Australians lost more than $851 million to scams last year, a record amount as thieves capitalised on the COVID pandemic, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) reports.
The figure is based on more than 444,000 scam incident reports to government agencies and ten financial institutions, including Suncorp.
The data shows an escalation in the theft of personal information to fraudulently access COVID-related initiatives such as early access to superannuation. Fake bushfire-related charities also featured.
“The increasing value of personal information at a time when face-to-face transactions were not possible was a significant driver of scam activity in 2020,” the report said.
Investment scams accounted for $328 million of the total reported in 2020, while romance scams cost $131 million and payment redirection scams $128 million.
ACCC Deputy Chair Delia Rickard says real losses are even higher as many incidents go unreported.
“Scammers continue to become more sophisticated and last year used the COVID-19 pandemic to scam and take advantage of people from all walks of life during this crisis,” she said.
For the first time, Victorians had the highest reported losses to the ACCC’s Scamwatch as long lockdown periods in the state created opportunities for scammers as people were forced into unusual economic and social situations that increased susceptibility.
Almost 34% of people who reported an investment scam lost money, with an average loss of $26,713.
“It appears to be increasingly difficult for people to identify legitimate investment opportunities from scams,” the report said. “Scammers no longer just rely on professional looking websites. They now have the ability to contact people through phone, apps, social media and other means.”
“Romance baiting” emerged on dating apps in which people aged 25 to 34 years lost the most money. The ACCC received reports of over $50 million in losses via cryptocurrencies or charges to phone bills, Neosurf vouchers and digital payment apps.
The top three categories of reports to the ACCC’s Scamwatch were phishing, threats to life, arrest or other threat-based scams and identity theft, often involving the impersonation of government agencies to obtain personal information or demand money.
Reports of scammers threatening victims with arrest, deportation, legal action or excessive “fees” escalated.