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Consumer fraud in Australasia: Results of the Australasian Consumer Fraud Taskforce online Australia surveys 2008 and 2009

Technical and Background Paper no. 43

Carolyn Budd and Jessica Anderson
ISBN 978 1 921532 77 1 ISSN 1836-2052
Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology, March 2011

Abstract

Those who perpetrate consumer scams use a wide range of deceptive practices and methods of communication. However, all aim to trick unsuspecting consumers into parting with money or information, often to criminals located overseas. Phishing attacks, lottery and prize scams, financial investment scams and advanced fee fraud are just a few of the more common scam varieties that are used in an attempt to gain either money or personal details that will eventually be used for financial gain by offenders. The increased use of electronic forms of communication and the ease of sending mass scam invitations via the Internet has also resulted in an increase in the number of scam requests disseminated globally.

Scam invitations may appear benign to those who receive them and choose not to respond. This form of spam may be seen as an unfortunate consequence of using the Internet, however, scams can cause serious financial and other harms to those who are victimised, as well as to the wider community. Consumer fraud has been estimated to cost Australia almost $1b annually, although the full extent of the losses is unknown as many choose not to report their experiences officially. Although victims of scams can lose as little as $1, some send substantial amounts to criminals, occasionally exceeding many hundreds of thousands of dollars. Those who send such large amounts frequently feel ashamed of what they have done, or apprehensive that they might have acted illegally. Victims may also receive little sympathy for having being victimised and may be blamed for being gullible. These factors act to deter victims from formally reporting the scam to police. When the full circumstances of cases are known, however, the sophistication of the deception makes it clear that victims have been enticed by a serious and concerted campaign of trickery which preys on their weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

The Australasian Consumer Fraud Taskforce (ACFT) includes 20 government regulatory agencies and departments in Australia and New Zealand that work alongside private sector, community and non-government partners to prevent fraud. In order to understand the dynamics of consumer fraud victimisation, the ACFT has conducted a range of fraud prevention and awareness-raising activities since 2006. One key activity of the ACFT is to hold an annual consumer fraud survey to obtain a snapshot of the public’s exposure to consumer scams, to assess their impact, to determine how victims respond and to identify any emerging typologies and issues.

This report presents the results of surveys conducted in conjunction with the 2008 campaign that focused on Seduction and Deception Scams and the 2009 campaign that focused on sending the message— Scams Target You: Protect Yourself, Don’t Be a Victim of Scammers and Fight the Scammers. Don’t Respond. Overall, both surveys found that despite most respondents indicating that they had received a scam invitation over the specified 12 month period, the majority did not respond. Invitations sent by email remained the most common method of receiving an invitation, with lottery scams attracting the highest number of victims in 2008 whereas in 2009, work from home scams were the most common way respondents were scammed.

Although the survey relies on self-reported data, it still provides a useful means of identifying the nature of victimisation and for identifying areas for further research into consumer fraud. The links identified between scam victimisation and factors such as age, income, reporting and jurisdiction could be used to develop more strategic consumer fraud awareness campaigns that focus on the groups more vulnerable to scam victimisation. The relationships between these variables and victimisation could then be explored more fully using representative samples of the population, or in-depth data collection techniques such as interviewing of those who have been defrauded. With a more extensive understanding of who is victimised and why, more effective scam prevention measures can be enacted.

Adam Tomison
Director