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Managing Online Scams in New Zealand

With the pandemic pushing more Kiwis inside, life has transitioned predominately online. Work, education, healthcare, shopping and entertainment have gone online almost entirely. With this move to the internet, there is a proportionate rise in fraud, scams and adverse cyber events.

These cyber-attacks take advantage of the low-cost and effective use of technology and social networking applications to reach a larger audience and increase the number of potential victims. Unsolicited email, social networking profiles or posts, text messages, advertisement on a connected website, cold calls, instant messaging all be used to get into potential victims’ lives.

An area that has seen a significant rise in scams and frauds is online dating, which is thought to have seen a 40% increase. Police’s Financial Intelligence Unit estimates New Zealanders who get tricked into passing their money to love interests lose tens of millions of dollars annually to these scams. Between 2019 and 2020, the average (reported) loss of money per victim was a staggering $18,667. In reality, actual losses are likely much higher.

Romantic and dating related scams are complex scheme and take an average of six months or more to complete as scammers work their way into developing a relationship. With these scams on the rise, many sites are providing assistance. One such free online safety guidance platform, warns people to be careful about who they open their emotions to and offers a slew of options.

To reduce the number of scam victims in the country and mitigate damage, the recently developed scam software imitates victims and engages in tiresome conversations with the scammer, delaying the scammer from moving onto another mark. It imitates real human tendencies, complete with humour and grammatical errors.

When a person receives a scam email, they can forward it to the scam software, which then dispatches a chatbot to take over the conversation with the scammer, impersonating one of the scammers’ many personalities. Scammers would thus be clueless that they are communicating with a computer.

The aim is to turn the table on scammers by wasting their time and ultimately damaging their chance to make money. The software will continue the conversation indefinitely, or until the scammer stops replying. The would-be victim’s email address is not used. The chatbot was custom-built over the past year, and more than 1400 tests cases were launched from its launched day and so far, has been a success.

The fraud software serves as a point of contact for consumers who have been scammed but have not yet reported it to authorities. These victims are all referred straight to Netsafe where they get the right advice and support.

So far the fraud software has received over 279 million impressions and has generated a global conversation about email scams. It continues to educate millions about the shifting face of internet scams through email communication and social media. This software has sent over a million emails to scammers, wasting more than 5 years of their time in the process.

In a report by OpenGov Asia, CERT NZ- the Computer Emergency Response Team – is part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and its key referral partners include the Department of Internal Affairs, Netsafe, National Cyber Security Centre, and police.

According to the agency, they are developing a much richer understanding of the types of threats and issues that are affecting New Zealanders, and New Zealand businesses. National and international cybercrime authorities receive a steady influx of data on trending frauds, scammer strategies, and IP addresses to analyse and log. Phishing and credential harvesting (where an attacker collects personal data) were the most reported form of attacks and were up 76% in 2019. Behind those were scams and fraud reports, which are up by 11%.

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