New technology – mobile phones, the Internet, social media–have allowed what was a minor vexation to become a large and seemingly growing problem: the scam.

The Nigerian Scam letter is the oldest of the modern scams. In its earliest form the purported author, exclusively a male, commonly from Nigeria, sought the assistance of ‘a person of uncompromised integrity’, to move a large sum of money from Africa to a bank account in a western country.  The reward for your help was, typically a10–20 percent share of the ‘liberated’ funds.  

Once initial contact had been established and trust built, the author requested an advance on the promised dividend to bribe officials, secure licenses or pay costs of documentation.  Once such funds were advanced all contact ceased and the money disappeared.

Several authors attribute the rise in these scams, in the mid 1980s, to social and political upheavals in Nigeria.  Those factors, together with a decline in world oil prices, cut deeply into foreign exchange earnings of Nigeria, a country that relied on crude oil sales for 90 percent of its export earnings and 75 percent of its government revenues.  The widespread use of fax machines and increasingly cheap international telephone rates contributed too.

The same principle has been applied to the romance scam. A casual hook-up on line, often with older people, but almost always with someone lonely, is nurtured by the scammer. Then the victim is asked for money for an urgent operation, to pay off debts to criminals threatening the scammer’s life, or to fly to Australia to be with the victim. Often, after success in extracting a small sum, the scammer escalated the requests. Some victims have lost tens of thousands or more before either the scammer disappears, or the victim recognised the fraud.

These are called advance fee frauds but they aren’t new and are named 419s, after a section of the US penal code, that codify them.  Similar schemes have been recorded over the years. Brendan I. Koerner reported that:

The [Nigerian] scam is experiencing a digitally aided heyday… 419’s roots stretch back to the Jazz Age.  It’s an Africanised version of “The Spanish Prisoner”, a classic 1920s scheme in which suckers were convinced that a wealthy scion was rotting in a Barcelona jail.  Front some cash to win his freedom, and you’d be amply rewarded for your troubles. Or not.

And Richard Hall, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald edition of the Good Weekend in 1993, told of the exploits of one Sydney entrepreneur and villain, Mick Bell, who in the 1840s, extracted an advance fee from a Mr Monies ‘to finance the smuggling of a mythical £20,000 worth of goods out of the colony on a phantom ship in Port Hacking.’

My own first encounter with the scam was in 1983.  One morning, a confidential offer to share in untold wealth just popped out of our brand new fax:  My then business partner was keen to pursue the invitation but I was not.  Perhaps it was a case of like frauds attract; he subsequently defrauded our company of considerable sums of money and cleared out to South Africa.

But while the fax machine gave new life to old scams, the mobile phone and the personal computer have created a world that scam merchants could only dream about.  Scam calls to my phone sometimes outrank legitimate calls.

The persistence of NBN, Telstra’s ‘technical department’, Amazon and Netflix scam calls suggest that there are still enough gullible people around to make them worth the effort. But it also says that the legitimate agencies do not do enough to publicise the frauds being executed in their name.

NBN is a wholesaler of data communication and  contacts consumers only through an ISP, an Internet Service Provider. The only exception seems for NBN service personnel to call to confirm an arrival time for an appointment made by an ISP.

Telstra does not have a ‘service department’ as such. If a caller offers an employee number to prove they are from Telstra, remember they could be reading out a receipt number for a dry-cleaning job. You have no way of checking. Ask for something only you and Telstra know, like your account number.

But Telstra is their own worst enemy, some departments cannot talk to others. When we were getting a long delayed broadband connection (delayed because modems were not available to connect us to the obsolete Optus HFC network in our street) Telstra made an appointment for the NBN technician to call. When they did not turn up, we contacted Telstra customer service, only to be told by a rather rude manager, that our booking reference number did not exist and clearly, we had been scammed. Later we got an apology and even later, the technician turned up.

Among the more anxiety-inducing scams is the Australian Tax Office debt scam. A menacing voice on the telephone, frequently a robocall, advises that you owe tax and police will arrive shortly to arrest you for non-payment. This outcome can be avoided if you immediately pay the debt, frequently in bitcoins, or other untraceable means of exchange like gift vouchers.

According to the ATO, in 2021, people aged 25 to 34 reported the most amount of money lost to tax scams, closely followed by those aged 18 to 24. However, age seems to endow wisdom as those aged 55 and above were among those who reported the least losses.   In addition, the ATO has taken action against 595 websites impersonating ATO online. These fake sites are designed to steal passwords, personal information and identity documents, such as passports and driver licences.

Like the Nigerian fraud scams, there are variations of the ATO scam – so be wary.

The take-home messages here are simple. Don’t give personal information to people who cold call, on the phone or the internet. Don’t click on links but enter URL address by hand. And if an offer seems too good the be true, it is almost certainly not true.

Vincent O’Donnell

Media Analyst and Researcher.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.