Reporting a crime should not be as traumatic as the experience of the crime itself. But unfortunately this is the sad reality for many victims of online fraud.
Australians reported more than $229 million lost to fraud according to a report published last year by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).
But behind every statistic is a person, and there are millions of victims globally who experience a wide range of online fraud.
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Romance fraud and investment fraud remain the two highest categories of victimisation in Australia, with offenders using the guise of genuine relationships or the offer of investment opportunities to coerce people to send their money.
It was the first Australian study to examine the reporting experiences and support needs of online fraud victims.
We spoke to 80 online fraud victims, aged from 30 to 77, from across Australia who had reported losses from $10,000 to $500,000 to Scamwatch, part of the ACCC set up to help provide information and help on scams. The findings from this research shine a much needed light on current responses to and understandings of, online fraud.
Difficulty in lodging a complaint
Many victims we interviewed spoke of the frustration and anger they felt in trying to report their fraud to authorities.
Fraud is unique in that complaints can be lodged with a large number of agencies including police, consumer protection, banks and other financial institutions.
In reality, this meant that many victims were continually passed among agencies, with each one refusing to accept a report. As the interviews we conducted show:
Interview 21: There was no one. It did not matter what section of the police that I called, whether it was local or federal, state whatever there was no one there they just kept passing it onto someone else.
Interview 48: I mean it was made pretty clear to me that there weren’t many places that were actually interested in your story anyway.
Interview 59: So, that’s a pretty serious thing where you go along and say, ‘I’m 20 grand out of pocket and it’s fraud, and there’s criminal activity involved,’ and you go to the police and they say, ‘We won’t even accept your report.’
Victims who were required to tell their story over and over again to no avail felt immense hurt and anger. When asked why victims had reported to Scamwatch, the response was simple.
Interview 50: And so I registered a report and you could only do that online, on Scamwatch. So that’s only an online thing which is a very impersonal thing. And that’s really a report rather than a ‘hey would somebody help me’. So I did that.
Interview 52: It [Scamwatch] was the last person I reported it to. I wasn’t expecting anything anymore.
It appears the majority of victims reported to the Scamwatch website as it was an online tool that did not require any personal intervention, therefore, victims could not be turned away.
But a report to Scamwatch does not initiate any type of investigation or receive a type of response desired by those reporting in the first place.
There is a strong victim blaming attitude against online fraud victims and a negative stereotype that portrays victims as greedy, gullible and to blame for their victimisation. Sadly, this was readily apparent in our research findings.
Interview 27: I said it was an investment fraud and she [the police officer] said she had much more important things than that to deal with. [She said] ‘We have people robbed at knife point’. I said [I had been defrauded of] A$20,000. She said, ‘but you gave it away sir’, and I said, ‘I didn’t give it away, it was an investment’. She said it was voluntary and I gave it away.
Interview 43: I expect [the police] to be sympathetic, but these two police guys, they just laugh, I was humiliated […] I submitted a police report, and I made a statement and they tell me ‘we cannot do anything about this with you and your lover boy in [overseas country], you just write to Scamwatch’.
These are two examples in which victims were directly blamed for their situation. The reaction of authorities to these victims exacerbated the level of trauma and harm they were already experiencing.
These two instances are by no means isolated events, with the vast majority of our 80 participants reporting similar experiences.
More than money
The impact of online fraud can be devastating. Far from simple monetary losses, victims experience a deterioration of physical health and well-being, depression, relationship breakdown, unemployment, homelessness and in extreme cases can take their own lives.
Despite the severity of harm suffered, there are limited support services globally to assist in recovery. This was painfully demonstrated in our current research.
Interview 49: I [was] sort of really despairing and about to commit suicide […] I was desperate, I mean I was considering suicide. I was that distraught with what I’d actually done.
This example is not a unique event, with a small number of victims in our study admitting to suicidal thoughts.
Their ability to seek support, either informally or formally, was restricted, based on the shame and embarrassment of being a victim, anxiety about how others would react and a lack of knowledge about where they might seek help.
These findings have highlighted the traumatic and overwhelmingly negative experiences that victims face when attempting to report online fraud. They demonstrate a clear need for change to improve the current response.
Since our victim interviews, the Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network (ACORN) has been established. This is now the central reporting mechanism for all cybercrime in Australia, which includes online fraud.
While this is a positive step forward, it is unlikely to resolve the many issues that we identified in our research.
Victims clearly articulate a need to be acknowledged and to be heard. This doesn’t require any additional resources on the part of any agency. Rather it requires a shift in thinking about online fraud victimisation – one that recognises the skill of offenders in manipulating and exploiting victims and doesn’t attribute blame to victims themselves.
There is also a need to establish support services to assist victims with recovery. Too often, victims suffer in silence and isolation.
Online fraud is a complex issue and one that is unlikely to recede in coming years. Our research suggests there is a long way to go to improving current responses to this type of victim.