Beware the “disaster chasers”: Four ways to avoid scams amid the flood crisis


Residents in northern NSW deal with rising floodwaters. AAP Image/Jason O’Brien

Sympathetic Australians contributing money to the flood crisis have been warned to watch out for scammers setting up fake donation sites or posing as flood victims, as financial scam reports continue to rise.

ScamWatch says it’s recorded more than 165,000 scam reports a year since 2018, with financial losses nearly doubling from $107 million in 2018 to more than $192 million in 2021.

ScamWatch advises that Australians only donate to a legitimate charity after checking that is on the national register — and to avoid clicking links from unknown numbers that can look like this one.

Chris Whittingham, Westpac’s general manager of fraud prevention and financial crime, says scams have almost tripled through the pandemic, and perpetrators have been known to pose as insurers, businesses or government organisations offering ‘help’ to victims of extreme weather events such as floods.

“We are urging people to be on high alert to the possibility of scams and closely check that any websites or charitable organisations are legitimate before sending funds or your personal information,” Whittingham says.

Flinders University scam researcher Dean Taodan says people are more vulnerable to emotionally manipulative cons during times of crisis or disaster — and perpetrators can cause a lot of damage fast.

“Even if the fraud is exposed and stopped by authorities, others can then move in to fleece victims. Times of external crisis create unusual circumstances which increase the chances of potential victims responding to a fraudulent approach via their phone, email or web,” Taodang says.

Plus, Taodang adds, “the victimisation rates often cannot even be determined or prosecuted so it’s up to individuals to be aware of the risks”.

Beware insurance scammers and “disaster chasers”

Graham Metcalf from Queensland-based insurance company RACQ says scammers have been known to door-knock owners of damaged homes or leave letterbox leaflets offering services for repair work with a promise the homeowner’s insurer would pay.

They’re referred to as “disaster chasers”, Metcalf says, and they’re “only too happy to take advantage of vulnerable, stressed-out Queenslanders”.

“This can leave the homeowner liable to pay a commission or inflated repair bills not covered by their insurance policy,” Metcalf continues.

“They might also ask for money upfront or ask you to sign a contract straight away, [but] people should only deal with their insurance company and not engage with unsolicited third parties.”

Metcalf continues that an insurer will never send a tradesperson to your home without notifying you or giving you details, and you can always request the tradesperson’s licence to double-check them with your insurance company before they get started.

Westpac says there are four straightforward ways to protect yourself from scams.

  1. Be wary of unexpected calls or emails. Be cautious of anyone claiming to be from a reputable organisation and stop to consider what they are asking for. If in doubt, ask for a reference number and call back on a number publicly listed to confirm the call was genuine.
  2. Use PayID. Business customers can register their ABN as their payee details in Westpac’s online or mobile banking, providing peace of mind that money is being sent to a legitimate business account.
  3. Use caution when considering email requests. Never click on links sent in emails that ask you to make a payment, provide personal information, or prompt you to log in to your bank account.
  4. Act immediately. If you think you might have been scammed, stop all communication with the scammer and contact your bank immediately. The sooner your bank is notified, the better chance at recovering any lost funds.


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