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Scamming scammers and the dastardly scams they peddle

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The AMA has become alarmed that a growing number of scammers touting directory listings and other bogus commercial arrangements are targeting medical practices.

In recent weeks Australian Medicine has identified several incidents in which practices have been bombarded by increasingly aggressive demands for payment amounting to several thousands of dollars for advertising and other services that they have neither sought nor received.

To help members identify and deal with scammers, legal experts at the AMA have prepared the following advice.

What is a scam?

A scam is a scheme designed to obtain money, or something else of value such as your identity or financial details, by way of some trick or fraud. Some can be minor, involving relatively small sums of money. Others can amount to major fraud with devastating consequences.

These may include:

  • telemarketing scams, where scammers trick you into believing that an order has already been authorised, and all they need for confirmation is a signature;
  • being billed for listings on websites that are almost always worthless. They may start with a ‘complimentary’ listing, then try to lure you into an advanced listing’ (at inflated cost). This is one of the most common forms of scam;
  • firms which offer professional services, such as accounting, and promise a ‘free consultation’, only to then send a bill for many hundreds of dollars, with nothing in writing to protect you from their claim;
  • being billed for unwanted ‘financial services’, in the form of worthless,  unsolicited printed material delivered to your business with a clause saying that if you don’t cancel by a particular time, you have committed to purchase for a year or more; and
  • internet and ‘phishing’ scams.

This is not an exhaustive list. There are many scams out there. NSW Fair Trading has a helpful list on its website: http://www.fairtrading.nsw.gov.au/Businesses/Scams/Business_scams.html

How do scammers operate?

Scammers know when to be very friendly and charming, then turn aggressive to intimidate you into paying.

They know how to make it look like their paperwork is above board.

Frequently, if you don’t pay, they will threaten legal proceedings – although in reality most won’t proceed to court as they don’t want to be exposed.

Often you may receive letters from a ‘collection agency’ (debt collector).

Also, scammers frequently lie about what has been said on the phone, to discredit or trick you or your staff. 

Things to watch out for:

  • people who ‘cold call’, making contact with you out of the blue to sell you something. This form of contact is particularly risky;
  • people who try to pressure you into signing now – using lines such as ‘this offer is only available today’. High pressure selling may indicate a scam;
  • people who insist that someone in your practice has previously authorised a particular purchase. This is a classic scam;
  • companies based overseas with no local address or agent, or an Australian businesses with no street address. This is often a sign that a business does not want to be traced;
  • businesses which try to make out that you have ‘won’ something or have been ‘chosen’; and
  • people who tell you that you should sign a document, but ‘it isn’t binding’. If anyone wants you to sign something, it is usually intended to be binding.

How can I protect myself from scams:

  • scammers usually want your signature on a piece of paper. Do not be rushed into signing anything;
  • do not give your credit card or bank account details to any person unless you are absolutely sure they are legitimate;
  • train your staff to recognise problems and potential scams. Scammers often target junior staff;
  • make sure you have procedures regarding who can sign for purchases or any document on behalf of the practice;
  • have salespeople put everything to you in writing. If they are legitimate they will have no problem setting out their proposition in an email;
  • you may find it helpful to refuse cold calls, just like you can refuse junk mail. Of course, make sure you are not hanging up on patients;
  • return any unsolicited goods unopened, to the sender. Note the time and date of doing so. Take a photograph of the goods;
  • check a company’s ABN or ACN on the ASIC website. This is not a guarantee of legitimacy, but it means a company is registered in Australia and may at least be traceable;
  • check with other practices or colleagues in your area to see if they have dealt with the company in question, and what their experience has been;
  • check sites such as ‘Scamwatch’ http://www.scamwatch.gov.au and ‘Moneysmart’: https://www.moneysmart.gov.au/scams/avoiding-scams which provide information on scams; and
  • check terms and conditions of any agreement very carefully. Some will say that ‘terms and conditions had been previously sent’, when this is not the case.

What should I do if I think I have been scammed?

  • Report it to the Fair Trading authority in your state or the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). Consumer protection agencies can put together a case where there is sufficient evidence and occasionally get a significant legal victory against a scammer;
  • put a stop on any payments from your bank account or credit card;
  • let others know about it, including your staff;
  • mostly scams do not attract the attention of the police. It is agencies such as the ACCC and offices of Fair Trading that deal with scams. But if it is particularly serious and involves serious fraud or other criminal activity such as threats, you should report it to the police;
  • cease communicating with the scammer;
  • contact your local AMA; and
  • you may need to seek private legal advice.

The Australian Consumer Law can protect you from certain types of unscrupulous dealings, but once you have paid up, it can be very difficult to get your money back.

A full legal challenge can cost a lot of money – usually much more then you have paid out, so may not be cost effective.

Remember, you have to remain vigilant about scams. Scammers are thinking up new and creative ways every day to get money out of you.

The AMA is not suggesting that every company that approaches a medical practice is acting unethically or unlawfully. There are many legitimate suppliers in the commercial world who act honestly and ethically.

We are, however, saying that you should take a moment to educate yourself and your staff to spot a potential scam and avoid it.