An ACCC-ASIC led ‘fusion cell’ shut hundreds of scam websites and blocked 113 attempted calls to scam phone numbers, the National Anti-Scam Centre (NASC) has said amidst revelations that Australian losses to scammers declined in the first quarter.

According to the NASC’s quarterly update for January to March 2024, all three of the government’s key scam reporting agencies reported quarter-to-quarter declines in the financial losses suffered by the people reporting the crimes to them – including the Australian Financial Crimes Exchange (AFCX, which observed a 41.2 per cent drop from the previous quarter), the NASC’s Scamwatch (10.8 per cent), and ReportCyber (3 per cent).

Victims lodged 107,251 scam reports with the three agencies, reporting a total of $345.6 million lost during the quarter – with phishing scams the most common and average losses by victims down 4.4 per cent to $15,212.

Investment scams were the most financially damaging attack overall, with Scamwatch reporting that such scams took $47.1 million from Australian victims during the quarter.

This is still a significant sum, although the percentage of reported investment scams that led to a financial loss decreased from 42.7 per cent last year, to 34.2 per cent this quarter – leading the agency to note that the figures “may indicate that increased efforts to raise awareness about scams is having some impact, with many people reporting scams that they have not lost money to.”

This change, NASC speculated, is “a positive indicator” suggesting that widespread efforts to educate the public about scams – and partnerships with organisations such as the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), ASIC, Treasury, ATO, banks, and telecommunications providers – are finally gaining traction.

The past year has seen a full-court press across industry and government, with an ‘A-team’ of cyber experts tasked with disrupting scammers as banks began sharing data to speed scam detection and response; executives ordered to certify companies’ anti-scam activities; telcos required to block SMS scams; a new Sender ID Registry tackling spoofed messages; and police arresting and jailing a string of scammers.

Are new approaches finally working?

The success of the cyber ‘A-team’ – a ‘fusion cell’ that joined the ACCC, ASIC and 43 other organisations – validated the government’s increasingly aggressive posture in cracking down on scammers, with a companion Investment Scam Fusion Cell Report detailing the efforts of the team during its first six months in operation.

Between August 2023 and February 2024, NASC reported, the fusion cell validated a model for intercepting calls to known scam phone numbers in real time, with “potentially millions of dollars in imposter bond and term deposit scam losses” avoided as 113 scam calls were diverted to a recorded warning.

As well as improving reporting of scams and expanding the use of recorded scam warnings, the fusion team also took down more than 220 investment scam websites and created a direct referral process that saw more than 1,000 scam advertisements, advertorials, and videos removed by digital platforms.

Australian Banking Association (ABA) CEO Anna Bligh – who has been actively encouraging banks’ collaborations with industry and government anti-scam efforts – called the reported success of these and other initiatives “further evidence that inroads are being made in the fight against scammers.”

With banks rallying behind the $100 million Scam Safe Accord and a $37.3 million commitment in the latest federal Budget for mandatory industry scams codes, Bligh said “banks have some of the strongest anti-scam protections in the world and continue to stop payments to high-risk crypto exchanges as well as transfers to suspect accounts.”

Yet, she warned, “it’s critical that all parts of the scams chain get behind” looming mandatory codes, she said while singling out the participation of social media platforms as being particularly important.

NASC is working to improve data sharing between the three organisations, with consolidation to this year provide even better detail on anti-scam efforts.

And while Australians still lost $2.74 billion to scams last year, NASC believes the effectiveness of the fusion cell shows that targeted, collaborative efforts can succeed in cutting scam losses – an “encouraging” trend that it called “an early sign that industry and government’s response to scams is beginning to have impact.”

“However,” the agency noted, “highly damaging losses continue to fall on Australians seeking investment opportunities.”