What we can learn from Donna Dickson’s story.

In August, when I first learned that Scamwatch had received reports of puppy scams totaling $300,000, I was already concerned about Australia’s increased vulnerability to scams during the pandemic. Seeing now that Australians have lost over $100 million dollars to scams from January to August, it’s clear that we’re at a significantly higher risk to scams than previous years.

Not only has the pandemic (and the wide-spread normalisation of work-from-home) introduced its own sets of security challenges, but it’s also leaving us less attentive than usual, and more susceptible to scammers.

In 2020, it’s more important than ever to listen to the stories of scam-victims around us and learn as much as we possibly can to avoid the same criminal activity. One such story we can all learn from is Donna Dickson and her experience with online puppy scams.

Donna Dickson lives with her six dogs and cat in Armadale NSW, and due to a recurring case of identity theft, has spent 2020 dealing with an endless stream of scam victims who have been exploited under her name.

Donna was contacted on Gumtree by a prospective buyer for her off-and-on puppy breeding services. The supposed buyer ironically told Donna that she had been scammed in the past, and that she would only trust the service if Donna provided a picture of her license and registered breeder number.

Donna didn’t know at the time that this was an attempt by a scammer eliciting information for identity theft, so she provided the information as requested.

The scammer went on to use Donna’s information in countless scams, embezzling funds from unknowing buyers by using Donna’s name, business, and pictures. Now, Donna has scam victims regularly arriving at her property after long drives from rural towns, only to be told that they’ve been scammed and need to contact the local police

Considering that Australians have lost $1.3 million dollars to puppy scams throughout 2020 thus far, what can we learn from Donna’s situation to avoid scams like this?

When to Trust Others Online

The first error that led to Donna being scammed is that she trusted the person she was speaking with online. You can never be certain of who you’re speaking with online, and as such, you should treat every single interaction with a grain of salt.

Some steps you can use to stay safe in your online interactions are as follows:

  • Never let money get involved: Donna not only provided her license to the scammer in this story, but she also lent them $300 dollars to “help them out of a tight spot”. Needless to say, she never saw this money again. Even though it was out of the goodness of her heart; if you haven’t met and confirmed the person, never give or loan money to them.
  • Set limits to your online interactions: Whether you’re talking with a stranger, co-worker, friend, or family member, you can never be sure that the person on the other end of the screen is actually who you think they are. As such, set clearly defined limits to the information you’re willing to share online and always act under the assumption that you could be speaking with an imposter.
  • Think twice before sharing personal information: Any time someone asks you for personal information online should be seen as a red flag. In Donna’s case, she complied with the request and provided her license information, which led to her eventual identity-theft. Even if it’s convenient or if you’re being pressured, always work out a safe alternative rather than providing confidential information.

Making Safe Online Payments

Another piece of Donna’s story is through one of the puppy scam-victims, Sandy Trujillo.

Sandy was in the market for a new puppy to keep her elderly mother company during isolation. She purchased a puppy from a very legitimate-appearing website that used Donna’s stolen details.

Sandy, being a former veterinarian and government department investigator, quickly realised after the purchase that she had fallen victim to a scam. Unfortunately, she had already made a large deposit of $1,600 by that point.

Sandy reported the incident to the bank and local police within 24 hours, but it wasn’t enough to rectify the issue or put her mind at rest, so she took action into her own hands.

Using Google Maps, Sandy tracked down Donna’s address from the stolen license information, acquired her information from the Armadale police station, and made contact with Donna directly.

Today, the two of them have joined forces to track down and rectify ongoing puppy scams through their Facebook group, Puppy Scam Awareness Australia, which thanks to its grass-roots nature is one of my favorite cybersecurity projects of the year!

Screenshot of Puppy Scams Awareness Facebook Page

Not all of us can start our own anti-scam organisations as Sandy and Donna can, but there’s still plenty to learn from their experience, especially pertaining to making safe payments online:

  • Investigate the company first: If you’re making payment to a company for the first time, make sure they are credible and safe. You can do this by checking reviews and forums for other people’s experiences with the company.
  • Check if the website is safe: While scams are becoming more and more indistinguishable from real websites, there are some safety steps that should be taken with all purchases. Most importantly, always check the URL for typos, misleading characters, and https:// certification.
  • Use cash: This specifically applies to purchases you’re making in person. In the case of a puppy scam, a surefire way to avoid a scam is to meet in person first. See the puppy, and exchange your money in person. If their policy can’t suit this, be extremely cautious before proceeding with any online transaction.

For more information and news on cyber-safety during 2020, visit http://portal.cyberaware.com/remote

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