How to stay safe from scams

20 Jul, 2010
Dr Russell Smith delivers his talk on identity fraud and online crime at AUT.

The busty blonde Russian woman you met online who needs to borrow money for emergency surgery could well be a West African man trying to dupe you out of your life savings.

If you’re careful you’ll never be the victim of a scam, but do you have a lock on your mailbox, shred your bank statements and ignore text messages from numbers you don’t know?

There are 1.8 billion global Internet users as at Dec 2009, that’s 27 per cent of the world’s population. There are 3.5 million internet users in New Zealand, that’s a whopping 83 per cent of the New Zealand population. Facebook and Myspace have 200 million users registered globally.

Dr Russell Smith is Australasia’s leading criminologist with qualifications in law, psychology and criminology. At the Australian Institute of Criminology he is Principal Criminologist and head of the Global Economic and Electronic Crime Programme. At a recent public lecture he gave at AUT he says the internet, while a great resource, has also made us incredibly vulnerable to identity theft and other online scams.

“In 2006 48 per cent of us were exposed to scams and there was a 38 per cent increase in fraud cases in the New Zealand courts from 2008 to 2009.  The scamming technologies are getting more and more sophisticated and at the same time sites such as facebook, which can potentially expose personal details, are gaining in popularity. The combination of the two is very dangerous,” says Dr Smith.

The KPMG Fraud Barometer monitors the level of fraud cases before the criminal courts in New Zealand. It measured $100 million defrauded in 2009 compared to $70m in 2008.

It also found that those in management tended to be more likely to commit fraud than lower employees and when they do commit fraud they generally steal far higher amounts due to their access to information, authorisation capabilities and ability to understand and override internal controls.

So who are the targets of fraud? Unfortunately, scammers target everyone, although high-wealth people are particularly at risk as are those in older age groups.  People who have suffered serious life traumas such as personal financial crises or loss of a job may also be vulnerable. Also at risk are those who are likely to trust strangers, and make impulsive decisions and those who use the internet for long hours (up to 20 hours per week).

AUT MPhil candidate, Mireille Johnson, has spent the better part of two years researching identity fraud to see whether New Zealand needs specific public policy on identity fraud.

“New Zealand does have serious problems in its systems which in some cases facilitate identity fraud. There is a lack of synchronicity between New Zealand government systems which undermines a ‘whole of government’ approach to minimising the risk of identity fraud,” she says.

There are systems in the public and private sector which enable identity fraud to occur despite attempts to reduce it, Johnson says. Some of those enablers identified in Johnson’s research include an increase in the difficulty of document verification, the accessibility of other’s identities, an increase in name changes and an increase in non-identity documents being accepted as ID.

The New Zealand police have a database of identity fraud incidents but the information collected is reliant on it being given voluntarily by other NZ government departments, she says.

She says this is unlikely to change unless specific outcomes around identity fraud are developed in the public sector to ensure the collection process is formalised in both the private and public sectors.

“Other similar westernised countries have developed or are in the process of developing specific legislation relating to identity fraud offending. New Zealand is a noticeable exception.”

Dr Smith’s top tips on protecting yourself:
*    Never respond to an email asking you for your PINs or passwords
*    Be suspicious of unexpected calls and text messages
*    Hang up. Or text ‘STOP’ to unwanted mobile SMS messages
*    Don’t give out your number to just anyone

Protect your computer
*    Keep your security software up to date, and turn on automatic updates
*    Don’t respond in any way to unsolicited emails; when in doubt, delete!

Protect your identity
*    Never give out your details to someone you don’t know or trust
*    Don’t just bin it—destroy it (old bills, records or expired cards)
*    Use strong passwords; check your credit report at least once a year

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