My mobile phone started ringing, and a strange, long number flashed up: It was a call from Mumbai, India.
Since I didn’t know anyone from Mumbai and nor did I have any reason to expect a call from the Asian sub-continent, my immediate thought was: this has to be a scam call.
“Ha” I exclaimed as I watched the phone ring out. Then somewhat unexpectedly, the caller left a message on my voicemail. Still I didn’t think too much about it, and ignored that as well.
But then, as I returned to my laptop, a message popped up in my email.
It was from an employee at a data company I’d contacted after my login and password had stopped working on their website, which I use regularly as part of my job.
Based in Mumbai, he had rung me to try and sort out the problem I had.
I apologised for missing his call and asked him to please ring again.
When the Mumbai number came up a second time on my phone, I answered it and spoke to my email correspondent – a polite, softly-spoken man with a light Indian accent – who was doing his best to help me fix my problem. Which he did. A short while later I was able to log onto their website and get on with my work.
The incident though left me pondering about the strange ways our minds work and also how we navigate the world in which we live in.
As a survival mechanism in this digital age, we’ve learned to mistrust a lot of things: unexpected and unsolicited phone calls, emails and text messages that bombard us on an almost daily basis. We’re told: Don’t click on that link!
There is of course a good reason for being so suspicious. So many of these contacts are from criminals trying to steal our money, possessions and identity.
According to the Australian government’s Scamwatch website, Australians lost over $851 million to scams in 2020, a record amount.
This is not surprising. Scammers took advantage of the pandemic, including the fact that we were locked down at home and more reliant than ever on our smartphones, laptops and iPads for communication to steal from us through cunning digital means.
Not only that but a myriad Covid-19 specific scams have emerged that prey on our fears about catching the virus, ensuring we get tested and the urgency to get vaccinated.
“Last year, scam victims reported the biggest losses we have seen, but worse, we expect the real losses will be even higher, as many people don’t report these scams,” said Delia Rickard, deputy chair of the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission.
In fairness to me, I had been primed to treat my Mumbai call with suspicion. In the past few weeks I had received a number of phone calls from a mysterious Sri Lankan number that could only I suspected have been a scam. I ignored and blocked these numbers.
According to Scamwatch, this scam works by people calling the number back, connecting to a premium rate number and losing a lot of money.
“If you call the number back, you may be put on hold, hear music playing or the scammer could try and chat with you. The scammer’s objective is to keep you on the line for as long as possible as your call will be charged at a premium rate,” Scamwatch warns.
Unlike my Mumbai call, there was no follow-up email from Colombo asking me when was a convenient time to call and so I am fairly confident I did the right thing.
Of course Smartphones, which we all never leave home without have put scammers in touch with there potential victims on an almost 24/7 basis, and they know it. Vigilance is required at all times!
Aside from my Sri Lankan friends, I’ve received calls with messages telling me I am being sued or that I owe the tax office a lot of money. I am told to call a number immediately. Then of course there are those countless quasi-scams from energy companies promising to cut my bills.
And what about the calls I get asking me to complete a short questionnaire as part of a Melbourne survey to see how people are coping with the pandemic? Is that a scam? I haven’t stuck around to find out.
My email inbox is also fill of scams, not all of them filtered into the Spam folder.
I regularly get emails telling me an Amazon subscription has been activated and I am about to debited a large amount of money unless I click on some link.
In a variation of this scam, I was emailed a message about a Norton Anti-virus program subscription that had been auto-renewed. In both cases – unless its a coincidence – the scammers had worked out I have an actual subscription to Amazon and that used to have a Norton Anti-virus program on my home computer, no doubt to add a ring of believability to their emails.
Mostly though, email scams are easy to pick out. Often the email address is something concocted on Gmail or Hotmail or there are spelling or grammatical mistakes or other silly errors.
But some scams are extremely sophisticated, one of which nearly caught out a family member who was in the process of transferring a large amount of money overseas.
Known as a payment redirection scam, it involves a scammer impersonating a business or its employees via email and requesting an upcoming payment be redirected to a fraudulent account.
A small error – the incorrect spelling of the word “direct” which was spelled “dirrect” in an email signature alerted my family and the legitimate company they were dealing with to the impending diversion of funds, which was thankfully unsuccessful, but only just in time.
As the Scamwatch figures show, many other people are not so lucky and are conned out of their money, even their houses and possessions, sometimes their life savings.
In some cases, people fall for scams because they are gullible, naïve or not very tech savvy. Sometimes its out of greed or desperation (Emails telling you have won a competition or inherited a large sum of money) or sometimes out of loneliness (as in online romance scams) and sometimes because they scam is very brilliant. We can only hope we don’t fall victim to one of those.
As to my Mumbai call centre caller, I can only apologise and say to him: Sorry mate, it’s the world we live in!