Personal fraud is now so sophisticated that you can be conned before even realising it, writes Graham Readfearn 'These people (scammers) can send out millions of emails at virtually no cost. They only need 0.0001 per cent of people to fall for it for them to make money' THEY can take the form of an innocent plea for help or an apparently benign request to "just confirm your details" in an email
     But across all walks of life -- whether on the internet, down the phone or through the letterbox -- it appears the era of the scam has well and truly arrived
     New Australian Bureau of Statistics research shows that in the past year, more than 800,000 Australians fell victim to a scam designed to extract our personal information, or our money
     Brisbane-based music composer Sean O'Boyle doesn't even know how he fell victim -- but he did
     Just minutes after his credit card was declined at a Melbourne airport hire-car desk, his phone rang
     "It was the credit card company asking me whether or not I was in South Africa -- someone there had been on a spending spree with my card," he said
     Luckily for O'Boyle, the $13,000 which had been spent on his card was refunded by Mastercard, but he still has no idea how it happened
     "I travel a lot and I always have the cards strapped to me. I never give them away and always make sure I can see them in restaurants
     "But someone, somewhere must have had a card skimmer -- they had cloned my card." But while card skimming is now a well-known tactic, the real surge in scams has come via the internet and email
     Some websites are set up to market a "free offer" or advertise a get-rich-quick scheme, which turns out to be a ruse to gather people's credit card details
     Another example is phishing, where emails take victims to fake financial websites where they are asked to enter their personal account details
     There are scores of examples of scams -- and advice on how to avoid becoming a victim -- on the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission website www.scamwatch.gov.au ACCC deputy chair Louise Sylvan, who also chairs the Australasian Consumer Fraud Taskforce, says cost is the main reason internet-based scams have become so popular among criminals
     "These people can send out millions of emails at virtually no cost," she says. "They only need 0.0001 per cent of people to fall for it for them to make money." She says the sophistication of the scammers has improved, particularly when it comes to phishing
     Sylvan says the websites and messages look professional and genuine, but the simple fact remains that a bank will never ask you to part with personal information
     The ABS research says that almost six million people were exposed to some kind of scam in the past year
     Under identity fraud, the ABS includes credit or bank card fraud, and identity theft which include scams such as lotteries, pyramid schemes, financial advice, chain letters and advance-fee fraud
     Paul Vincent, director of forensic accounting at Vincents Chartered Accountants in Brisbane, says: "I would hate to guess what this is costing the major financial institutions, not only in the identity fraud itself but in the costs they incur in trying to prevent it
     "I am not convinced that we are close to knowing the full extent of such costs." Vincent admits even he was caught out during a visit to Sydney when he handed over his credit card to a restaurant waiter
     "The next morning, I received a call from my bank asking if I was in Jakarta as there was a $3800 transaction in a pharmacy there and that my Visa card was presented in the pharmacy for the transaction
     "Everybody knows someone who has been a victim to credit card fraud." The ACCC's Little Black Book of Scams is available to download free from www.scamwatch.gov.au Stopping ID fraud PAUL Vincent, of Vincents Chartered Accountants in Brisbane, gives his top tips to beating the fraudsters
     * Get a card with a small credit limit for all internet and daily credit transactions. Better still, use cash wherever possible. Credit cards with large limits should only be used with trusted businesses
     * Never let your credit card out of your sight. The merchant will always give in to having you in his untidy back office if faced with the alternative of not making the sale
     * Letter boxes and rubbish bins are a treasure chest for identity thieves. Lock your letterbox and shred anything that would easily identify you such as old bills, expired credit cards and partially completed credit card applications
     * Your bank will never email you and ask personal questions about your account, your account number or its password, so do not respond. If you receive an email, contact your bank in person
     * Your passwords and PIN codes are the keys that lock thieves out of your electronic world. Avoid obvious ones and if you suspect someone knows them, then change them immediately.


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