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Australians reported losses of more than $70 million to fraud and swindling to the consumer watchdog last year, but real losses could be much higher.
The deputy chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), Peter Kell, says the loss estimate is based on the 20,000 people who contacted the commission in 2009.
"We think actually there are many more victims out there," he said.
"When complaints to other agencies are taken into account, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that annual losses to fraud and scams could be up to $1 billion annually."
Mr Kell says successful frauds, particularly online, are continuing to increase.
"We've seen it now over several years," he said.
"Realistically this figure is likely to be the tip of the iceberg, because many people are embarrassed about reporting they've been victims of scams."
Complaints to the commission were 16 per cent higher than the previous year.
Advance payment schemes dominate the 20,000 complaints, followed by online auctions, shopping and lotteries.
Banking and online fraud was up by 38 per cent. Mr Kell says that reflects increased uptake of online banking services.
Fifty-four per cent of fraud involved mass online marketed, advance fee deals.
He says such scams often do not ask for large deposits, and hence go unreported, but they deliver big returns to the fraudsters.
Dating site scams rise
Scams linked to dating sites were up by 30 per cent.
"People are typically more vulnerable when they are in that emotional decision-making mode," he said.
"Whether it's around dating sites or health scams, they're not necessarily thinking rationally about what's actually behind the offer."
Across the board, more than 12,000 people lost between $1 and $10,000. Two Australians lost more than $10 million.
Mr Kell says the people who lost the large amounts usually had been tricked into forming a trust relationship with the fraudsters, and believed they were contributing to helping or assisting others in illness or poverty.
"Some people have lost entire inheritances," he said.
There is some bright news for those over 65. Apart from young non-wage earners, they are the least like to fall victim to fraud.
However, the deputy commissioner has put a dampener on that.
"We expect that as older people increasingly take up use of the internet, that figure will rise," he said.
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