Why Cyber Safety is an Equity Issue

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We all know someone who’s been the target of a scam – within our families or social circles.

Falling for a scam is something that most people will not admit to. Scammers know this and use it to their advantage. Many people have been conned out of money or personal information. Many are highly educated and affluent—not the type of people you’d think could fall for a scam. These deceptive people are very good at their jobs. In fact, our embarrassment and reluctance to share our experiences is the key to their continued success.

Here are some of the most common emotional effects of being scammed:

  • embarrassment
  • loss of appetite and sleep
  • anxiety, shame & guilt
  • anger and bitterness
  • depression
  • loss of trust in others
  • loss of a sense of security
  • grief
  • lack of communication with others
  • suicidal thoughts

According to ABS, about 11% of Australians aged 15 years and over (2.1 million) experienced personal fraud in 2020-21. This was higher than the rate in 2014-15 (8.5%). But why is this an equity issue?

A report by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) on targeting scams reveals that in 2020, people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds made over 11,700 reports of scams to Scamwatch to report over $22.1 million in losses.

Indigenous Australians and those whose primary language is not English have lost tens of millions of dollars to scams in 2021. Indigenous Australians were badly affected, with total reported losses amounting to $4.6 million over the same period, an increase of about 138 percent year-on-year.

Concerning new data shows scammers stole $36.2 million from people who spoke English as a second language between 1 January and 31 October in 2021 — up almost 93 percent when compared to the same period last year.

The data also revealed what types of scams these communities were most affected by.

Indigenous Australians and people who speak English as a second language made 3067 reports about phishing — a tactic bad actors used to trick victims into handing over personal information, such as their bank account details.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission issued a warning in 2016 for migrants to watch out for scammers pretending to be from the ‘Department of Immigration’, threatening deportation and demanding money.

“The scammers target migrants and temporary visa holders, claiming there are problems with their immigration paperwork or visa status and they need to pay a fee to correct the problem and avoid deportation. These scammers often glean personal information from social media, making the demands seem more legitimate,” ACCC Deputy Chair Delia Rickard warned.

“Scammers may try to pressure you by calling incessantly and harassing you, even threatening to send the police to your house. Simply hang up and do not respond. If you give your money to a scammer, you will never see it again,” Ms Rickard said.

“The Department of Immigration and Border Protection will never ask for wire transfers or iTune cards as a payment option.”

According to this article by Varun A, one of the first studies published by UC Berkeley’s Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity (CLTC) investigates how cybersecurity awareness among San Francisco’s underserved residents affects participation and behaviors with digital services. The on-the-ground surveys of low-income residents, seniors, and foreign-language speakers were compared to a control group representing the general SF population. The results provide a stark ‘state of cybersecurity readiness’:

Underserved residents are nearly 2 times as likely to report being a victim of a cyber scam than the general population (26% vs 15%) and nearly a third (31%) of those victims had been scammed 3 times or more.

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The above statistic is even more concerning when you consider underserved residents likely to under-report being victims of cybercrime: 19% don’t know if they have ever been a victim of a cyber scam, 41% don’t know if their device has ever had a virus, and 44% are unsure if they have ever provided personal information to strangers.

  • Underserved residents who self-reported ‘low confidence’ in their cybersecurity readiness are up to 8 times less likely to use online banking, job hunting or other online services than the general population

Technology-facilitated gender-based violence is a huge topic that deserves its own article, which I will write about soon. Gender-based violence is “violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately”.

Women are disproportionately subjected to various forms of online abuse in various parts of the world, especially women of specific religions, ethnic or racial groups, sexual orientation, economic status, and disabilities. A poll by Amnesty International (2017) revealed that approximately one-fourth of the 4,000 women surveyed in the United States, United Kingdom, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Italy, and Poland experienced some form of online abuse (e.g., cyberharassment) at least once. What is more, 41% of these women who experienced online abuse feared for their personal safety because of this abuse and harassment (Amnesty International, 2017). Women have received intimidating messages, threats of violence, and sexually explicit text messages, emails, images, and videos via dating, social media, and other online platforms, as well as in chat rooms and instant messaging services.

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It’s important to record and report experiences, and understand the support needed by victims of online fraud – no matter who they are. The impact of online fraud affects us as a society – individual and collective.

Financial impact: According to this study by AIC, some victims suffered substantial and debilitating financial impacts. Several current participants described losing all their superannuation, being ‘sucked dry’, having to pay off loans over months or years, ‘losing everything’, losing their life savings, being unable to afford food and ‘throwing good money after bad’ by hiring lawyers or pursuing civil proceedings against perpetrators. Many participants lost money to fraud that had been borrowed from family, friends or a financial institution or taken from a self-managed superannuation fund, or that had come from the sale of assets such as cars or the equity in their house. This exacerbated their losses. Comments included:

I am back working again now and I am 65 on Saturday (interview 16).

I have had to get a boarder in and the kids are not comfortable with that, so I am sort of restricted with how much I see them now (interview 17).

Because I got into such trouble financially I can’t get credit. I can’t get loans so I will never have my own place again even though I am working full time (interview 32).

The above study also discusses the emotional, psychological and physical impact of scams.

Support needs of victims of online fraud

The extent to which victims of online fraud desired support varied considerably. Some clearly needed financial and emotional help, while others could write off losses and move on by themselves. Many victims did not reveal the fraud to their friends or families—including, sometimes, their spouses. Many sought no support at all, while others did not know where to find help. As described above, the victims interviewed for this study experienced a wide range of impacts from their victimisation, leading to a variety of individual needs.

The following specific needs of victims were identified from the interviews:

  • to be listened to and treated with respect and dignity when reporting to authorities, rather than blamed for their victimisation;
  • to receive an acknowledgement that a crime has been committed against them;
  • to have access to clear channels of reporting and be directed to appropriate agencies as quickly and simply as possible;
  • to have access to agency staff who are trained in dealing with victims of fraud and who know how to handle cases appropriately;
  • to be openly and honestly supported by friends and relatives;
  • to know what support services are available, how and where these can be accessed and at what cost; and
  • to have access to trained professional support that addresses not only the consequences of financial victimisation, but also the factors that precipitate such victimisation such as relationship difficulties or addictions.

If you’ve been scammed, or know someone that has acknowledged that there will be a process of grief and it’s important to have compassion toward yourself. There’s support available, and you don’t have to process it alone.

Shame, guilt, and anger are all a part of this and recognising that you falling for a scam is not a factor of intelligence.

If you need support or further resources, please reach out to your national Cybersecurity centre. If you’re in Australia, you can visit ACSC or report a cybercrime here.

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