A research project conducted by the Queensland Police Service has identified senior citizens are a high risk group falling victim to online scams.
It’s estimated that participants in the project have lost in excess of one million dollars to online scammers.
The project, a joint initiative between Community Safety and Crime Prevention Branch and the Fraud and Corporate Crime Group, is being conducted by research analyst, Doctor Cassandra Cross, and is based around the issue of seniors and online fraud.
Dr Cross said based on 2004 to 2007 ABS figures*, internet usage by Queenslanders aged between 65 and 74 years had risen by approximately 40 per cent, making seniors increasingly more vulnerable to online scams.
“Due to their relative inexperience with the internet, seniors are particularly vulnerable to online fraudsters. Many seniors also have access to substantial financial assets, such as superannuation which makes them an attractive target.”
“The aim of the project is to understand why seniors are falling victims to these types of crimes - what makes them respond to scam emails or requests online,” she said.
Dr Cross travelled across the state interviewing 85 people aged from 50 to 85 who have either been approached to take part in a scam or have been a victim of online fraud.
“Scam emails typically enticed victims by outlining a business investment opportunity or a notification about a lottery win or an inheritance. Romance scams were also popular, initiated through several online dating sites,” she said.
One woman lost over $300,000 in a business related scam, but still refused to believe she had been lied to by the people she believed she was doing business with.
This behaviour is not uncommon according to Dr Cross. “After the initial contact via email, the scammer builds a relationship with the victims over the telephone or face-to-face and this contributes to their inability to recognise their experiences as fraudulent.
“The woman spoke on the telephone almost every night over a two-year period with the two individuals who defrauded her. To her, the relationship she had built with the scammers was a deep friendship which made it very difficult to eventually break,” said Dr Cross.
In many cases, the scams were specifically targeted to the potential victim, with the scammer using previous research sourced online or information gained after initial contact to convince the victim the offer was real.
“One victim lost over $50,000 to an inheritance scam with scammers using information on a genealogy site to find the victim’s relatives and create family trees,” she said.
Detective Superintendent Brian Hay of State Crime Operations Command’s Fraud and Corporate Crime Group estimates that thousands of seniors are targeted and become victims of online fraud.
“We encourage everyone, including seniors, to come forward and report these types of offences as this information helps police find effective ways to reduce these types of crime.
“We’d also like to hear from family members of seniors who recognise their loved one is being defrauded. Often, the victim is so caught up in the scam they ignore the pleas of their family and this can be quite frustrating for family members,” Superintendent Hay said.
Findings from the project will be used to develop effective investigative strategies and education programs for the wider community.
*Australian Bureau of Statistics (2008) Internet Access at Home, catalogue number 4102.0, Canberra.