Expert unit tackles ‘scamdemic’ bilking Aussie millions

Poppy Johnston and Paul Osborne |

The first specialist unit of experts from government, law enforcement and the private sector has been unleashed on scammers to stem the flow of lost cash.

But a leading consumer group says forcing banks to compensate scammed customers should be on the table to deal with the growing problem.

The so-called “fusion cell” will be co-ordinated by a new National Anti-Scam Centre to identify ways to disrupt investment scams and minimise losses.

Investment cons are responsible for around half of the $1 billion in total scam losses suffered by Australians each year.

The investment scam unit will operate for six months initially and report to the anti-scam centre launched by Assistant Treasurer Stephen Jones in Melbourne on Monday.

“There is a scamdemic,” Mr Jones said.

“The top priority of our new national anti-scams centre is to detect and disrupt scammers before they can reach Australians.”

The average loss from each investment scam is about $80,000.

The unit will be led by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and Australian Securities and Investments Commission, and include representatives from the banks, telecommunications industry and digital platforms.

ACCC deputy chair Catriona Lowe said investment swindles were the most reported scams and they caused emotional devastation for victims.

“This additional level of co-ordination and focus across government and relevant industries will target investment scam activity more effectively and help prevent further losses to these scams,” she said.

ASIC deputy chair Sarah Court said collaboration between regulators and the private sector would be crucial.

But Consumer Action acting CEO Tania Clarke urged the government to consider new laws protecting bank customers from losses directly resulting from scams.

“It provides the incentives for those in control of the online payment platforms to introduce measures to protect people,” she said.

A scheme introduced in the UK had led to improved prevention and detection systems, she said.

British banks and other payment providers are legally liable to reimburse most of their customers for scam losses that occur via transfers on their platforms. 

In Australia, more than 95 per cent of scam victims are forced to carry the loss themselves.

Last year, British banks that signed up to the code reported a 19 per cent reduction in scam losses on the previous year.

By comparison, Australia recorded a 62 per cent increase in scam losses via bank transfer in the same year.

Scam victim Nina Merrilees, who lost $11,000 in the “hello mum” scam, said the new fusion cell risked being “just another information collection agency”.

She said the scams would not occur if the banks did more to stop money flowing through fraudulent accounts and had to pay back victims.

“It’s all care and no responsibility,” she told AAP.

“Banks make billions of dollars each year – they should pay back funds that have been scammed.”