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Online scams and identity theft

Scammers try to steal your money or personal information — they are modern day fraudsters. Find out how to protect yourself.

Scams are often done by phone, SMS or email and they look and sound very real.

Scammers contact thousands of email addresses and phone numbers every day, so there's a good chance you'll be contacted by a scammer some time, if you haven't been already. When scammers first contact you, they won’t have any information about you and probably won’t even know if your email or phone number is working. They are just hoping that one of the thousands of people they are trying to scam will respond, and unfortunately, many people do.

How to spot a scam

Scammers try to collect personal information. This is identity theft. They do this in a number of ways. They may ask you for your bank details so they can transfer ‘a prize’ (for a competition you didn’t enter) into your account, or threaten that they will lock your account if you don’t give them personal information to ‘verify’ your identify. They may ask if you could hold some money for them in your bank account, known as fake mule recruiting, or offer goods or services that may never be delivered (credit card and money transfer scams).

Some scammers have very professional emails, websites or call centre staff to convince you that the offer is genuine. They often look and sound like the real thing — a real bank, a real online shop or a real internet service provider. Sometimes they pretend to be an organisation like Centrelink or Australia Post or another service that many of us use.  

Following are some common scams — if in doubt, go to Scamwatch for help and more information.

Unexpected money

In this case scammers try to convince you that you have won or inherited money and you need to provide banking details or other information to access or receive the money. This is false – they are trying to access your money to steal it.

If you didn’t enter a competition, there is no real prize. Never give anyone your banking details over the phone, by email or SMS unless you made the initial contact. Delete these emails and SMSs and hang up on any callers who say you have won a prize or opportunity.

In some cases, scammers do provide actual prizes such as a trip and luggage which contains hidden drugs for unsuspecting recipients to carry.

You just got lucky

Scammers may also try to convince you that you are one of the lucky ones, offering an opportunity to invest in a new idea or product, or to receive an inheritance. None of this is real. They want your bank details to steal your money.

There is no inheritance or investment opportunity. Do not respond. Check Scamwatch to see if others have received the same email/message or phone call.

Fake charities

Scammers can set up web pages, emails or calls to make them look and sound like real charities, and then they ask for donations or bank details. Again, they only want to steal your money.

Do not respond to requests for money through email, phone calls or SMS. If you want to give to a charity, look up their contact details, do some research, make sure they are real and that your money will get to them. 

Before making a donation, check that the site is legitimate. Look for ‘https’ in the URL of the site, to indicate that any information you provide will be secure and encrypted. Also check the domain name (anything before the .com or .org). Make sure the website address follows the format of charityname.org or charityname.org.au, not charitynametherealdeal.org. Misspellings, fuzzy images or low resolution pictures and logos may also be indictors of a fraudulent website.

Dating and romance

Dating and romance scams are also common. Scammers establish an online romantic relationship with people over weeks, months and even years. They claim to be in love (often quite early in the relationship) and show great interest in the person — calling, emailing and messaging often. They shower the person with praise and attention and, sometimes, gifts.

Dating scammers often claim to live overseas or be Australian but travelling. There are many excuses for not being able to meet in person. They may play on your emotions, so you give them money. They may claim to need an operation or to want to visit you, for example, but say they do not have enough money for an airfare. They may also ask you to buy goods or services for them or ask you to send goods to another address. This is nearly always criminal and could be very dangerous. These relationships seem very real but the scammers are having the same fake relationship with many people at the one time. They are using each person to steal their money, or for other criminal offences such as money laundering.

Be wary of any potential romantic partner who approaches you online. If you want to send them photos, it’s best not to send photos you wouldn’t want others to see. Some scammers blackmail people using intimate photos and videos. Do an image search of the person to try and work out if they have used a fake profile picture. Image search services such as Google or a reverse image search using a service like TinEye may be useful. If you agree to meet in person tell someone you know where you are meeting and take someone with you.

Scamwatch strongly recommends that people never travel overseas to meet a romantic interest in person for the first time. Be very wary if the person requests money for travel, an operation, or asks you to pass on goods or money. For example, there have been a number of recent cases where people travelling to meet romantic interests or potential business partners have been used as drug mules. Never send money or give them credit card details, online account details or copies of important documents.

Scamwatch provides more information and warnings about scams and how to report them.

What to do if you have been scammed

Don’t be embarrassed if you have been scammed. Hundreds of thousands of very intelligent Australians are scammed every year. It shows that we are still a trusting society.

Report scams to your local consumer affairs agency, Scamwatch or Australian Cyber Security Centre to help warn others and help have the scammers tracked down.

If you have responded to a scam, then you should stop all communication with the scammer and ignore any new messages or attempts to contact you. You can also block their number or email address on your device.

If you have given them your banking details call your bank immediately (on a number you know to be real) or go into a branch. If you have given the scammers your personal information, change the passwords for all your accounts.

If a scammer threatens you, take evidence of the threat to your local police. If you feel that you are in immediate danger from the scammer, call Triple Zero (000) now.

If the scammer targeted you using a romantic or dating scam seek support from a friend, family member or counsellor.

If you have been contacted by a scammer but have not responded you don’t need to worry. Delete or ignore any messages. If you get more scams ignore those as well. You can report any scam to Scamwatch so they can help others.

If the scam involves theft of your identity, contact IDCARE as they can help you deal with the consequences of identity theft.

What to do with a scamming email or message

Do not to respond at all if you think it is a scam. Do not even reply to say you are not interested, because this tells them your email or social media account is active and they will send more scams.

Block the sender — this will stop more emails or messages coming to you from the scammer. Many scammers create multiple fake accounts, so you may get the same, or other scams, from different addresses. Block these too.

If you are not sure if the email or message is genuine, use Google to search the content in the email to see if others have been sent the same email and if it has been identified as a scam. Do a Google image search on a photo to see if it has been stolen from someone else’s site and is being used as part of the scam.

Look in the text for spelling mistakes and poor English as this is often a sign of a scam.

If a message or email comes from a friend and it seems unusual or out of character for them, ring or visit your friend to see if they really sent it, before you consider replying.

Delete the messages or emails as they come in. If you have opened the message, close it and it delete it. Sometimes the message or email will have an attachment or link. In most cases these attachments or links contain a hidden virus. Do not open suspect attachments or click on suspect links.

If you are buying online, try to use secure services such as PayPal to reduce financial risks. Scammers may prefer that you send money orders, or use international transfers or even your banking details.

If someone asks for your personal details, or needs to verify your banking or financial details, it may be a scam. Even if an email has an official logo and contact details but you are still suspicious, ring the organisation to verify that they sent you the email.

Help with identity theft

IDCARE can help you deal with the consequences of identity theft.

IDCARE is Australia and New Zealand’s National Identity Support Service. It is an independent national service created by leading organisations from government and industry that care about people's information and privacy. IDCARE’s services are free to the community and its expertise lies in supporting individuals and organisations when identity information has been put at risk. 

What to do with a scamming phone call

Scammers will sometimes ring you at home. Often the scammer will ask you to turn on your computer to fix a problem or to install a free upgrade. In reality this is not an upgrade, the scammers want to install a virus which will give them your passwords and personal details. Hang up without apology.

While it may be annoying to have people keep ringing you back, hang up every time.

If you are unsure or suspicious, hang up and ring the organisation direct. Look their number up in the phone directory or on their website and ring them to ensure they are who they say they are.