When a Canberra woman found a glossy magazine purported to be from a Malaysian-based travel group in her mailbox, she tried her luck at the two scratchie cards enclosed.
The woman, who wished to remain anonymous, said she was ecstatic when one card revealed a “second place prize” of US $190,000 — but a phone call made to claim the winnings kicked off weeks of manipulation and harassment from what was later found to be a fraudulent company.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) confirmed it had received multiple scam reports in the ACT regarding operators posing as travel companies named Two Princess Tour, Southern Princess Holiday and White Winter Vacation.
The woman told the ABC when she called to claim her prize the scammer who answered the call told her she needed to pay a mandatory charge of hundreds of dollars to collect the winnings.
She was also asked to provide a range of personal details — something the ACCC said was a common tactic used for further fraud including identity crime.
When the woman refused to provide her bank details and questioned why the “charge” could not simply be deducted from her winnings, the operator became aggressive.
She said she asked them to cancel her prize, but they continued the harassing phone calls for more than a month.
Losses climb in two years
“Scratchie scams” are not the most sophisticated hoaxes but ACCC figures show Australians regularly fall for the cons, which are increasingly gaining traction in the ACT.
How it works:
- Travel brochure with scratchie cards is sent via mail
- Scammers request upfront fees to send “prize money”
- Some victims are told they won by mistake, but can still pay a charge to get the prize
- Scammers keep fees and never pay the winnings
- Personal information is sometimes used for identity theft
Already this year Canberrans have lost $41,731 to the scams — up 40 per cent from last year’s entire losses — prompting warnings from the ACCC.
The ACCC said the scams mostly involved two scratchies received in the mail, one that claimed to offer “winnings” and one that read “thank you”.
While the territory trails behind most other jurisdictions in money lost to almost all other reported scams, it has recorded Australia’s third highest losses for scratchie scams this year.
The latest figure is also a sharp rise from 2015, when no money was reported lost.
While ACCC deputy chair Delia Rickard was particularly concerned about the trend in Canberra, she said those in other states and territories should not become complacent, as the scammers usually cycle through target areas.
“My guess is that they are making their way through the ACT’s phonebook,” Ms Rickard said.
“We tend to see waves of it. We are certainly seeing an increase this year and we saw a reasonable number last year.
“A lot of the people who are losing this money cannot afford to lose it and it is really quite devastating.”
The smell of a scam
A delay in communication signalled the scent of a scam for one Canberra couple after they called a purported travel company to claim the money they had apparently won inside a fake travel brochure.
They were told to expect another call within a few days for prize verification. But, when the call did not come, the woman conducted some research online and found a sea of information warning against scratchie scams.
“We never sent them any money because, let’s face it, you don’t send money to receive your winning money,” she said.
“Then a week later [my husband’s] mum received one in the mail [and] she also ‘won’. We then received another one in the mail and ‘won’ again.”
Another Canberran, Sue Wood, who recently received a brochure appearing to be from the Two Princess Tour company, said she was angered by the scammers targeting vulnerable people.
“I am the biggest cynic out there and think if anything seems too good to be true it usually is,” she said.
“But it makes me so angry that it’s the ones who can’t afford it, the battlers, who would fall for it.
“I’ve got elderly parents and I find it really frightening that people are falling for these scams.”
The ACCC’s figures showed women over the age of 65 were the most common victims of the scams.
Boosted efforts to catch culprits
While scratchie scams are far from new to Australia, Ms Rickard said the crooks were becoming cleverer in their design skills and deceptive methods.
ACCC’s tips to avoid being tricked:
- If you’re asked for a fee to receive winnings, it is almost always a scam
- Never send up-front payments, bank details or personal information to strangers
- Google the names or exact wording on the scratchie card — many scams are found this way
She admitted she wanted to see more scammers caught — and harsher penalties for the crime — but said Australian authorities and banks often lacked the “phenomenal resources” required to trace overseas operators.
The watchdog has been working behind the scenes to improve this.
“The ACCC has been doing work with the banks, Western Union and Moneygram, so they can be better at recognising when money is going to scammers and stop that and that’s been quite successful,” she said.
“We just have to keep working on getting the message out to the public, working with the people that send the money [to the scammers], and working to stop the scammer connecting with the victims in the first place.”