How a scammer looted one Sydney couple out of thousands

It was around noon when the call came in on the landline from Catherine* and her husband Peter* at their home in Sydney earlier this month.

Catherine answered the phone and was greeted by a man who told her he was from the NBN (National Broadband Network).

It was the beginning of a seven-hour ordeal for the elderly couple — both in their 70s — that left them $5,000 poorer and wondering who to trust.

“It’s very embarrassing, especially if you normally choose these things and this was such a bizarre kind of experience,” Peter told 9news.com.au.

Many people still fall victim to remote scams, including those involving the TeamViewer app.
Many people still fall victim to remote scams, including those involving the TeamViewer app. (Nine (Tara Blancato))

The man on the phone told Catherine that NBN technicians were in the area and that a virus had been detected on both their home laptop and Catherine’s cell phone.

“He said there was a driver on the way, he was just on the road. He’s held up, but would be there soon,” said Peter.

“He spoke quite a bit about the NBN office in Mount Street, North Sydney and how they worked there.

“There was such a talk, it seemed to make it more convincing.”

Peter was gone when the first call came in.

The man convinced Catherine to download a free remote access software called TeamViewer on the laptop.

After several phone calls over a few hours, the man finally hung up, Peter said.

Then Catherine started to feel uneasy about the software and uninstalled it, he said.

“She got rid of it, but the same guy called back.”

The scammer told Peter and Catherine that he worked for the NBN.
The scammer told Peter and Catherine that he worked for the NBN. (Will Willitts)

By this time, Peter was home and the man asked him to download the same app on his phone.

Speaking to the man, Peter said he looked up the name of the app online and it seemed legit.

TeamViewer is a free remote access software that is used worldwide.

On its website, the company says it is aware of circumstances in which scammers have used its software to access victims’ devices.

“We recommend that TeamViewer users be careful with cold calls and do not allow access to your devices (e.g. PC or mobile) to anyone you do not know or trust,” it reads.

After downloading the software to his phone, Peter said the man spent several more hours on the phone with him “fixing” various problems.

“We thought it had to be a fair dinkum, otherwise why would he have spent so much time on it,” he said.

Finally, the man announced that the viruses had been found, but that “the lines” needed to be repaired.

“This sounds so stupid now to tell it later,” said Peter.

“We were told there would be radiation in the computer.”

“They said, ‘We want you to get out of there to another room. Just turn on your TV and tell us if you see any red or blue spots on the screen.'”

“So there we went and did that.”

The man told Catherine and Peter not to approach the laptop or their cell phones until later the next morning, when they would call them again.

But when Peter woke up the next morning, he said he’d decided to check his email after all.

Then he discovered multiple emails from Commonwealth Bank warning them of possible fraudulent activity related to their account.

The scammer had managed to access the couple’s bank account online, which changed their withdrawal limit from $2,000 to $20,000.

Two trades had been made, one to withdraw $45 and another to withdraw $5000.

A third transaction, of $15,000, was blocked by the bank.

Peter said he had been informed by Commonwealth Bank that the first two transactions were unlikely to be refunded as staff had not been able to trace the recipient.

A Commonwealth Bank spokesman told 9news.com.au they were unable to comment on individual cases for privacy reasons.

“We are always very concerned when we are made aware of fraud and scams affecting customers and the wider community,” the spokesperson said.

“If a customer has been scammed, we will work tirelessly with the relevant parties to try and recover the remaining funds for them.”

Peter said falling prey to the scam had been a stressful experience that shocked both him and his wife.

“There’s a sense of offense. I know we both felt like the padding was absolutely knocked out of us.”

Remote access scams are on the rise

Remote scams, especially those that ask victims to download the TeamViewer software, have been around for several years.

The NSW police issued a warning in 2019 against the use of the software in fraud.

“Scams like these are becoming more common as scammers take advantage of new technology, products and services to persuade the community to provide their personal information,” Cybercrime Squad Commander Detective Inspector Matt Craft said at the time.

However, remote scams are becoming more common.

According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Scamwatch, $8.6 million has been lost to remote access crimes so far this year.

The amount of money stolen by remote crimes has more than tripled in the past three years, from $4.8 million in 2019 to $16.4 million in 2021.

Here are some of Scamwatch’s top tips to make sure you don’t become the next victim:

  • Do not open suspicious texts, pop-up windows or click on links or attachments in emails – delete them: If you are unsure, verify the contact’s identity through an independent source, such as a phone book or online search. Do not use the contact details in the message sent to you.

  • Don’t respond to phone calls about your computer asking for remote access – hang up – even if they mention a well-known company like Telstra. Scammers will often ask you to turn on your computer to fix a problem or install a free upgrade, which is basically a virus that gives you passwords and personal information.

  • Keep your mobile devices and computers safe. Always use password protection, do not share access with others (including remotely), update security software, and back up content. Password protect your Wi-Fi network and avoid using public computers or Wi-Fi hotspots to access internet banking or provide personal information.

  • Choose your passwords carefully. Choose passwords that are difficult for others to guess and update them regularly. A strong password must contain a combination of upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols. Do not use the same password for every account/profile and do not share your passwords with anyone.

  • Beware of unusual payment requests. Scammers will often ask you to use an unusual payment method, including preloaded debit cards, gift cards, iTunes cards, or virtual currency like Bitcoin.

*Names have been changed for privacy

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