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Online scams, child exploitation thrive during pandemic

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Law enforcement agencies have revealed the changing nature of crime and corruption in the pandemic, and warned some schemes are actively playing on fears of COVID-19.

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In submissions to a federal parliamentary inquiry, the agencies have revealed an increase in certain scams during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission received almost 170,000 reports of scams in 2019 but this year noticed that complaints of “phishing” – victims being lured to provide sensitive, identifying information – increased significantly after the government announced early access to superannuation and introduced the JobKeeper program.

“Reports to Scamwatch for the June 2020 quarter are 23 per cent higher than the June 2019 quarter,” the ACCC told the inquiry.

“In 2020, more people who make scam reports have reported losing money than in any year before (in 2020 13.5 per cent of reports include a financial loss, compared with 11.7 per cent last year and 9.9 per cent in 2018).”

Scams referencing COVID-19, including some impersonating government agencies, have led to 3,500 complaints and some $2.2 million in reported losses.

(Photo: ABC News: Jessica Hinchliffe)

The Australian Securities Investment Commission is also investigating whether listed entities have allegedly misled consumers and the market over the potential of their products to combat COVID-19.

Queensland’s Crime and Corruption Commission suggested criminal networks have had to diversify their activities after disruption to overseas and interstate travel. This may also change the nature of official corruption.

“Just as legitimate businesses have had to innovate during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is likely that organised crimes groups have innovated in their criminal activities,” the CCC wrote in its submission.

“Similarly, the pandemic has created new opportunities that may be conducive to corruption, including urgent procurement or recruitment processes, the need for new vendors due to supply chain disruptions, and a large number of public sector employees shifting to work-from-home arrangements. It has also changed some of the widely-acknowledged drivers for corruption risk, including unemployment, constrained opportunities for promotion, and devalued personal investments (e.g. superannuation).”

The most disturbing developments were detailed by the Australian Federal Police, which reported an increase in child exploitation. Over a 10 week period of the pandemic, the AFP arrested or summons 47 people on child exploitation offences – compared to 74 in the previous full financial year.

“The AFP has observed an increase in online child exploitation activity on the clear and dark net during the pandemic,” the AFP wrote in its submission.

“Between March and April 2020, the AFP-led Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation (ACCCE) saw the highest month-on-month increase in community reports since January 2019.”

Queensland Police have previously warned of the potential for an increase in domestic violence, even if complaints are delayed, amid social distancing and home isolation requirements. There has also been an increase in motorists speeding.

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