It’s the scam that preys on our emotions and has seen criminals steal at least $7.2 million from 11,100 Australians so far this year – and that’s just what’s been reported to the consumer watch dog.
Cases of the “Hi Mum” scam date back to January and have been widely reported.
But the number of victims has increased tenfold in the past three months, according to the latest figures from the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC).
And Australians continue to lose thousands of dollars to the fraud.
That’s because the scam is as simple as it is effective.
We spoke to an expert who revealed some of the tactics the scammers are using and ways to help you avoid becoming a victim.
What is the ‘Hi Mum’ scam?
In case you’ve been lucky enough not to have received one of these “Hi Mum” messages, scammers typically send a WhatsApp or a text message from an unknown number, impersonating a child.
It almost always begins with: “Hi Mum”.
Police say they continue with something along the lines of “I’ve changed provider/lost/broken my phone – I’m temporarily using this number for now.”
Once the scammer receives a response from a concerned parent, they continue to pretend to be their child and eventually request money using the emergency as their reason for needing the funds.
The most common tactic is claiming to have lost or broken their phone as a justification for a funds transfer, because they can’t access their online banking, says the ACCC.
The ACCC says scammers may also ask for personal information, which may then be used to scam other family members.
Victims usually then transfer funds to bank accounts provided by the scammers, which are often set up fraudulently.
So far this year $7.2 million has been reported stolen from at least 11,100 victims, the ACCC says.
The number of victims impacted by the scam has increased tenfold from August, when the organisation reported that 1,150 Australians had fallen victim to the scam and total losses had reached $2.6 million.
It is estimated that just 13 per cent of victims report being scammed, largely due to the embarrassment that can be felt as a result of being conned.
Who are scammers targeting?
Millions of Australians have had their personal information compromised this year through hacks on Optus, Medibank and other Australian institutions.
It’s been a boon for illegal activity.
But the rise of the “Hi Mum” scam might have little to do with the stolen data.
The scammers don’t seem to be zeroing in on the victims they target.
Instead, they seem to be messaging as many people as possible.
That’s because criminals are “super trawling” for victims, says IDCARE managing director David Lacey.
Scammers are using the same technology data that legitimate companies use to send messages to potential customers en masse, he says.
Except he says their strategy seems to be completely random.
“We’ve seen it across board, where they’ve been impacted by a data breach or not — it’s almost like a random number generator for mobiles,” Dr Lacey says.
“The crooks have got a server and they’ve plugged in a data-range, and they’ve just gone bang (and send out messages).”
Casting such a wide net means scammers only need success from a tiny portion of messages to steal millions.
“The sheer weight of text messages means you’re going to get the one per cent of people unfortunately who are literally in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he says.
While the approach might seem random, the victims fall into a similar category.
Over two-thirds of family impersonation scams have been reported by women over 55 years of age, the ACCC says.
In total, 82 per cent of victims are in this age bracket and account for 95 per cent of all reported losses.
How do criminals get us to part with our money?
For many the scam might seem fairly straightforward. If it looks like your child is in trouble, you help them without a second thought.
That’s because scammers have zeroed in on the mental shortcuts we make every day, Dr Lacy says.
In psychology it’s called heuristics: the mental steps we take to simplify problems and avoid cognitive overload.
“One of the vulnerabilities to us all is that as human beings, we cut corners when we’re processing information,” he says.
“We will see things in our environment or hear things and then we’ll go ‘oh, that’s that’ and we won’t wait for (any more information) and act.”
He says these mental shortcuts are usually where scammers are successful.
“(And) success around that increases where a loved one is concerned, there’s a stronger chance of the brain cutting corners.”
This is why scammers are able to regularly convince people to transfer thousands of dollars out of their bank accounts, despite months of warnings from authorities and widespread media coverage.
“Clearly they’re getting the mums who have children and believe they’re in distress,” Dr Lacy says.
“There have been some interesting cases where people have said ‘it’s so believable because my son was just saying his phone was failing’.”
Dr Lacey says the dollar figures scammers get away with usually range from $4,000 to $10,000.
What is the scammer’s business model?
It’s useful to think about the business model that scammers use, Dr Lacey says.
He says getting away with millions of dollars is not a bad return considering that criminals just need to send out mass text messages, rather than set up criminal call centres.
“It’s probably the biggest difference that we’ve seen in our lifetime — and certainly my 20 years of working in this space — the ability for the criminals to reach a million people is there now with next to no cost,” he says.
“This super trawling technique, we’ve really seen the criminals perfect that since the start of the pandemic, it’s really changed a lot and I think part of that comes down to cost.”
He says scammers used to have to run expensive criminal call centres to reach only a fraction of the people.
“So you’ve got this vision of this criminal call centre that occupies a skyscraper in some distant land and they’ve called hoping they’re going to get someone,” Dr Lacey says.
“(But) they’ve gotten smarter.
“Now, they’re using technology to flood the community with messages and they’re getting people right in that sweet spot of believability.”
How does it end?
Dr Lacey says disrupting their business model it the best way to combat scammers. But that’s easier said than done.
Recently, we’ve seen Medibank create a disincentive for scammers by refusing to pay a ransom demanded after their systems were hacked.
Dr Lacey explains the same thing needs to be done for text scammers.
Telecommunication companies worked to block millions of scam emails, calls and texts as the fraud became widespread.
But Australians continue to receive a huge amount of scam text messages, Dr Lacey says.
“With these guys (telecommunications companies) it’s a bit difficult, the idea being these text messages are intercepted before they reach a handset,” he says.
“What makes that problematic is that crooks can change the technology origination point really easily, so it’s hard for the telcos to pick up on these kinds of things.”
Who are ‘Hi Mum’ text scammers?
It’s hard to know. There are no reports of anyone being caught.
But there’s a strong feeling from authorities that the messages are coming from overseas.
Earlier this year police said they believe the scam originated in Europe.
The banks used are Australian, with scammers often fraudulently using the identities of Australians to open accounts, Dr Lacey says.
“The flavour of the month in Australia with scam victimisation is to send the money to an Australian domestic transaction account first, before then pushing it offshore,” he says.
“Who knows where the money is transferred on from there.
“So we’ve got a very strong and confident view that we think most of this is not in Australia, it’s most likely offshore.”
How can I protect myself from the ‘Hi Mum’ scam?
Always verify any contact made out of the blue, says the ACCC.
That means checking whether your child’s number is actually working or finding another means to get in touch with them, like contacting someone they’re with, or via email or social media.
“Above all, never send money without being absolutely sure who you are sending it to,” ACCC Deputy Chair Delia Rickard said earlier this year.
“It’s important to stop and think if you get a message, especially on WhatsApp, because chances are it’s not your family member or friend – it’s a scammer.”
“If you’re unable to make contact, you should try a secondary contact method to verify who you’re speaking to.
“If you still can’t contact your family member or friend, consider asking a personal question a scammer couldn’t know the answer to, so you know the person you are speaking to is who they say they are.”