Getting a text is an exciting experience as it’s increasingly an outmoded means of communication. Recently though, when your phone buzzes, it’s usually not a friend getting in touch. More than likely, it’s a scammer trying to steal your banking information, which is less fun.
Aussies have been inundated with a huge influx of scam texts and phone calls during the pandemic, often written in broken English. Some people are reporting receiving up to five or six a day, informing them (or trying to) that they’ve got a missed call and to check their voicemail by clicking a link.
That link will take them to a site that will instruct them to download an app to hear the message. The app offers no message but will infect your phone with malware that could compromise your personal and financial information.
The government, seemingly powerless to do anything about this international influx, has finally set new rules and standards that require telecom companies to crack down on the annoying phenomenon.
So, why are we getting so many of these scam texts right now? What are the authorities doing to stop them? And what should you do if you receive one? We’ve got the answers below.
Scam Text Messages
Over six million scam calls occur each month in Australia. Those scams don’t need to be elaborate. If they can trick just 1% of those who receive the messages, the scammers are in for a serious windfall.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission keeps an eye on the practice and, in its latest report, reveals that Australians lost “well over” $2 billion to scams in 2021. That’s an 84% increase in 2020. Most of these losses come from investment scams, however, they state that around 73% of these scams start through texts and calls.
The most likely demographic to fall victim to scams are those in the 65+ category, however, those aged between 18 and 45 collectively lost $101 million in scams last year.
The most prevalent scam is known as the ‘FluBot scam’. This is the one described above, that informs a recipient that they have a missed call or an undelivered package before directing them to download malware called FluBot.
Scamwatch received more than 25,000 reports about the Flubot scam in a six-month period last year. The organisation received about 500 reports on it per day and dubbed it the “largest scam text message campaign in Australia’s history.”
It’s a pretty simplistic operation and one conducted entirely from overseas. Countries like Tanzania, Tunisia, or Bulgaria are where scammers operate and will send mass text messages to numbers often found online or in data leaks.
Another popular scam happening at the moment involves call ‘spoofing’. This is a slightly more elaborate scam that involves scammers calling your phone and masking the call to make it look like it’s coming from a friend or someone local.
Scammers know that we’re unlikely to answer unknown numbers, particularly unknown numbers from foreign countries we’ve never had any dealings with, but faking a call to disguise it as something more familiar often tricks people into picking up.
When you do pick up, the call is usually charged to your account through a premium line that the scammers have set up. While it might not end up costing you much, perhaps a few dollars before you hang up, doing this enough times can net the scammers a tidy profit.
It’s not just Australia that is seeing a massive surge in these fake calls and texts either. A recent report from the UK has shown that scam calls and texts are up 83% from last year over there. It’s the category of fraud that has seen the biggest jump in the pandemic.
The reasoning behind this is that people were locked down and cut off from other means of financial support or employment, so they turned to cybercrime.
Australians were also spending far more time online as digital became the only means of communication with the outside world. Couple this with some huge data breaches from companies like Facebook and Yahoo, resulting in the information of millions of people being exposed, and you’ve got the perfect storm for fraud.
Why Can’t We Stop Scam Calls and Texts?
Essentially, it’s very hard to stop scam calls and texts when they come from overseas — but that doesn’t mean we’re not trying.
— Em Rusciano (@EmRusciano) August 11, 2021
Cybersecurity expert David Lacey, who founded not-for-profit organisation IDCARE to assist victims of scams and identity theft, has told the Sydney Morning Herald that the vast majority of these scams are operated by organised criminal networks overseas.
“We’re looking easily at over 100 million scam phone calls coming into Australia a year, easily,” he said.
Given the international element, it requires governments working together to bring these scams down. FluBot was finally defeated last month by a joint operation between 11 national police forces throughout Europe and the US. Authorities are now trying to work out exactly who was behind the scam.
At home, we’re also doing our bit. Last year, as scam calls and texts made a resurgence during the pandemic, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) registered new rules that require mobile providers to detect, trace and block scam calls.
So far, its been a success. The ACMA worked with telcos and the Communications Alliance to block over 549 million scam calls last year, resulting in a significant drop-off in scam call reports.
Telstra has also announced that it is now blocking roughly 13 million scam calls per month. This is double the 6.5 million suspected scam calls that the company was blocking at the start of the year.
It has also implemented new SMS protocols to block messages pretending to be certain companies as well as updated its algorithms and detection models to identify and block scam calls and texts.
Unfortunately, Telstra says that the ever-evolving landscape of cybercrime means that criminals are always developing new means to get around current protections and that “no technology platform will ever stop scam calls entirely.”
New Scam Text Regulations
The ACMA has now turned its attention to scam texts. They have recently laid out new rules in its code of practice that require companies to trace, identify, and block SMS scam messages. The companies are now also required to share information with each other and authorities about scam calls and messages.
Any company that does not comply with the rules could face a fine of up to $250,000.
They state that last year’s efforts to minimise scam calls had been effective and that they hope to see similar results with this new approach to scam texts.
“There is no silver bullet to stop scams, but we know enforceable laws can have a significant impact and every blocked scam is a win for consumers. The harder we make it for scammers, the less Australians are likely to be targeted,” ACMA chair Nerida O’Loughlin said in a statement.
“We expect to see SMS scams reduce as the industry steps up to do more to protect their customers.”
What to Do About Scam Calls and Texts
If you’ve got a text or a call that you suspect to be a scam, your best bet is to simply delete the message.
There’s not a whole lot you can do otherwise to protect yourself. The ACMA offers a free service you can sign up to called the Do Not Call Register which secures your personal information and does appear to limit the number of calls and texts you get but it’s not foolproof.
Try to be careful with the information you enter online. Websites — even big ones — often get breached and your information can be revealed. These data dumps are often sold off online to scammers who then use the information to contact you.
If you’re a frequent Google user, the company keeps check of all of your account details for every website you’ve ever created and will alert you if your data has been compromised through a leak from one of these sites. You can check your current security status on Google here.
Finally, just be very suspicious of calls and texts you don’t recognise. Don’t respond to international phone calls you’re not expecting and don’t click links you’ve been sent in text messages. Companies will generally only get in touch with you via text if you’ve requested something from them — like a parcel — so if you’re doing a lot of online shopping like the rest of us, be especially careful of what you’re getting through text and who it’s from.
If you’ve already responded to a scam by downloading the malware they’ve linked you to, you’ll need to run antivirus software on your phone as soon as possible. Some companies who offer computer anti-virus software also offer phone protection packages so check if you’ve got this service already available to you.
If you have been scammed, visit Scamwatch.gov.au or call IDCARE on 1800 595 160.