The latest report out from the ACCC called Targeting Scams 2017 came out on Monday 15 May with the 2016 figures. In the area of romance scams the figures ($25.4 million reported lost) have not changed much, up slightly from 2015, but still under the 2014 level. The report indicates some moves in the right direction, but much more effort in many directions is still needed.
Unfortunately, the figures reported cannot be regarded as a true level. It is generally acknowledged reporting is only at about 10% – 12% of actual cases. I was interviewed by Catherine Gregory of ABC News for The World Today program about the latest report and media release. Listen to this here. (PS: also, here’s my comments from last year’s report.)
The ACCC report provides an update to the scam disruption efforts where letters are sent to people sending money overseas to known high risk jurisdictions warning this might be a response to a scam. They report some success as a proportion of people stop sending further money after receiving letters. If scam disruption activities are having this success, why are the yearly reported scam figures not more reduced?
It might be that the victim is just setting up another bank account to send money (on instructions from the scammer), as reported to me recently by family members of a suspected victim. Scam disruption efforts are also focused only on money being sent to a limited set of known high risk jurisdictions, and Australian researcher Cassandra Cross has already highlighted the deficiencies and risks in this approach.
On the plus side, the report talks about the ACCC beginning to work with banks, finance transfer agencies such as Western Union and MoneyGram, online sites (social media and dating) and even Telstra! They are looking at what can be done to stop money being sent and to provide earlier warnings to victims. It is about time this was done, so I applaud this move. Already AUSTRAC receives reports of money sent overseas, so it will be good to close this circle, and finally make use of the information it gets. Currently from the victim’s point of view, nothing seems to happen with this information sent to AUSTRAC.
The ACCC is also talking about altering the ACORN reporting form to give authorisation so that the information can be sent directly to these agencies, banks etc, on behalf of the victim. This is not included in the reporting forms currently, and is desperately needed. It might actually give a sense to the victim that something can and will be done. That would be new!
In the current ACORN reporting mechanism there is no ability/invitation to make contact with any person at ACORN. This is very frustrating and depersonalising for victims. Even the automatic response letter generated from an ACORN report does not even have an actual person’s name on it. Nor is there any follow up about what is happening, leaving the victim left wondering if anything is done with their report.
In some states of Australia a report make to ACORN might be passed to the local police, and there might be follow-up with the victim by them. However from what I have heard from victims this is fraught with being untimely, and as police have little skills in cyber-investigation, not likely to go anywhere. Some police even refuse to take a report from the victim. In some instances the police blame the victim for what has happened, instead of putting the blame where it should lie, with the criminal fraudsters perpetrating this crime. The scammers are criminal fraudsters even if they are in other countries, but this sometimes gets missed because the victim paid money to them.
Unfortunately, from the many police shows on our TV, we expect a quick response, from technically skilled officers (every police show has its computer boffin who can find anything, quickly), and effective action to capture and punish the criminals. Many victims are sorely let down as this expectation is not met in Australia. The criminals know this too, and target Australians with impunity knowing that nothing is likely to be done to them. There is also no mention in the report of australian police or other authorities working with other countries to capture and punish these criminals working on romance scams, yet this has been done in the USA, and this is a global problem of enormous proportions. More needs to be done to work these international links.
Another area missing from tackling scams is how relatives and friends can be supported to intervene in a scam currently in progress. I often get contacted by people frantic about how to stop the scam occurring with their relative or friend, as they see the victim send money to the scammer. The victim has often (with the insistence of the scammer) cut off from friends and family, and are so invested in the fantasy relationship that they trust the scammer completely. They reject suggestions/warnings from friends/family that it could be a scam.
This happened in my case too. It is extremely difficult to break through psychological and emotional manipulation to the victim once the scam is entrenched. How can relatives/friends ask for help from ACORN or their local police, or someone/anyone, to undertake timely intervention with the alleged victim to stop them sending money and/or travelling overseas? More research is needed into what works to interrupt a scam in progress, and processes put in place to meet these needs. Is it possible, for example, for relatives or friends to request a scam disruption letter be sent? What if money is not being sent to a known high risk jurisdiction, but somewhere else? We must remember that scammers are incredibly inventive and very responsive to the changing climate. Already they are using more social media as a mechanism to make contact [See also Facebook The Domain of Choice For Scammers, With More People Falling Victim To Schemes Via Social Media] because people are less cautious about a simple friend request. Use of dating sites is decreasing. If scammers know their country is being targeted for prevention efforts, it is easy to get money sent to an account in a different country. Often the student diaspora, travelling to other countries to study is used for this, with the support of fake documentation.
It can be devastating once a victim eventually realises they have been scammed, yet nowhere in the report does it mention the effect on the victims. The emotional and financial cost is enormous, not only for victims, but also for their families. ACORN and Scamwatch refer people on to Lifeline and Beyond Blue. Whilst I acknowledge the tremendous work these organisations do, it is time for more specific supports to be established. Like rape, domestic violence, child abuse/abduction or even grief, dating or other scam victims need tailored services and counselling. Currently they/we are a hidden group, silenced by a broad culture of shame and victim blaming. This is reinforced by Police being unable to address fraudsters as the criminals that they are.
In summary, there are some moves in the right direction, but much more effort in many directions needed. The Targeting Scams 2017 report is well worth a read.