How to protect yourself against scams

Published on 18 December 2023

Two elderly people use a laptop computer together.

Scams are unfortunately everywhere these days, with the Australian Bureau of Statistics reporting earlier this year that two thirds of Australians aged 15 years and over were exposed to a scam in 2021-22.

To help you or an elderly loved one to keep their personal information safe, it’s important to understand the warning signs and what you can do to prevent a scam from being successful. 

What is a scam? 

A scam is a deceptive or fraudulent scheme used to trick innocent people out of their money or personal information. A person who commits a scam is called a “scammer”.

These days, scams can be very sophisticated, meaning that people sometimes don’t know they have responded to a scam until it’s too late.

Some of the most common types of scams include:

Phone scams

Scam phone calls are very common, with callers usually pretending to be from well-known organisations, such as a bank, law firm, telecommunications provider or a government organisation like Centrelink, the ATO or MyGov. They might already have some of your personal details, such as your name or address, which they use to make you think they are genuine. A lot of the time, they will make the phone call sound urgent, such as saying you must act quickly to avoid a fine.

Email scams

These scams usually involve scammers sending fraudulent emails pretending to be a well-known company in an attempt to gain access to personal information. These emails are called “phishing emails”.

Text scams

Scammers use text messages to try to steal personal details or to trick people into downloading malicious software on their mobile devices. Text messages will sometimes include a web link that you are told to click, and you are then taken to a web page where your personal details are requested. Some common scams these days include fake texts from your children saying they’ve lost their phone and need you to send them money, or from the post office saying your parcel could not be delivered.

Postal scams

Some scammers will create fake letters from big organisations, such as your local council or a road toll provider, and claim that you owe money in the form of rates or fines.

In-person scams

Some scammers might knock on your door or approach you in public and either try to sell you something, get you to complete a survey or ask for donation to a fake charity. 

How can I recognise a potential scam? 

Unfortunately, scams can sometimes be hard to spot as the scammers will pretend to be contacting you from an organisation you are familiar with, such as your bank, or from someone you trust, such as a loved one. As such, it’s important to be vigilant.

You should never share your personal information if you feel unsure. Scammers may pretend to be from your bank or a government institution and ask you to verify who you are by asking for your date of birth and other details.

Never respond immediately to a phone call, text message or email that is asking you to share personal information or your banking details. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s best to check that the person contacting you is really who they say they are before handing over any information.

For example, if a phone call feels suspicious, hang up and call the business or organisation back using contact information found on their official website or a secure app. They will be able to tell you if the call was genuine or not.

The same goes for suspicious emails or letters. If you receive a notification saying, for instance, that you have unpaid road tolls or bills and that you will be fined if you don’t pay immediately, call the organisation to verify the authenticity of the letter. Again, contact organisations using contact details found on a trusted source, such as the organisation’s website. Never use the contact details provided in the suspicious email or letter, as these could be fake.

Real organisations will never ask you to confirm your password, PIN or bank details, so if anyone asks you for these, it’s likely it’s a scam.

Always be suspicious of links in text messages and emails, so don’t click these unless you are 100% sure who sent it to you. Again, it’s best to contact the sender using the contact information found on their website to check if the link is real, or if it’s come from someone claiming to be a family member or friend, contact them directly and confirm they really sent the message.

If anyone tries to threaten you or intimidate you, perhaps by telling you that if you don’t pay a fine immediately there will be additional fees, hang up immediately. Additionally, always be wary of offers or deals that look too good to be true – they usually are. Do independent research before making purchases or investments found online.

The bottom line is: if in doubt, don’t engage and just hang up the phone or delete the message. 

What should I do if I think I’ve been scammed? 

If a scammer has succeeded in getting your personal details or your money, you’re not alone. It’s important though to act fast to limit the damage.

First of all, contact your bank or card provider and let them know what’s happened. They will be able to put a hold on your card and stop any transactions.

Next, report the scam. A lot of older people feel embarrassed or ashamed to have been scammed, and therefore don’t speak up or tell anyone. But it’s important that you report a scam as that might help other people avoid the same problem. You can report a scam through the Scamwatch website, or make an official report to the police online.

It’s also recommended that you change the passwords for your important online accounts, such as email, banking and government.

If a scammer is successful, it is highly likely that they will attempt to get more money from you. Remain wary of anyone contacting you via phone, text message, email or in-person asking for your personal details.

Once again, scams are incredibly common and can happen to anyone. You should not feel ashamed if you encounter one, but if you do need support in the aftermath, we encourage you to speak to friends or family members about how you’re feeling, or alternatively contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.

For more information, we encourage you to visit the Scamwatch website, which is run by the National Anti-Scam Centre, as part of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

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