Hanging up on scammers: how to protect yourself from phishing phone calls

Australians lost a whopping $851m to scams in 2020, according to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s latest Targeting Scams report. It’s a record-breaking amount, as fraudsters capitalised on the pandemic and preyed on isolated and vulnerable people.

Phones appear to remain the most common way scammers were contacting people, according to Scamwatch data, with 48% of reported scams taking place over a call and 15% via text message.

There’s very little you can do as a consumer to stop scam phone calls in the first place. Some third-party software promises to identify and block suspicious calls but experts warn that, ironically, some of that software is itself a scam.

So how can you spot a phone scam? And what can you do to protect yourself?

What does a scam look like?
At some point you’ve probably answered the phone to an automated voice warning that you owe the Australian Tax Office a vague sum of money.

But scams have come a long way since your typical robocall.

Deilia Rickard, deputy chair of the ACCC, says scammers capitalised on the fact that the average Australian expected more direct correspondence from government agencies last year, leading to a “huge increase in phishing and identity theft and government impersonation scams … involving government agencies like the health department or the ATO”.

Another common phone scam the ACCC busted last year was called Wangiri – a Japanese term meaning “one ring and drop” – which targeted Australians with loved ones living overseas. A call from a foreign number would ring once to the victim’s mobile, making them think that they had missed a call from their relative or friend. If they rang back, they would be put on hold and charged a premium fee for every minute.

Fiona Cameron, who chairs the scam technology action taskforce at the Australian Communications and Media Authority, warns that some of the phone scams reported in 2020 were unusually sophisticated.

In one case, she says, scammers contacted a small businessman who had just registered his business, warning he needed to pay off a tax debt or see it carry through to his new enterprise. To verify the debt, they said they would patch through his accountant’s firm. “The firm” answered but said his accountant was on lunch and patched him through to someone else on the team, who confirmed the debt was real and recommended he pay it immediately.

But it doesn’t matter how elaborate the scams were. Rickard stresses the circumstances surrounding the pandemic meant consumers were more susceptible to scams in the first place.

“For periods, people were under lockdown and stressed. People were online who weren’t used to being online. People were lonely and experiencing financial difficulty. These were all circumstances that scammers like,” Rickard says.

Scammers also took advantage of older Australians who had been forced to spend more time online by the pandemic. Scammers would call promising to fix a tech problem, gain access to the victim’s computer, and drain their bank accounts.

So how do you spot a phone scam?
The first red flag, according to Rickard, is if the call is unsolicited.

“When someone has contacted you out of the blue, don’t give them any personal information, bank details or superannuation info. Do not give them money and do not give them remote access to their computer,” Rickard says.

If you want to return a call or text from someone who claims to be your phone provider or a government department, independently search on Google the provider or agency’s official contact details and get in touch that way.

Cameron says another warning sign is the tone of the phone call or message.

“Scammers typically want to suggest that something is urgent. You either owe money, or you need to fix something, or you need to do something really pronto,” Cameron says.

“If this person is in a hurry, aggressive or threatening in any way, the best advice is to pause and hang up the phone.”

A final red flag is the method via which you are being asked to pay. If it’s via a gift card, Cameron says to hang up immediately.

“It’s a form of payment that can’t be traced in any way, so instead of asking you to pay off a debt via a credit card or bank account that could be traced, they’ll ask you to send a gift card to an address,” she says. “But no government authority, no credible retail authority, will ask you to pay with gift cards.”

What should you do if you have been scammed?
If you think you have been scammed and have given away bank details or remote access to your computer, the first thing to do is call the bank, Rickard says. The bank can stop any more money leaving your account and maybe help you recover what you have lost.

Rickard says it’s also a good idea to get in touch with the government-funded organisation www.idcare.org, which can help you respond to data breaches, cyber-security concerns, or identity theft.

You can also block a number on your phone, to avoid receiving more scam calls from the same number.