Identity theft soars during COVID-19 as scammers target government payments, superannuation

By national consumer affairs reporter Amy Bainbridge and the Specialist Reporting Team’s Emily Clark

A staggering 24,000 people have reported their personal details stolen so far this year, as experts warn scammers have been targeting Australians’ COVID-19 financial relief payments and superannuation.

New figures from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) show identity theft is up 55 per cent on the same period last year.

As the nation raced to move our work, socialising and personal admin tasks online, scammers saw an opportunity, according to the ACCC.

Deputy chair of the consumer watchdog Delia Rickard said scammers would always “follow the money”.

“With the various government relief benefits that are around and ways to early access your super, scammers want to cash in on that,” she said.

And getting your personal information — which allows them to steal your identity — is how they do it.

How has COVID-19 helped scammers steal personal information?

Ms Rickard said there were “multiple tactics”, but basically the scammers had been pretending to be the Government.

“They might be pretending to be MyGov, Home Affairs, ATO, Health Department,” she said.

“They’ll contact you either by phone, text, or email, convincing you that in order to access a particular benefit or for them to help you get early access to your super, you need to share a range of personal information with them.

“Everything from super details, bank account details, drivers licence, Medicare number — all of the information that scammers can use to impersonate you.”

Ms Rickard said scammers often tried to get enough documents from people to tally up 100 points of identity, which is everything they need.

They can then apply for payments from the Government in your name or have your cold, hard superannuation cash deposited into their bank account.

Ms Rickard said with that much information, scammers could even open bank accounts and take out credit cards.

When it comes to superannuation, the ABC has reported on several Australians who have seen funds disappear.

“I think it’s just contemptible, super is there for retirement so if someone needs to access it early, it’s because they’re doing it tough,” Ms Rickard said.

Who are scammers targeting exactly?

COVID-19 has made all of us more vulnerable.

Jan Marshall fell victim to a romance scam several years ago and now works to warn others and support those who have also been taken advantage of.

With so many people out of work and many of us using online systems for the first time, she says now is a perfect moment for scammers.

“In a time like this, fear is already an underlying emotion and the scammers are using that and utilising that to drive behaviour,” Ms Marshall said.

“And in this instance, they’re using fear that is already there and the climate of fear about basic survival to drive people to do things that they might, in a more rational moment, not do.”

Sometimes scammers target people randomly, but they are also known to compile lists of people known to have fallen victim before.

So far this year, Australians aged between 25 and 34 have been the most likely to report their personal details stolen to the ACCC.

How much have the scammers taken so far?

Well, quite a lot.

The ACCC said $91 million had been lost to scams so far this year and $22 million of that had been lost to identity theft.

In one example, a victim lost $62,000 after someone created a new account using their personal details.

The scammer then tried to transfer funds from a home loan account and made multiple other transactions.

Among the most egregious examples this year, another Australian was fleeced $181,000 via a dating website.

Over a period of about 73 days in 2012, Ms Marshall loaned more than $260,000 to someone she too met on a dating site.

“When I realised it was a scam, I found out I would never get that money back,” she said.


It took more than 18 months for Jan Marshall to be able to speak about being the victim of a romance scam, but now she helps others.(Supplied: Jan Marshall)

Ms Marshall said initially there was a lot of shame and devastation that came from being scammed and losing the relationship, but then the financial reality set in.

“The future you were planning with the money that you had has to be totally redesigned,” she said.

How to protect yourself

Firstly, if someone calls you out of the blue and purports to be from a government agency, be very careful.

“Whenever anybody contacts you, whether it’s by phone, text, email, always go slowly and really think about who it is that’s contacting you and why,” Ms Marshall said.

“We need to be a lot more sceptical about the people who are trying to contact us, particularly if it’s not solicited in any way.”

The ACCC’s advice around protecting your personal information is:

  • Don’t be pressured into giving away any personal information by someone who has contacted you, no matter who they say they are
  • Don’t click on links in unexpected emails or messages, even if it appears to have come from a legitimate source.
  • Use strong passwords for your accounts and internet network, and never share them with others
  • Install anti-virus software on your devices and keep it up to date
  • Limit what personal information you share about yourself online, including on social media

Now, the COVID-19 lockdowns might be tough and many of us would like to be socialising more than we are, but if you’re online, keep your guard up.

“There is more inclination to look for that social connection, whether it be online dating or just someone who comes onto your Facebook page and says ‘hi, would you like to chat’,” Ms Marshall said.

“This is what happens with romance scams — it starts off very gentle and unassuming, but it grows very quickly.”

Ms Marshall said the thing to remember about romance scams was the victims should feel no shame.

“The victims have done nothing wrong. They have been totally manipulated and abused by people lying and cheating them,” she said.

“And those people are criminals.”

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