Robo calls drive a 900pc spike in tax scams, while cryptocurrency cons lure Australians in droves


Australian consumers lost more than $489 million to scammers last year while local businesses surrendered more than $60 million to criminal fraudsters, according to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC’s) annual Targeting Scams report.

Overall financial losses from scams increased by 44 per cent in 2018, suggesting a growing susceptibility of consumers to digital scammers coupled with the increasing sophistication of attack methods and vectors.

Scammers appear to be leveraging social media and automation technologies to expand their reach and enhance their efficiency. Australian Tax Office (ATO) impersonation scams, for instance, saw a 900 per cent spike in late 2018, likely due to the increased use of ‘robocall’ technologies by criminal entities following the 2017-18 tax return lodgment period.

ATO impersonation scams yielded $4.2 million from unsuspecting victims in 2018, with an estimated 130,000 reports lodged last year by affected consumers.

Victims were subject to fraudulent ATO robocalls were offered either rebates for overpaid taxes or threats to take legal action against claims of unpaid taxes.

Meanwhile, cryptocurrency payment scams rose 190 per cent on 2017 figures, with a reported loss of $6.1 million in 2018. The sudden spike in cryptocurrency scams follows the nearly seven-fold increase in the value of Bitcoin (the most recognised among the digital currencies) between July 2017 and December 2017, from $3,000 to upwards of $20,000.

“Reports to Scamwatch indicate that in the excitement, many would-be investors were actually investing in scams,” the report revealed. However, the true cost of the scams was likely higher as many victims were embarrassed to report it or entirely unaware that they had been swindled.

Emails scams, while nothing new to consumers, continue to be a prime vector of attack for criminals.

‘False billing’ scams – most often conducted via email – saw an astonishing 97 per cent increase in 2018.

“Reports showed that business email or marketing systems were compromised by scammers who sent out hundreds or even thousands of fake invoices appearing to come from legitimate businesses to large mailing lists. Many victims responded to these thinking they owed a legitimate payment.”

Hacking-based scams also saw an 83.3 per cent increase on 2017 figures, with an estimated loss of more than $3 million. However, ransomware and malware attacks saw a slight 1.3 per cent drop in their success rates.

Last year also saw the emergence of Chinese authority scams, targeting Mandarin speakers in Australia. Victims were told they were being investigated by the Chinese government and threatened with extradition unless they paid large sums as secured bonds.

These scams, also frequently conducted via automated robocalls, saw over 1,820 reports and $1.44 million in losses over the year, with spikes in May and June 2018.

Scammers last year increasingly requested unconventional payment methods, for instance, gift cards and cryptocurrencies, in efforts to circumvent fraud detection systems deployed by banks.

ATO reports last year showed losses of $496,701 via iTunes cards, $647,817 via Google Play cards and $732,917 via Bitcoin.

ACCC’s Targeting Scams report seeks to educate society on scams and help to identify emerging trends and tools used by scammers to exploit victims. The full report can be accessed here.