The old-school scam that made me burst out laughing


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I would love to know the hit rate for the stream of scams we all get by email.

Pretty obviously someone must be responding or they would not keep coming in ever-increasing numbers. Presumably the success of the scam is in direct proportion to the effort put into creating an authentic-looking email and a clever approach to get us to divulge personal information.

Clearly, they are getting better.

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It was only a few years ago when they all seemed to be from someone who claimed to have defrauded a third world country of tens of millions and wanted to share that with us in return for us handing over our bank account details, plus sending small but ever-increasing amounts of money to assist with the transfer to our account.

How people fell for that I have no idea but they did, and in quite large numbers.

Newer scams have improved dramatically.

A recent "Telstra" bill I received was, apart from spelling errors, really quite good. I also seem to get a lot of Australian Federal Police parking fines - again these are quite nicely done and clever in that they ask for under $100.

My latest is from "The Department of Human Services" which is "pleased to inform you of your qualification for 2017 subsidy benefit".

This is jolly nice of them.

The email comes in a pretty respectable format with a nice Australian government logo and the spelling is quite good.

The grammar would not pass much scrutiny but I did like the way the questions flow.

The first one asks for the usual stuff - your name, date of birth, tax file number, address - and then "two of the following", which can be either a Centrelink payment summary, a tax assessment, a dividend statement or PAYG summary.

Then, of course, they want your bank details.

They would know a lot about you.

Presumably they then use this for identity fraud and I am sure they would have a go at guessing your bank password, using your date of birth, or maybe they email looking for more information, and likely passwords such as your mother's maiden name.

With scams like this, I am sorely tempted to respond with some fake data to see what happens next but I realise that any response makes me a target, so I can only speculate. The scammers are not doing this for fun, so they must get one in a 100 or one in a 1000 responding. If anyone knows, drop me an email, will you?

There is nothing any of us can really do about the stream of scams, bar keeping our security scanners up to date and using a bit of common sense.

But what is really upsetting is that these scams are sure to prey on those who can least afford them. There is just nothing about them that is amusing.

At least when someone was offering to transfer me millions of dollars I could have a chuckle, but fake Telstra bills and so on are just dull.

My favourite scams over the past 35 years or so of talking or writing about money were the good old-fashioned ones that caused little real damage, and in fact were probably a great educator for those who were stung.

My vote goes to the person who some 20 years ago, in the pre-internet days, put out a flyer in the letterboxes of areas with lots of aged pensioners. Energy bills were a major cost for those on fixed incomes.

This flyer guaranteed that for $5 you would get advice on how to cut your energy bill in half. Old-day scammers had a bit more style, so those who posted $5 (and a return reply envelope) were not let down. The instructions duly arrived with a plastic pair of scissors. The instructions: "Hold bill with left hand. Take scissors in right hand and cut bill in half."

Look, I know it is a scam and I should be outraged but when I heard about it I burst out laughing.

The police were made aware of it but no arrest followed. They could not get witnesses in court: those sucked in were either amused at their own failure to spot a "too good to be true" scam, cranky but could not be bothered chasing up $5, or simply too embarrassed.

Today's scams involving stealing your money or identity are not the slightest bit funny.

Avoid them and tell your friends and family about them. Knowledge of scams empowers us all.

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Paul Clitheroe AM is founder and editorial adviser of Money magazine. He is one of Australia's leading financial voices, responsible for bringing financial insight to Australians through personal finance books, the television show Money, radio, and most notably this publication, which he established in 1999. Paul is the chair of the Australian Government Financial Literacy Board and is Chairman of InvestSMART Financial Services. He is the chair of Financial Literacy at Macquarie University where he is also a Professor with the School of Business and Economics. Click here to email Paul your money question. Unfortunately Paul cannot respond to questions posted in the comments section. Please view our disclaimer here.