Consumer Protection market intelligence
Ever thought about what happens to all the information collected by Consumer Protection when Western Australians enquire about an issue or lodge a complaint about a trader? Aside from the data being used to solve disputes and as part of investigations, it is also looked at by a team called the Market Intelligence and Planning Unit.
Analysis of the data can identify emerging trends and provide Consumer Protection with an opportunity to provide consumers with preventative advice.
Consumer Protection will list a new trend on this webpage, along with some recommendations in relation to the issue. The most recent issue will be listed below but you can look up previous issues under the Trend Archive.
‘Sunbird’ sheds light on scale of consumer frauds
In May 2012 the WA Police Major Fraud Squad began ‘Operation Sunbird’ to investigate whether funds transferred from Western Australia to West Africa were as a result of ‘request for money’ scams/frauds. The sophisticated scheme involves organised criminals connecting with victims online and extensively grooming them in what appears to be a personal relationship.
Police figures compiled between May 2012 and January 2013 have shown more than $11million has been sent to scammers in recent times (some transactions date back to 2011 even though they were discovered in the last few months). There are individual losses of up to $300,000.
In addition to these shocking statistics there are recorded losses from self-reporting romance fraud victims who contacted WA ScamNet – that adds up to about $900,000 in a year.
It’s just the tip of the iceberg though – money going to places like Malaysia, the UK, Canada and the US hasn’t been examined yet.
Due to the scale of the problem, what started as a police operation has matured into a long term partnership and collaboration between the Major Fraud Squad and Consumer Protection and has been appropriately renamed ‘Project Sunbird’.
Sunbird is about intervention. Victims who repeatedly send large amounts of money to places like Ghana, Nigeria or Sierra Leone are notified that they are caught up in a fraud. They inevitably find it extremely difficult to accept that the person they have been conversing with, over email and phone for months or sometimes even years, is a con artist. It is useful for them to hear it from two Government agencies and to access support offered by both. Further personal support services for victims are also being sourced.
If you or someone you know has begun a relationship with a person overseas after meeting on an internet dating or social networking website, you have not met them face to face and that person requests money, it will likely be a fraud. Don’t be fooled by claims that the cash is needed to help out in an emergency situation, to fund an investment opportunity or to pay for an airfare to come to WA. Also be aware that the person running the fraud may not represent themselves as being West African; they may pretend to be Australian, English, American or some other nationality.
WA ScamNet’s top tips to avoid relationship fraud:
- Do not respond to out-of-the-blue social media messages from strangers, such as a friend request on Facebook.
- Be on your guard if someone you meet on an online dating site asks you to take the conversation over to email or instant messaging.
- Be wary of overseas-based singles especially if they confess their love for you after a short amount of time or want to know about your financial status.
- Remember that just because someone shares personal photos does not mean the pictures are of them – scammers often steal other people’s photos.
- Don’t be fooled into thinking that talking to somebody on the phone means you know them and that they are who they say there are.
- Be concerned if a person refuses to chat real-time via a webcam and be mindful that even Skype is not scammer proof – watch out for pre-recorded videos.
- Alarm bells should ring if someone you do not know personally (have met face-to-face) requests money, particularly by a wire transfer service such as Western Union or even direct bank transfers, which could be going to an account set up with a stolen identity.
- Anyone who has lost money in a relationship fraud should be very wary of secondary scam attempts e.g. offers of scam compensation from law enforcement or government agencies.
2012 Top Five Complaints
The hottest topic for consumers in 2012 was solar products with complaints about installation delays and warranties issues. This was followed by complaints about air transport, discount vouchers, fencing and pre-assembled furniture.
To cap it off, WA ScamNet recorded $1.7 million in losses to scams over the 12 month period with romance scams accounting for about $870,000 of the total.
Consumer Protection handled 10,808 complaints in 2012. The top five issues were:
- Solar products (installation delays and warranties) – 234 complaints
- Air Transport (refunds and non-performance) – 152
- Discount vouchers (supply difficulties and refunds) – 137
- Fencing (workmanship and delays) – 124
- Pre-assembled furniture (unsatisfactory goods and remedies) – 84
WA ScamNet recorded $1.7 million in losses. The top five reported scams were:
- Microsoft scam (remote tech support) – average victim loss of $500
- Romance scams – average victim loss of $37,000
- Puppy scams (non-existent pets for sale) – average victim loss of $800
- ATO scams (bogus tax office refunds) – average victim loss of $450
- Rental scams (fake online classifieds listings) – average victim loss of $1,500