Insight from our team of leading criminal lawyers: Beware of COVID-19 scams

Due to COVID-19 scams, Australians have been defrauded of millions of dollars since the start of the outbreak. Scamwatch has reported a significant increase in the frequency and prevalence of scam operations over the past few months. These scams include phishing for personal information, online shopping/postal scams, superannuation scams and more.

COVID-19 scams and other schemes

‘Scamwatch’ is a website run by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). According to them, scammers are pretending to be government agencies which provide information on COVID-19 through text messages and email, while actually ‘phishing’ for personal information.

These COVID-19 scams typically contain dangerous links and attachments. When clicked on or opened, these links are likely to help scammers steal personal and financial information. Scamwatch says there have been more than 3,600 such incidents reported in recent months.

What is cybercrime?

Cybercrime is engaging in illegal behaviour (most commonly stealing personal details or money). It is becoming more and more common. Also, cybercrime is happening on an increasingly large-scale basis as criminals get smarter and savvier. Some estimates suggest that it costs the Australian economy as much as $ 29 billion annually. Individuals lose $700, on average.

What is ‘phishing’?

Phishing is a cybercrime in which a target or targets are contacted by email, telephone or text message by someone posing as a legitimate institution. The objective is to lure individuals into providing sensitive data such as personally identifiable information, banking and credit card details, and passwords.

I have personally noticed a large increase in these sorts of communications over the past few years. That’s alongside and in connection with the COVID-19 scams of late. The criminals behind these scams are becoming more advanced and more intelligent.

What are ‘Nigerian Scams”

About a decade ago the only sorts of digital scams that existed would involve a person sending a mass email seeking payment to unlock a large fortune. They are traditionally known as ‘Nigerian scams’ (because a lot of the scammers were supposedly based in Nigeria).

The scammers in these situations pretend to hold a large fortune in a foreign country which could only be accessed and transferred out of the country. That’s only if fees (typically a few thousand dollars) are paid to the foreign government. Once the victim transferred the fees they would never see their money again.

Frighteningly realistic-looking emails

In modern times I have seen emails from banks, ‘myGov’ and the ATO, which look entirely legitimate. The criminals recognise that, due to lockdown restrictions, many Australians have had to adapt to an ‘online’ way of life. We are now spending much more time online shopping, banking and even schooling. Some experts have reported that the online revolution has exploded about five years in the space of three months. This explains the rise in COVID-19 scams.

I have seen emails from popular shipping companies, such as DHL or FEDEX. Typically, these advise that a shipment has been delayed and that they need action from you so that they can process it. I have also seen emails from Government agencies offering help with financial assistance applications. Of course, when the victim clicks on the link in the email they’re likely to have their information stolen.

How can I avoid being scammed?

In some cases, it’s extremely difficult to tell whether an email or SMS message is legitimate or not. I would like to think that I’m quite savvy at picking out fake communication. Yet, some of the ones that I’ve seen recently look completely real. They will use the same logo and the same signature as the sender they are pretending to be. Overall, they appear to be very legitimate.

Our top tips for pinpointing scam correspondence:

Below are a number of things you can look for to immediately tell if a bit of information is real or not. Of course, they won’t guarantee the situation 100%. But, they underline some of the simplest and most effective facets that go into being able to detect a scam in the general sense. This includes generic, and also COVID-19 scams.

Personalisation

When sending legitimate communications, many organisations will address you by name (for example, ‘Dear Thanh Nguyen’. If you receive frequent communication from them and they address you by name and then you receive one that doesn’t (for example, ‘Dear homeowner’, ‘Dear sir’ etc.) then that might be a clue that the email isn’t real.

Email address

It is difficult for criminals to replicate the actual email address that the scam email is sent from. Government organisations will send emails from an email address that ends in ‘.gov.au’ or something similar. If you receive a dubious email, right-click on the sender’s email address and if it looks suspicious, then it might not be real.

Spelling, grammar and punctuation

Often scam emails will have imperfect or poor English. Most emails from legitimate government organisations will be written properly. They will use the correct conventions in spelling, grammar and punctuation. If an email doesn’t read right, then that’s a good sign that the information and links contained within may not be real.

Inclusion of dubious  links

In order for phishing to work, the sender will ask the victim to open an attachment or click on a link. It’s often indicated that the link will go to an application form of some sort. If it’s not the sort of correspondence in which you’d expect an application form would need to be completed, then you should be very cautions. Do not click on any links or attachments until you’ve carefully analysed the rest of the email to satisfy yourself that it’s real.

Concluding advice re COVID-19 scams

There is no way to absolutely guarantee against being scammed. But the best advice I can give is the old saying that “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is”.

If you’re needing assistance with legal matters or determining your legal rights, Cridland & Hua are the specialists amongst Brisbane Law Firms, practising exclusively in criminal and quasi-criminal law. Contact us today.

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