Don't be an April Fool: Three online scams to watch out for

Online cons can cost you both time and money. Take a look at three common scams, and tips to stay safe online.

"I've got another confession to make, I'm your fool"…  If there is a prank to be played on April 1st, I’ll believe every word.

In years gone by, I’ve ordered pet-fi, salivated over eating my pizza box, and imagined riding Branson’s Virgin Volcanic to the core of our planet.

Alas, not all pranks are so trivial, so in honour of April Fool’s Day, here’s how to avoid going from woe to 'D’oh!'

Online Dating Scams

According to the ACCC, 2,620 Australians lost almost $23 million to romance scams last year.

Considering many people are reluctant to admit to being unlucky in love, this figure is likely much higher.

By using social media or online dating sites, would-be Romeos connect with their victims using either a fake profile, or by assuming the identity of someone trusted (think foreign aid workers, military, or overseas ex-pats.)

The scammer moves quickly, romantically suggesting the conversation is moved off the dating site, and onto another (less traceable) medium such as email or chat, and will spend months gaining your trust before requesting money.

This money is usually to handle a sudden family emergency, or recover from a unexpected run of financial bad luck.

To ensure you think with your head and not your heart:

  • Never provide your credit card details or transfer money, to someone you’ve met online.

    It’s almost impossible for the banks to step in and save the day (and your hip pocket) once you’ve wired money overseas, so be particularly suspicious if someone asks you to do so.

    Be mindful that money laundering is a criminal offence, so a broken heart won’t be your only woe if you accept and transfer money or packages for somebody else.

  • Run Google’s Reverse Image Search to match the photo you want verified with any similar pics on Google images. If the love of your life is using a stock photo, or has stolen someone’s profile pic, it will be matched with its original.

  • Be wary of the tell-tale signs - perhaps the person promises to Skype yet their webcam is always broken, or requests money to visit but can suddenly no longer travel.

  • Finally, if you think you have been scammed, report your experience to the website where the scammer first approached you and immediately cease contact. There are, after all, plenty more fish in the sea.

Phishing Scams

We’ve all received phoney correspondence from a fraudster purporting to look like it’s come from a legitimate business (think your bank or the ATO).

The latest in phishing - spear phishing - lifts the game by originating from a site you do business with, using real details about a purchase you recently made (and perhaps bragged about on social media), to appear even more believable.

Phishing phone calls posing as your bank often request your log on details to confirm a recent purchase. Phishing emails generally demand you log in to your account, usually to prevent it from being closed down.

Phishing texts will congratulate you for winning money, and seek bank details for the transfer.  

Regardless of format, the ACCC reports $363,270 was handed over to phishing fraudsters in 2015, so we’re still falling for the scams - hook, line, and sinker.  

Before taking the bait:

  • Does it really seem plausible that your institution would have sent the email? Have a look on their website - is there any mention of the “issue” your correspondence refers to? Try using a cut and paste of the exact wording in Google, to see if it’s been flagged with Scam Watch.

  • Remember to always type the address in yourself (and not click on the hyperlink in the email) to ensure you’re going to the correct page (and not the dodgy one.)

    If you’re on the phone, offer to call them back (obviously using the number on the back of your card and not the one provided by the caller!)

  • Look for the padlock symbol in your browser, remembering "no padlock, no purchase". You’ll notice the http:// changes to https:// when a site is secure; legitimate sites will encrypt (or scramble) the information you send, to protect your information.

  • Finally, if you hang up the phone with the feeling of dread that you’ve revealed too much, alerting your bank should be your first port of call.

    The bank can put a stop on your card to prevent further transactions, and it may be possible to enable a chargeback for those that have been fraudulently billed. While you’re (inevitably) on hold, you can get to work on changing the passwords and pin numbers for any accounts you think may have been compromised.

Ransomware Scams

Malware scammers will upload a video to social media, or offer “free” music, movies, torrents, or adult content - often via a pop up window.

When you attempt to watch the video, you’re asked to download a particular codec or program to access the format, infecting your computer with malicious code that steals your information and sends it to a third party.

Likewise, ransomware is a form of malware that locks your computer or files and demands payment be made in the digital currency ‘bitcoin’ to receive the virtual key for their release.

The latest scams include a phoney subpoena from the AFP asking you to download your case files, or appear to be a shipment confirmation from Australia Post, to collect a parcel.

In short:

  • Never open attachments from strangers, or click through links on social media that require you to log onto another site to view. Look for reputable news services, rather than unknown web links.

  • Be wary of free downloads that may install snooping programs without you knowing. Remember if the product is free, you’re what’s being sold.

    Remember that paying the ransom is still no guarantee that your computer will be unlocked, so it’s a good idea to always back up your files, in the unfortunate event you can no longer access them.

  • And finally, make sure your computer anti-virus and anti-spyware software is up to date.

    If you notice your computer is sluggy, you get lots of pop-up windows that are hard to close, or your browser looks different, disconnect from the Internet and talk to the pros.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to reverse Google image search some photos!