ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard said the rise in the past year had contributed to an increase in financial losses across all scams, which during the COVID-19 pandemic had risen to more than $93 million so far in 2020.
Personal information scams had also sharply increased during the pandemic, including those related to superannuation and government benefits.
“Because people aren’t necessarily clear about what benefits are out there, scammers are taking advantage of that confusion,” Ms Rickard said.
There had been “endless examples” of scammers pretending to be officials from MyGov, Home Affairs and the Health Department calling under the pretext of COVID-19 about the need to get tested, and asking consumers to hand over personal information, she said.
Scammers also claimed they could provide government benefits if the target of the scam provided bank accounts and superannuation account details.
“The bottom line message is that if somebody contacts you out of the blue — no matter who they say they are, and they will always pretend to be well-known, trusted large organisations — do not give them any information. Do not give them any money,” Ms Rickard said.
Once someone had been conned into providing personal details — such as a driver’s licence, tax statements, Medicare cards — victims were vulnerable to further identify theft.
“It can take years to recover and people can end up losing more than money,” Ms Rickard said.
In Monday’s episode, available online, the scammer PJ’s many aliases are revealed. He is also known as Penelope Jones, 67, of Burwood East, and Michael Fleming. These are the names of real people whose identities the scammer has stolen as part of phishing rip-offs.
Heard the one about the text message from Australia Post asking a member of the public to verify their delivery address and pay $2 more for delivery?
That was one of PJ’s finest, he reveals: “Yeah, that’s one of mine. Oh, that’s so cool. Yeah, look, making an email or SMS look like it’s from a proper company is easy. We can even make them pop up in a legitimate thread. You see, the text before that really is from Australia Post.”
When PJ is asked if he had any regrets after hearing from a victim who lost $7000, he responds: “That’s my job, and I like to do the best that I can. You know what we say in the industry, Mike: ‘There’s plenty of phish in the sea’.”
Ms Rickard said The Checkout team had been commissioned to make the series because they were “excellent communicators”. “With so much bad news, we didn’t want people to switch off. And we really wanted people to listen. The podcasts do that, and let people have a laugh as well as listen to some serious messages.”
Julie Power is a senior reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald.
Hanna Mills Turbet is the consumer affairs reporter for The Age.