The Customer Owned Banking Association (COBA) has urged residents who have been impacted by the recent floods in NSW and Queensland to be on the lookout for scammers posing as government employees, insurers or charity groups working to restore impacted communities.
The association cited figures from the Insurance Council of Australia, which found that more than 5,000 insurance claims were lodged over last weekend (Saturday, 20 March, and Sunday, 21 March), with insurers aiming to fast-track claims processing for policyholders impacted by the floods.
Commenting on these occurrences, COBA director of services and financial crimes Leanne Vale said that scammers can take advantage of the rapid pace and trauma of natural disasters, who she said are “exceptionally skilled” at impersonating organisations and manipulating emotions.
“Crisis and rebate scammers deploy various tactics to take advantage of people in a time of uncertainty,” Ms Vale said.
“Hearing about bushfires, floods, cyclones or earthquakes can motivate us to give, but for scammers, it’s an opportunity to take.”
She also warned that “brazen” scammers would not hesitate to pose as policyholders and intercept cash payments through fraudulent emails and SMS.
“With this natural disaster impacting densely populated areas in NSW and Queensland, we may well see a higher number of insurance claims and requests for government assistance than the 2020 bushfires,” Ms Vale said.
“Scammers will closely follow this disaster and target payments that are essential to recovery, whether funding temporary accommodation, replacing essential items, or rebuilding homes.”
COBA recounted the tactics that were used during the bushfires in 2020, including a sham SMS that declared that “Centrelink has processed your Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment. Payment will be made to your account within 48 hours”.
COBA said this was followed by fraudulent texts and phone calls that suggested that government payments had been made in error, and included instructions and demands to return the money.
Furthermore, it added that people were also asked for secure personal details such as their bank account numbers, and said bank accounts were emptied of funds and identities were stolen in just a few minutes, paving the way for even more crimes.
COBA also cited data from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) Scamwatch, which recorded a 300 per cent increase in the amount lost to rebate scams from the previous year.
Ms Vale said: “It’s important to remember that government departments will never randomly phone or send text messages to initiate a benefit claim.”
Ms Vale also provided advice to residents on how to avoid scammers, including:
- Being wary of all approaches residents did not initiate, especially if they are asked to send money online;
- Confirming the identity of the contact by calling the organisation directly, and not feeling pressured to respond to the contact if not 100 per cent sure;
- Not disclosing personal information in a phone call, such as sharing a bank account screen, reading out passwords, or providing login details to myGov;
- Printing and posting documents at the local post office when internet services are disrupted;
- Residents should only donate to legitimate registered official charities and to verify the charity through the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commissions websites.
She also said that trusted organisations will not ask for an upfront payment to process recovery payments, and added that requests from Services Australia and government departments can be verified with a call to special hotlines that are made available on their websites.
COBA’s warnings have followed alerts this year by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) about a rise in imposter bond investment offers, and by the Western Australian government about scammers targeting home buyers, posing as settlement agents and other parties involved in the home-buying process.
Malavika Santhebennur is the features editor on the mortgages titles at Momentum Media.
Before joining the team in 2019, Malavika held roles with Money Management and Benchmark Media. She has been writing about financial services for the past six years.