Thinking of clicking on that ‘congratulations, you’re a winner!’ message on your social media feed?

Don’t do it.

Scammers are harvesting personal details from small business customers, consumer protection authorities have warned, by creating lookalike Facebook pages that promise competition wins in exchange for entering personal information.

Fake pages are designed as convincing copies of the originals, but typically prompt users to register their details by clicking on a link – which directs them to a fake website that requires victims to provide personal and financial details before claiming the prize.

It’s a predatory practice that has, WA Commissioner for Consumer Protection Gary Newcombe warned, become even more widespread as struggling small businesses run competitions in the hopes of adding followers and drumming up new business.

“Operators are already struggling with the effects of COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions,” Newcombe said, “so now they have to contend with social media scammers disrupting their promotions.”

Using fake lottery wins, competition prizes, and other inducements is a long-established practice among scammers, who have this year already extracted $1.2 million from 3,681 such scams reported to the ACCC’s ScamWatch service.

It’s a fraction of the $166.2 million already taken in 151,100 reported scams this year, but prize scams are significant because they are particularly targeted at social networking channels where many users spend most of their online time.

Social networking channels are by far the most common method used by scammers, accounting for over $793,000 of reported losses across 353 incidents.

Women represent the lion’s share of losses – 71.1 per cent – while NSW victims were the most profitable for scammers, losing $493.56 per incident on average.

This was well ahead of Victoria ($344.69), Queensland ($265.42), SA ($202.38), WA ($149.46), Tasmania ($84.27), ACT ($48.66), and the NT ($21.73).

A united front against scammers

The current run rate puts this year’s total losses on track to top last year’s $1.7 million in prize and lottery scam losses – but both years are well behind the $2.385 million reported in 2019 and $2.745 million in 2018, when a fake ‘Facebook lottery’ victimised dozens of Australians.

It’s not clear whether scammers’ declining take is due to smarter consumers or thinner wallets due to COVID, although the overall surge in scams during the pandemic suggests the latter is unlikely.

The figures may reflect increasing traction for enforcement efforts such as the Reducing Scam Calls Code, which was introduced at the end of 2020 and requires all telcos to be proactive in intercepting scam calls.

Telstra’s Cleaner Pipes initiative, for one, is seeing the company block over 13 million scam calls per month alone – up from 6.5 million per month at the beginning of the year.

Yet for all the help that telcos can provide, consumers also need to nurse a healthy scepticism as scammers try new techniques to evade filters and extract funds from unsuspecting victims.

Tap-happy social media users need to be careful not to accept random friend requests or messages from pages claiming to be from a business, Newcombe advised, noting that “businesses can’t message users direct… people who receive these ‘congratulations, you’re a winner’ messages [should] be very suspicious.”

Contact the company directly via other channels to verify the authenticity of any claimed competition, he added.

Other advice – such as not clicking on links sent by someone you don’t know on social media and not entering personal, credit card or bank account information on a site you can’t guarantee to be authentic – may seem intuitive, but in the heat of the moment the statistics suggest far too many convenience-loving Australians are still getting caught out.