How scammers could be stopped from targeting vulnerable Australians

Scam phone calls are on the rise, and the government is trying to work out how to stop them.

Scam phone calls are on the rise, and the government is trying to work out how to stop them. Photo: Getty

Vulnerable Australians targeted by scammers could be protected by new technologies to stop hoaxes like last year’s robocalls claiming to be from the Australian Tax Office.

The federal government on Wednesday revealed details of its taskforce investigating how to stop the growing problem, with more than half of Australian adults receiving the calls as often as every day.

Experts say there are examples of scam-busting schemes working overseas.

Chair of the Scam Technology Reference Group, Fiona Cameron, said it was possible to verify numbers and eliminate the dodgy ones.

“You’d have heard of number-spoofing, which is where the scammer overlays a real number for their fake number. So it appears that you’re getting a number, for argument’s sake, through the ATO – but it isn’t,” she told The New Daily.

Ms Cameron said the United Kingdom has registries to which brands can sign up to protect themselves from imitators.

Damien Manuel, chair of the Australian Information Security Association, said telcos in the United States detect when a call is a scam and block it from ever reaching the phone.

He said legislation should be introduced to enforce telcos to block scam-based calls.

“Otherwise, what you’ll find is that it’ll fragment, similarly to the US market, where if you want to be protected from scam calls you’ve got to pay,” Mr Manuel, who is also the director of the Deakin University Centre for Cyber Security Research & Innovation, told The New Daily.

There are also third-party applications like RoboKiller to detect when a call is using a fake-caller ID.

Mr Manuel agreed that subscriber or opt-in technology could alienate those already most vulnerable to scams, like elderly people.

“That’s why it really needs something that the telecommunications providers implement at a network level.”

Mr Manuel said it could be messy, as call centres often show up as the reception telephone number and telcos would be required to have every number within the office.

“So it’s not an easy problem to solve, but the telcos are probably in the best place to do that,” he said.

“It won’t catch everything, but it’ll catch the majority of things.”

Ms Cameron said lots of carriers were already doing a lot of work, but there was more to be done.

In 2018, Australians reported to Scamwatch losing $107 million in scams or hoaxes. That number has been rising, up from $90.8 million in 2017 and $83.56 million in 2016.

Australians have reported to Scamwatch losing $14.8 million so far this year.

Last year, a telephone scam surfaced during tax time in which people were told they needed to pay the ATO an outstanding debt or face imminent arrest and jail.

These scams often ask people to send money by methods like Bitcoin, iTunes or Google Play gift cards.

In February, there was also a spate of text messages asking for emergency assistance.

Scamwatch said they sometimes said: “Please call me back right away. It is an emergency. I need your help!”

Ms Cameron said the issue was worsening because of digital evolutions.

“Things are getting more sophisticated, which means the scammers are getting smarter. So, 20 years ago we introduced the Do Not Call Register, then the anti-spam legislation came out,” Ms Cameron said.

“Now we’ve got spammers hitting thousands of telephones at once being able to redirect calls, being able to hide numbers.

“We have to keep up with the scammers, and in fact, we’ve got to get ahead of them.”

The taskforce, which is made up of the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), consumer watchdog the ACCC, and the Australian Cyber Security Centre, will focus on ways to stop unsolicited phone calls and texts.

A final report will be handed to the communications minister in December.

Scamwatch advises people to immediately hang up or delete the email or text. Do not call the number provided.

For up-to-date warnings, follow Scamwatch on Twitter and subscribe to alerts.

Report a scam here.

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