Medicare: You have been in close contact with someone who has Omicron. Please follow the link below to order your PCR kit…

WHEN I received this text last week, there was a microsecond of anxiety.

“Oh no, here we go again” was my first thought, swiftly followed by the realisation that Medicare could not possibly know who I’d been in contact with and wouldn’t be sending me a link to order a PCR kit even if they did.

With around a million new cases of COVID-19 a month across Australia, contact tracing in the general community is no longer even a possibility. It just isn’t happening anymore.

I pasted the text into a search engine and, sure enough, it was the latest in a long line of scams inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As this government site explains, the recent spate of messages are impersonating government agencies to steal personal and banking details and, ultimately, money.

It’s not hard to see why even savvy people might fall for such scams. We’ve been living with constant anxiety about this disease for more than 2 years now, and we’re used to getting a lot of information about it from authorities, including by text.

And the scammers are clever. The links often look genuine at first glance, including “medicare” or another government agency in the URL, and leading to a convincing copy of an official website.

For the fraudsters, it’s a numbers game. Technologies such as SIM boxes allow them to send out upwards of a million messages a day.

It can be a lucrative business even if only one in a thousand people takes the bait.

One Victorian woman who did click on the link in her fake text message told 7 News last week she had narrowly escaped a financial scam.

After following the link, she entered her details and paid $1.49 to have a PCR test delivered.

Shortly afterwards, she received a phone call from a man with a British accent claiming to be from her bank. He informed her she had fallen for a scam and the fraudsters had attempted to take $1000 from her account.

When she questioned the caller’s identity, he told her googling his phone number would show it was a genuine Westpac number. It did.

Fortunately, she told him she was going to ring Westpac to confirm, at which point he hung up on her and she realised he was part of a double deception.

A global pandemic is fertile ground for an array of hoaxes, frauds and swindles of all kinds.

From the outset, the scammers were there, feeding off the vulnerable like vultures gathering around a carcass. Back in April 2020, I wrote about the hordes of fake cures and preventive treatments on offer, ranging from essential oils to colloidal silver.

Fraudsters were already impersonating the World Health Organization, prompting the agency to warn people to be wary of messages that included unsolicited attachments and links or that asked for personal information.

Over the 2 years since then, the phishing scams that seek to obtain personal and banking details have become ever more sophisticated. There’s even a new term, “smishing”, for those that use fraudulent text messages like the one I received.

Authorities are frankly struggling to keep up.

Cybercrime cost Australia an estimated $33 billion in 2021, the ABC’s 7:30 program reported last week, and the problem is growing.

“Criminals are really quick to pivot and make use of things like the COVID pandemic, vaccine rollouts, as lures as part of their phishing campaigns and smishing campaigns,” acting assistant commissioner of the Australian Federal Police, Chris Goldsmid, told the program.

One operator had sent out more than 20 million text messages before being shut down by police.

Law enforcement tries to keep pace with the criminals, Mr Goldsmid said, though the scale of the operations is a challenge.

Government agencies, banks and other private sector organisations do try to alert their customers to the risk, but it’s a constant game of catch-up.

Human suffering may bring out the best in some, prompting deeds of kindness and self-sacrifice, but sadly it also offers plentiful opportunities to the unscrupulous.

The centuries-old principle of caveat emptor has never been more relevant than in our digital age.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based health and science writer.



The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.

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One thought on “Smishing: cyber scams reach a whole new level

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for this interesting expose on new fraud by cyber crminals. To date, I saw wmails from Telstra, again totally the same as real emals incl signatures.
    However, when I alerted Telstra not much came out. Yes, it seems cyber criminals are winning. Thankfully, I was not affected.
    Health seems to be the next natural point of traction. I refuse to click on any links now in general, but it makes things so much more cumbersome.
    My worry is that governments are just as powerless in fighting cyber crminals, as they are at defending against cyber attacks. It seems a state Government got succesfully attacked at least twice over last 2 years according to news sources. Funny that some 100K people were defrauded of their details of ID, banks etc, but I wonder why in the first place the security was given to private companies with unknown details on selling data. What happened to updating those people on this, on the results of actions taken, compensation for stress caused, and who now looks after these is unknown to most. I also believe, that we need to look at our electronic health software, including medicare, pbs etc, as some may be actively gathering data, and perhaps not selling it but offering to “researchers”.
    Again, informatics it is a great improvement to our lives, sadly safety remains queston full.

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