Paul's Insights: Pandemic fuels rise in investment scams
As if we didn't have enough to deal with right now, Australia's money watchdog ASIC is reporting a rise in investment scams during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reports of scams are up 20% compared to this time last year. And that could be the tip of the iceberg as victims are often too embarrassed to come forward.
ASIC says the economic uncertainty bought on by Coronavirus has created a perfect storm. Plenty of Australians have experienced financial hardship in the last few months, many have seen the value of their super and other investments fall, and sharemarkets are still volatile. It’s a cocktail of concern that can make us vulnerable to scammers.
In particular, ASIC is seeing a spike in reports about scams relating to fake cryptocurrencies and term deposits – where there is no real underlying asset. But it’s also seeing a rise in romance scams that start at dating sites, and end with cyber crooks asking their victims to send money or invest in fake foreign exchange trading accounts.
Scammers typically operate in the digital world, so they are hard to catch. Lost money is even harder to track down, especially when the crooks are operating outside of Australia. So prevention is way better than a cure.
Scams can take lots of forms, but there are some common threads to watch for. The first is a promise of moderate to high returns with claims of little or no risk. Investing simply doesn’t work that way. Money in a government guaranteed savings account is generally earning less than 2% interest at present, so any returns above this will come with a degree of risk.
Be on the lookout too for fake endorsements from celebrities or government agencies. Amazingly, ads for some scams have featured the ASIC logo and even a photo of ASIC’s Chairman to make it look as though he’s endorsing the whole thing. To be confident that an investment is offered by a legitimate provider, jump onto the ASIC website to see if the company has an Australian Financial Services Licence (AFSL).
It also helps to check when the company was incorporated. If the website claims the company has 20 years of successful investment and 10,000 clients, but was registered only two years ago, it’s bound to be a dud.
It’s been a tough few months, but we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel and now is not the time to panic. Avoid putting your money into anything that you haven’t checked out carefully, and maintain a healthy dose of skepticism. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Paul Clitheroe is Chairman of InvestSMART, Chair of the Ecstra Foundation and chief commentator for Money Magazine.