Cryptocurrency has overtaken bank transfers for payments into investment scams: ACCC

Australian consumer watchdog says the lack of regulations in the crypto wild west is helpful to scammers.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor
Image: Visuals6x -- Shutterstock

Losses from Australians to investment scams increased by 90% to AU$103 million from the start of the year to March 20, with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission saying payments made to scammers are most often made in cryptocurrency.

"In relation to scamwatch, we see a number of scams relating to investment schemes, and we are now seeing that the payments in relation to those are now more often by way of cryptocurrency than by way of bank transfer," newly-minted ACCC chair Gina Cass-Gottlieb told Senate Estimates on Thursday.

Executive general manager for consumer and fair trading Rami Greiss said while the increase in crypto use tracked its growing popularity, it has facets that lend itself to be used by scammers.

"It's also the fact that it's an unregulated product, so there are no controls. There are no institutions that can be roped in to assist," Greiss said.

"So really, it's the fact that it's the wild west."

Greiss further pointed out that only 12% of scams were reported, and therefore could not be taken as absolute gospel.

Referencing its current court action against Meta for allegedly publishing scam advertisements featuring prominent Australian public figures, Greiss said people were falling for scams through multiple channels.

"The heart of that [action], factually, is about scammers posting cryptocurrency advertisements and capturing people. Also, it's just the fact that people are drawn into these scams through other means," he said.

"So people might meet someone through a dating or friendship site and then be drawn into a crypto-scam that way. So it's really multi-channel, I don't think there's one particular area that they can target you; it's across the board."

The Australian government recently announced it would create a crypto badge of approval to licence intermediaries such as exchanges.

Minister for Digital Economy Jane Hume said on Wednesday that the licence will include a "fit and proper person" test, and could include anti-hawking measures to prevent cold calling. Hume also explicitly ruled out a ban.

"It's not government's role to ban investments in cryptocurrency, we don't think that that's a good idea," she said.

One area where the ACCC is seeing scams go down is in phone-based call scams -- decreasing by 50%.

"We believe that's in part because of disruption by the telecommunications companies ... and with information that Scamwatch is providing them," Cass-Gottlieb said.

On Thursday, Telstra announced it had switched on a new SMS filter in an effort to block scam texts before they hit user devices.

"We know the number of scam text messages on our network is on the rise -- in 2021 we had more than 11,000 reports of malicious texts to Android devices compared to 50 reports in 2020," outgoing Telstra CEO Andy Penn said.

After an internet trial, the telco said it has rolled out a scam filter to every customer on its network.

"Whether you're on a consumer plan, a managed device through your company, or you're signed up to another provider that uses the Telstra network like Belong -- you're now better protected from millions of scam text messages sent every day," Penn said.

To tune the filter, Penn said potential scam messages are viewed by Telstra staff, but the details of recipients are blocked. The telco will, however, not block messages from banks and other large businesses, government departments, emergency alerts, and Telstra's own messages.

Customers can opt out of the service by texting FILTER OFF to 0438214682, and get it re-enabled by texting FILTER ON.

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