A woman sits in front of her computer at home, watching the mouse move around the screen, clicking here and there, draining money from her bank accounts.
She is powerless to intervene, having given a stranger, who claimed to be a Microsoft technician, access to her personal computer.
This frightening image was presented, among other scam scenarios, to a recent Hibiscus Coast GreyPower meeting in Orewa by a man who deals with this type of fraud every day – Detective Snr Sgt Iain Chapman of Auckland Police’s financial crime unit.
He says cyber-crime is a growing area (including a big spike in scams that target senior citizens) because it produces results. “The people who get sucked into scams are normal, intelligent people who later say they can’t believe they fell for it,” he says.
Technology has taken fraud to a new level, enabling criminals to generate phone numbers at random and locate addresses for mailouts via online maps. Det Snr Sgt Chapman says one Russian group even invented software that enabled them to gain control over a bank’s cash machines (ATMs).
Last January, New Zealanders lost $705,000 to online scammers, and, in February, a further $585,000.
Scammers are professional criminals and their work falls into a few categories: The first is ‘advance fee’ fraud – characterised by a ‘too good to be true’ offer that comes via email or post. They include the emails or letters telling you you’ve been left an inheritance. This is followed by attempts to establish a personal connection then the requests for cash begin. Scams based in Nigeria are the best known of these, but they can originate anywhere – Det Snr Sgt Chapman says they come from China and Malaysia and, occasionally, NZ.
Then there are the so-called confidence, or romance scams where a relationship is built up, and the scammer convinces the person that they can handle your money, or that you can help them with a financial transaction. This can lead to money laundering or people being used as ‘mules’ to transport drugs. “If you are being asked to send money, or handle money on behalf of someone you met online and never in person – you are being scammed.”
Lottery scams are still prevalent – this may be a phoney ‘scratch and win’ that comes by mail, or an email that suggests you have won money. The recipient contacts the scammer and then requests for ‘tax’ or other payments follow.
Det Snr Sgt Chapman says the scammers’ goal is to turn electronic money into cash quickly. Once it’s in cash, it’s gone. “Urgency is the key to stopping the money while it’s still in electronic form. Money is often bounced through several countries before it reaches the people responsible. One hit might be all they need, especially when people are prepared to hundreds of thousands of dollars overseas to someone they’ve never met, but feel they can trust,” he says. He says it’s safe to assume that a portion of the “extremely large volume of cash” obtained through scams goes towards financing terrorism.
Det Snr Sgt Chapman says that even though the numbers involved are scary, we are really only at the start. “It’s going to get worse as technology, and the ability to catch the criminals at the cutting edge of it, becomes more difficult.”
The biggest weapon in the fight against this type of fraud, he says, is an educated, informed public. “There are simple but vital methods of keeping yourself safe from scammers,” (see tips below).
And while scamming is a serious concern, there is no need to become paranoid. No one is holding a gun to your head – all you have to do is be aware and learn, sadly, not to trust people or organisations that you can’t independently verify with your money.
What you can do
- Change passwords regularly – including computer, email, banking and cellphone. Use secure passwords – the finger pattern on smartphones is one of the hardest to break. Virus protection is like a burglar alarm for your computer
- Rule of thumb: no corporation will ever ring and ask for personal details. If you receive a call from an ‘official’, and they ask for information – stop. Hang up and call the organisation back on a number from the phone book
- If you are ‘cold’ contacted with offers of cash or incentives – you are being scammed
- If you receive a message from someone that you think is a Facebook friend involving money (such as, “I’m in Africa and lost my passport”), double check by calling that person on the numbers you know. This is an advance fee fraud
- To check whether something is legitimate, Google search for the name of the person or organisation that claims to be the source, followed by the word ‘scam’. You will soon see if there are articles naming them as scammers
- Double-check the identity of anyone that you are sending money to
- If you think you have been scammed, contact your bank and Police immediately
- Information is available at netsafe.org.nz and you can report scams there too.