The next time you receive an email asking for money or sensitive information, it might be worth double checking who it’s come from.

New research from the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) has revealed business email compromise (BEC) scams robbed Australians of $132 million in 2019.

According to the ACCC’s Targeting Scams report, these emails targeted businesses, individuals and suppliers and would manipulate legitimate invoices, impersonate senior company managers requesting money or pose as employees requesting a change in account for salary payment.

“Scammers intercept legitimate invoices and change the details to include fraudulent payment information,” said ACCC Deputy Chair Mick Keogh.

“The recipient will pay the invoice as normal and not realise they have been scammed.”

“Another technique used by scammers is to impersonate the CEO of a company and request staff transfer funds to them for a variety of reasons, such as to purchase gift cards as a surprise for other staff.”

“Scammers are increasingly using email scams to target businesses of all sizes,” Keogh said. “It is important to have strong processes in place for verifying and paying accounts and businesses should ensure their systems have up-to-date anti-virus software.”

Technology was also at the centre of a number of other scams, including $126 million lost to investment scams and $83 million gone in dating and romance scams.

In all, scams cost Australians over $634 million in 2019, as malicious actors found new ways to manipulate their victims into handing over money and information.

This was despite the fact five per cent fewer people actually reported such incidents.

Another type of scam centred on online shopping, with businesses buying equipment that never turns up.

Small and micro businesses were found to be more susceptible to scams than larger businesses. The ACCC reports the average loss to a business was $11,000, but some lost up to $200,000.

Words with scammers

The data suggests Australians are slowly becoming more savvy to the threat of scams, with only 11.8 per cent of reported incidents reporting in financial loss.

This is forcing scammers to look for creative ways to swindle money and information from their victims.

The ACCC revealed these scammers have started turning to “unexpected platforms” to target victims.

This included popular gaming app Words With Friends, as scams received through mobile app contacts grew 29 per cent in 2019.

Scams executed through social media also saw an uptick of 20 per cent in 2019, with romance scams on social media alone costing $9.5 million.

There was also a rise in the use of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and deepfakes that are now being used by scammers to add credibility according to the ACCC.

Phishing was the most common form of attack for these malicious actors, as scammers looked for ways to gather information about their victims, as opposed to just money.

There were 25,168 reports of phishing resulting in over $1.5 million in losses last year, up 3.6 per cent from 2018.

This was followed by threats to life, arrest or other (13,375 reports) and identity theft (11,373 reports), which proved costlier at $4.2 million and $4.3 million respectively.

Scamming in 2020

Early data suggests phishing and other cyber-based scams will increase further, with lockdown restrictions associated with COVID-19 meaning scammers no longer have to actively interact with a victim.

“At a time when Australians can least afford to lose money to scammers, we need more than ever to stay on top of scams, look out for each other and find innovative ways to disrupt scams,” the report states.

In April, the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) warned of an increase in COVID-19-themed scams, including phishing texts posing to be Westpac.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also given rise to scams impersonating government services such as myGov, Services Australia and the ATO.

The beginning of the year also saw an explosion in fake charity scams exploiting the bushfire crisis.

Similarly, there were also a number of scams involving crowdfunding platforms as people looked for ways to donate to the cause.