Technological advancements over the past decade have led to a rapid escalation of scam activity affecting Australians, with scams evolving to use social media, cryptocurrency and emerging online services.
In 2020, scams accounted for $851 million in combined financial losses attributed to 444,164 scam reports received by Scamwatch, other government agencies and the major banks.
This represents a significant increase compared to 2019, where $634 million in combined financial losses were attributed to 336,000 scam reports from the above agencies.
We look at the key results outlined in the ACCC’s Targeting Scams 2020 report.
Who is Scamwatch?
Scamwatch is run by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), and focuses on working with government and the private sector to disrupt scams.
While Scamwatch offers the primary government website used by Australians to report scams, a relatively small percentage of victims use this avenue to make a report.
To provide a clearer picture of overall scam activity, the 2020 report incorporates additional data provided by other government agencies such as ReportCyber, and losses reported to major banks.
Top scams by loss
Reports to Scamwatch
Reports to Scamwatch accounted for $176 million of the total combined financial losses, representing a 23 per cent increase compared to 2019, where the reported losses were $143 million.
The following are the top scams reported to Scamwatch in 2020, and associated losses:
- Investment scams – $65.8 million
- Dating and romance scams – $38.9 million
- False billing – $18.5 million
- Threats to life, arrest or other – $11.8 million
- Remote access scams – $8.4 million
- Online shopping scams – $7.4 million
- Classified scams – $5.5 million
- Health and medical products – $3.9 million
- Identity theft – $3.1 million
- Unexpected prize & lottery scam – $1.7 million
While phishing didn’t feature in the top 10 list of scams by financial losses, it was in fact the most frequently reported scam type with over 44,000 reports and just under $1.7 million in associated losses.
Top contact methods for scammers in general included phone (47.7%), email (22%), text message (15%), internet (6.3%) and social media (4.5%).
The report also found that males were more affected by investment scams, reporting losses of $44.7 million, while females reported losing more to dating and romance scams with $28.1 million in losses.
While the report doesn’t provide the same level of detail for the data received by other government agencies and the banks, the top three scams in terms of combined financial losses overall were reported as follows:
- Investment scams – $328 million
- Dating and romance scams – $131 million
- Business email compromise – $128 million
Business email compromise did not feature in the list of top 10 scams reported to Scamwatch. This discrepancy may be explained by the fact that scam victims are more likely to report financial losses to their bank than anywhere else.
2020 scam trends
Key scam trends reported throughout 2020 include:
- COVID-19 scams – the COVID-19 environment led to an increase in losses and reports for several categories, such as health and medical scams.
- Government impersonation scams – scammers often impersonate government agencies such as the ATO to seek a financial benefit or personally identifiable information from people.
- Superannuation scams – when the government announced new measures allowing people under 65 suffering financial hardship due to the pandemic to access their super, Scamwatch saw an increase in phishing scams aimed at eliciting superannuation details of peopled aged between 18 and 55 years.
- Puppy scams – while these scams are not new, with people spending more time at home due to the pandemic, many took the opportunity to take on a pet for companionship. This increased demand for puppies led to more scam activity. Scammers set up fake websites, classifieds or social media ads pretending to sell sought-after dog breeds, taking advantage of the fact that buyers could not travel to meet the puppy in person.
- Vehicle sale scams – scammers targeted both people buying and selling vehicles and used legitimate websites such as Facebook Marketplace, Gumtree, Car Sales and Autotrader to make contact with potential victims.
- Bushfire scams – these include fake bushfire charity and fundraising webpages on crowd-funding platforms and social media.
- Romance baiting – this is where victims meet scammers on dating apps and are lured into investing in a cryptocurrency investment scam.
- Chinese authority scams – most Chinese authority scams start as robocalls. These may impersonate the Chinese Embassy in Australia or, more commonly, a courier company. These scams used the fear associated with the pandemic to coerce people into paying money.
- Celebrity endorsement scams – scammers used the image, name and likeness of a celebrity to sell a product or service.
Scammers are continuing to evolve, exploiting societal trends and technologies such as cryptocurrency to scam victims. This increasingly sophisticated approach by scammers has led to a sharp increase in the total financial losses to scams year on year, which shows no signs of slowing down.