Doris McAllister spent her whole life working hard to support herself.
She started working when she was 15. She saved to buy a house on her own after a divorce. She fought breast cancer and all the other problems life threw her way.
So, last year, when the 75-year-old saw an international bank offering a good return on deposits, she decided to transfer her life’s savings of $260,000 across to help secure her retirement.
“I was feeling on top of the world because I thought, ‘Now I’m set for the rest of my life,'” she said.
“I don’t have to work. I don’t have to look over my shoulder for where the next dollar is going to come from.”
Six weeks later, when she needed to make a withdrawal, she realised she had been conned.
Scammers had pretended to represent the Singapore-based bank DBS, and had tricked her into transferring her life’s savings to them.
“They made it sound so perfect, and I lost the lot,” she said.
Ms McAllister is far from alone, with a new report showing scammers stole record sums of money from Australians last year.
More than $3.1 billion was lost to scams in 2022 – an 80 per cent increase from 2021 – according to a report from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), Targeting Scams.
Most of that money was lost to fake investment scams, which accounted for at least $1.5 billion in losses.
Hundreds of millions were also lost to remote-access scams, where a scammer gains control of a person’s computer or phone, and to payment redirection scams, where a scammer poses as a real business and sends invoices with fake bank details to victims.
The true losses are likely to be far higher, with the ACCC estimating that at least 30 per cent of victims do not report what happened.
Older Australians lost more to scams than any other group, with people aged 65 and over falling victim more frequently and losing more money.
The frightening figures have prompted fresh calls by the consumer watchdog for the big banks to do more to protect their customers.
“These levels of losses make it pretty clear that what we need is a coordinated effort across government, across institutions and, indeed, across regulators, because we know that scammers will target the weakest link,” said ACCC deputy chair Catriona Lowe.
Pressure mounts on banks to do more
Bank transfers were the most common way scam victims parted with their cash in 2022, the report said.
The ACCC said Australia should explore measures such as the United Kingdom’s Confirmation of Payee regulation, which was introduced in 2019 and now covers most banks in the country.
Under the rules, banks are required to help customers double-check they are sending money to the right person by displaying a warning if the account details do not match up.
Cyber security expert and victim advocate Simon Smith said payee confirmation laws could have prevented thousands of scams from succeeding in Australia.
“In a modern country like Australia … it should have been done decades ago,” he said.
“It would have solved probably half the cases I deal with, because the bank would say, ‘You’re not really paying Auntie Jane,’ or, ‘You’re not really paying this business, you’re actually paying some other business.'”
Mr Smith also said banks could take more steps to educate customers before proceeding with transfers that looked suspicious.
In a statement, the Australian Banking Association rejected the call for uniform measures.
It said Australia and the UK had different payment systems, and, instead, it encouraged consumers seeking additional protection to use the voluntary PayID technology for payments.
“We also need to recognise that payee confirmation does not help to prevent many common types of scams, and consumer vigilance is still required,” a spokesperson said.
Scam victim says loss was preventable
Ms McAllister says she believes her devastating loss could have been prevented.
She now knows her money did not go to DBS, as she had intended, and thinks Commonwealth Bank should have done more to warn her before approving her transfer.
Last November, her case was heard by the financial ombudsman, where the bank defended the actions its staff took in processing the 75-year-old’s bank transfer.
The ombudsman ruled in the bank’s favour, saying it did all it was required to do.
Commonwealth Bank told the ABC it was implementing new scam detection, prevention and education initiatives to help keep customers safe.
“Once we have been made aware of a scam or fraud on an account, we work closely with other banks to take action and we do our best to recover any funds,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
In Ms McAllister’s case, her money could not be recovered.
Before she was scammed, she was planning her first overseas holiday – a trip to New Zealand with a group of friends.
Now she is living on the pension and trying to pick up catering work on weekends when she can.
“[Losing] any amount of money is bad, but when it’s such a high amount, it’s worse because, at my age, I know I can’t start again,” she said.
“I’m positive that the government and the banks can do something.”
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