25 July 2019


One of the fundamental tenets of the co-regulatory telecommunications framework that we have in Australia is that it operates in the long-term interests of end users. Unfortunately, there are many things that happen outside that framework that can influence and dampen that, and one of those is scams. Scams are not a recent phenomenon that affects consumers; in fact, scams have existed for centuries. As long as humans have the propensity to occasionally misplace trust, scammers will thrive. This reality underscores why we must be stronger and more determined to safeguard consumers in the way of such harm. We cannot stand idle while scammers adapt old tricks to new technology, and we cannot be ignorant of how global communications platforms are being leveraged to carry out such scams. Australians deserve better.

In April this year, the ACCC revealed the total combined losses reported to Scamwatch and other agencies exceeded $489 million. That's nearly half a billion dollars, and that doesn't even account for losses which have not been recorded. This scale highlights the devastating financial and emotional toll this is having on Australians, and it's growing. The ACCC has also highlighted the disproportionate impact scams are having on vulnerable Australians. We commend the consumer watchdog for its sustained focus on highlighting these and other risks and for educating the community on how to avoid them.

It's no secret that one of the most prominent channels for scammers is the plain old telephone line. There are callers pretending to call from the NBN, claiming that your service is about to be disconnected. Given the prominence of the NBN rollout, it is alarming that monthly losses from reported NBN scams have tripled in 2019. There are callers impersonating the ATO, threatening unsuspecting customers with arrest for supposedly not paying their taxes. These lowball tactics are designed to shock and scare Australians into engaging with the caller.

A key problem is the ability of overseas scammers to generate illegal calls which appear as Australian numbers, which is known as call spoofing. When your phone rings and the caller ID appears to be from a legitimate and more trusted Australian number, that call is more likely to be answered. That allows scammers to get a foot in the door, and from there the risks increase. Call spoofing also makes it more difficult for operators to block such numbers, because that number could in fact legitimately belong to someone in Australia.

It's not good enough, and it's surely not beyond the collective will of industry, standards bodies and regulators to restore integrity to our numbering system. Network based caller ID authentication, as is being implemented in the US, is just one option that could restore trust, strengthen privacy and reduce scams by making unauthorised numbers detectable. Another potential tool is having a scam blacklist. Even with the latest technical solutions, the reality is it won't be possible to stop every scam call, but Australians expect us to tackle scams better, and their expectations are justified.