Many scammers out of reach as financial impact of scams rises

Every year Australians lose millions of dollars to dating and other online scams, as people are lured into handing over money to scammers who create fake online profiles targeting people looking for love.

Scamwatch, operated by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, says $324 million was lost to scams in 2021, mostly to investment and dating or romance scams. It is even worse in 2022, with $167 million lost in the first three months of the year, mostly to investment scams.

In Australia, people aged 25 to 34 and men lost the most through scams. (Please see Scam statistics, ACCC Scamwatch.)

Scamwatch says very little of the scammed money is ever recovered. Even if the scammers are identified and tracked down, the vast majority are overseas, so it is extremely difficult for Australian authorities to take action against them.

Penalties in Australia for scammers

If identified and found inside Australia, scammers can face charges under several laws, with criminal penalties ranging from ten to twenty years, depending on the scale of the proceeds of crime.

There may be breaches of Australian Consumer Law, which protects people from false and misleading advertising. Some scams may be criminal offences, such as fraud, where a person deliberately sets out to deceive someone.

An online scam may also come under the law as a type of cybercrime. This includes hacking, fraud, identity theft, attacks on computer systems and illegal or prohibited content.

Legal options for scam victims

A scam victim may be able to bring a private action in the Federal Court. If successful, the remedies could include damages, injunctions and other orders.

However, this is likely to be an expensive and lengthy procedure and it would be best to get legal advice before embarking on this path.

Australian jailed for involvement in romance scam

One scammer who did face justice in Australia was a woman jailed in Western Australia for 12 months, for helping a Nigerian con man fleece more than $12,700 from a man in Germany.

It started with her being a target of the fraudster, but when she challenged him, he persuaded her to help him extract money from the German.

The German contacted Australian authorities and the woman was charged with dealing with the proceeds of crime. A reparation order was made to the victim. (Please see Australian jailed for her role in international romance scam, CDPP, 2018-19.)

Proceedings against Facebook owner Meta for scam ads

In what is likely to be a far bigger case, the ACCC recently instituted Federal Court proceedings against Facebook owner Meta, alleging the global giant engaged in false, misleading or deceptive conduct by publishing scam advertisements featuring prominent Australian public figures. (Please see ACCC takes action over alleged misleading conduct by Meta for publishing scam celebrity crypto ads on Facebook, ACCC, 18 March 2022.)

The ACCC alleges that this conduct was in breach of Australian Consumer Law, in that Meta aided and abetted or was knowingly involved in false or misleading conduct by the advertisers on its platform.

Anneka Frayne
Criminal law
Stacks Law Firm

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.