Increasingly aggressive scammers are on notice after the launch of the government’s National Anti-Scams Centre (NASC) puts them in the crosshairs of a ‘hit squad’ whose members come from various agencies and are charged with working together to disrupt damaging scams.

Based in Melbourne and designed as a ‘fusion cell’ staffed with experts from government, law enforcement, and the private sector, the NASC – which was funded in May through a $58 million Budget commitment – began operating on 1 July.

Multidisciplinary fusion cells and fusion centres have become increasingly common as governments here and abroad fight fire with fire by assembling diverse teams of cyber security specialists to take on roving gangs of cyber criminals.

This “nimble” approach, Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Financial Services Stephen Jones said in announcing what he called a world-first fusion cell focused on scams, is expected to help the government more effectively deal with “urgent, high profile or damaging scams.”

Team members “will utilise their expertise and intelligence to disrupt a specific scam,” Jones continued, with the first cell – to be led by the ACCC and ASIC along with specialists from banks, the telecommunications industry, and digital platforms – set to target investment scams.

Such scams, which trick victims into providing funds with promises of significant returns that never eventuate, are estimated to account for more than half of all scam losses – which grew by 80 per cent year-on-year to total more than $3.1 billion last year, according to the ACCC’s latest annual scams report.

Despite many wising up to scammers in recent years, ACCC ScamWatch statistics show that Australians lost more than $151 million in nearly 4, 000 reported investment scams in the first half of this year alone – on track to equal or better the $296 million lost to such scams during 2022.

As well as working to remove investment scam sites from the Internet, the NASC will work on early intervention campaigns, including stopping scammers from reaching potential victims and sharing information about investment scam activity to help private-sector organisations undertake their own disruptive action.

The first fusion cell will initially operate for six months, with outcomes to be publicly reported.

Fool me twice, blame the scammers

Stemming the theft of Australians’ money has become a major focus for the government as increasingly sophisticated scammers prove ever more effective at tricking their victims by impersonating legitimate brands, impersonating the voices of loved ones, and capitalising upon the broad interest that accompanies major world events.

“Tragic and cataclysmic events have been among the most exploited topics for cybercriminals in recent years,” Bitdefender Antispam Lab recently noted after observing that scammers kicked off new campaigns less than 24 hours after the discovery of the ruined Titan undersea submersible.

“We urge all users to watch out for attempts to further capitalise on the tragic event,” that firm warned, “and to avoid communicating with the scammers.”

Logistics operators are most commonly emulated to execute scams in Australia, security firm Proofpoint reported after a recent survey of 1,017 Australian workers that found 48 per cent said they had received emails, texts, or calls with fake package-delivery notices; financial services firms (38 per cent) and telecommunications companies (37 per cent) were also being mimicked by scammers on a regular basis.

Accounts payable anti-fraud firm Eftsure recently reported seeing nearly 3.5 more times as many fraud attempts as usual over the past three months, with “tactics that are sharper and more targeted than ever before… with scammers leveraging a strong understanding of corporate processes and documentation.”

Flagging what it calls scamming at “industrialised scale”, a recent GBG survey – which included 1,454 Australian respondents – found that 55 per cent of businesses have suffered fraud attacks in the past year, and that two-thirds believe fraud has stayed the same or increased from last year.

Heeding calls by the ACCC for a more “united front” against scammers, the past year has seen a flurry of new anti-spam initiatives as private-sector bodies push back against scammers.

Telstra, for one, recently launched a national phone number to which scam messages can be forwarded for analysis while banks are partnering with telcos and cracking down on scam payments as researchers and the government try everything from AI chatbots to SMS registries to hinder scammers’ effectiveness.