not just the silly, naïve or uneducated who get stung. CHOICE has heard from members from all walks of life who have found themselves falling for a scam. One former school teacher now aged in her 70s was conned out of over $20,000 after scammers sold her a website that was meant to help her make money on-selling products from online retailer Amazon.

Top tips to avoid being scammed

  • Be extremely suspicious if you're asked for money for transport costs, communication, marriage processing or medical fees for an online boyfriend or girlfriend.
  • Be aware of common spelling, grammatical or language errors in emails.
  • Never make your tax file number publicly available, such as on your resume.
  • If you're not sure that the person on the other end of the phone is legitimate, hang up and call the organisation using independently verified official contact details.

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