For most of Robert’s life, he thought scams that cheated people out of their hard-earned money were “hit-and-run” crimes. 

The scammers were quick and cruel, and after they struck, their unwitting victims never heard from them again.

He never imagined they could be “highly professional”, patient and sophisticated.

But then he spent weeks on the phone speaking to “investment experts” before they stole $2,000 from him.

A ‘highly professional’ scam

In his late 70s, Robert* has decades of experience as a business owner who regularly invests money with legitimate firms. 

Robert* considers himself to be a business savvy man.(ABC Broken Hill: Grace Atta)

After seeing advertisements on TV about the benefits of investment banking online, he decided to look into it.

In December last year, he found a professional-looking website called Wise Investments, which gave detailed information about investing money, and he registered an account.

“They sounded pretty good, and they had a sign in. So, I gave over my phone number and email address. And they rang me up the next day,” Robert said.

He was eventually assigned a “financial advisor” who was not only professional and patient with him but also gave Robert a code to quote in all future calls to prevent “someone trying to scam you.”

After providing his card details and paying $2,000, he was told, “Welcome to the family.” 

As the weeks went on, the “financial advisor” continued to call Robert regularly to give him “updates” on how his investment was tracking. 

And this growth wasn’t just something Robert was told about. He saw it with his own eyes.

“He told me he’d made over $3,000 American dollars. And then he showed me on my computer,” Robert recalled.

Like many scams, the person on the other side of the phone coached Robert to install a program allowing them to access his computer remotely.

Too good to be true

It all seemed to be going so well that a few days later, Robert thought he would check his computer himself to see if there had been more growth, but he couldn’t find the program the advisor had used.

He tried to reach his “investment advisor” but got no response.

Robert* says the advisor he spoke with always seemed professional and knowledgeable about investing.(ABC Broken Hill: Oliver Brown)

Worried that he might have been scammed, he decided to offer them “bait” of $8,000.

A new financial advisor “couldn’t get on the phone quick enough”.

The new advisor promised to double Robert’s $8,000 by investing in bitcoin, but when he asked about his original $2,000, things started to unravel. 

They said they couldn’t find his money. 

Incredulously, the advisor demanded Robert still hand over $8,000. 

Robert refused and the “advisor” became aggressive and threatening, telling him his money would “be frozen”, unless he followed another list of instructions.

Robert hung up and didn’t speak to them again.

Unbeknownst to Robert, the so-called Wise Investment website had been flagged as fraudulent by the UK Financial Conduit Authority in 2020.

It was found to be a “clone” of a legitimate company, Wise Investments Limited, located in Oxfordshire, England.

Investment scams the biggest culprit

An Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) report on scamming found investment scams accounted for more than $1.3 billion in losses from Australians in 2023.

The report also found that people over 65 were the most likely to lose money, with the ACCC deputy chair, Catriona Lowe, stating that scammers are targeting people with retirement savings.

Monica Whitty, a professor in Human Factors of Cybersecurity at Monash University, said that while age is relevant, “digital literacy and a lack of support systems” are also key.

Professor Monica Whitty says there isn’t enough education for elderly people.

Scammers also use an array of psychological tactics to manipulate and con victims.

“One of the persuasive techniques that goes back to marketing is that if you [present] yourself as a person of authority, you’re more likely to be trusted,” Professor Whitty said.

“[Scammers are] also more likely to talk to them on a personal level … A lot of people will say ‘I felt close to that person. I really trusted them.

“The other thing they also do is push away networks that might protect individuals.

“So, for instance, there might be a family member [who says] to the potential victim ‘I think you’re talking to a scammer’ and the scammer will say, ‘They just don’t know. They just don’t understand.”

In the case of Robert, Professor Whitty says a common approach is to set up security codes or acknowledge that “other scammers” are out there.

“Setting themselves up as the good guy and saying ‘We know that there’s criminals out there and we’re not them’. It pulls you into their circle of trust,” she said.

Robert says that while the $2,000 he lost won’t cause any financial burden on him and his wife, he nonetheless feels embarrassed by the whole ordeal.

“It’s just well … ‘How could I be so damn stupid’, you know?” he told the ABC.

“But they knew what they were talking about, the mathematics and percentages. They were good”.

Troubleshooting digital literacy

Professor Whitty says that when it comes to solutions, there isn’t enough education for the elderly community, who she says are “becoming a much more vulnerable group.”

Moving forward, she says two key changes need to be made.

“One, education in the right places because they’re not going to look at government websites. And so where do you get that education to them? That might be their community centres, libraries, things like that,” she said.

“But secondly, it’s about looking at who the guardians in society are, and let’s train them to look after the more vulnerable, such as the elderly.

“It’s not about taking away their independence and doing everything for them but being their support networks and their guardians.”

Robert says that while younger family members help him with his devices, he’s planning to enrol in a digital literacy course at a TAFE near his home in Far West NSW.

How to become tech-savvy

Cindy Burke is the head teacher of employability skills and career pathways at Broken Hill for TAFE NSW.

She said there was no doubt that digital literacy would be an essential skill in 2024, and thankfully, more and more people were signing up for the program.

“Given the fact there are quite a few issues around scamming and … just understanding myGov and Medicare … everything seems to be online. Even doctor’s appointments,” Ms Burke said.

Across the Far West, including Broken Hill, Menindee, Wilcannia, Coomealla and Cobar, TAFE NSW offers a completely free, 18-week Certificate I course in basic computer skills.

A free course in basic computer skills is available across NSW for anyone over 15 years old.(Supplied: Unsplash)

The program teaches people of all ages how to manage their safety while using digital devices and accessing the web.

“We try to go back to the very basics, and one of the most important things is the safety side, given the scams and all that’s taking place at the moment,” Ms Burke said.

Anyone over 15 can take this course, with the current Broken Hill cohort including one student in their 80s.

The head teacher said that, despite the common assumption these classes are solely attended by retired, elderly individuals, the course actually attracted a diverse crowd.

“A lot of businesses and organisations [are] growing with technology,” she said. 

“However, the staff members may have been in the business for a period of time, and the technology has come into this workplace like a fire. And they’re kind of feeling like, ‘I’m still used to the pen and paper’.

“So, we’re able to sort of open up the pathway for them to learn the basics of computers and not be so frightened.

“We’re also catering for the unemployed person, who would like to upgrade their skills so that they’re more employable.”

Free tech-related programs are also available through many local libraries.

The Be-Connected program is one of these, providing those needing basic tech assistance with a one-on-one appointment with a librarian or volunteer.

In Broken Hill, a spokesperson for the local library said that 296 people accessed this program alone over the past two years.

*Robert is a pseudonym.