Superannuation scams and tips on avoiding them during COVID-19

Digital Editor · 3 February 2020
Scammers are targeting superannuation accounts, fleecing millions of dollars from unsuspecting fund members with potentially devastating effects to their retirement nest eggs. Here’s a list of some common scams authorities say everyone should be aware of, and tips to avoid being caught out.

Superannuation is designed to help save money for retirement, by building up a balance via deposits over a person’s working life. Australians have more than $2.9 trillion dollars tucked away in super funds. With such a large amount of money in the super pool, it may come as no surprise that there are sharks circling it.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) Scamwatch warns that super is a common target for scammers, and there was a spike in reports of successful scams after the recent COVID-19 early withdrawal scheme arrangements were announced. Prior to this, the ACCC stated Australians had lost more than $6 million to superannuation scams in 2019, with people aged 45–54 losing the most money.

“For most people, outside of their home, superannuation is their greatest asset and you can’t be too careful about protecting it,” said the ACCC’s Deputy Chair, Delia Rickard.

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What are some common ways people are scammed?

Direct contact

  1. Typically, scammers make contact with a person in a variety of ways – by a phone call, text, email, on social media, in person or a letter sent in the post, for example – and pretend to be a representative from an official government department, legitimate business or similar, Scamwatch states. They may have some of that person’s information to start with, and can sound very convincing.
  2. The scammer will ask the person to answer some questions or fill out a form, thereby capturing sensitive information.
  3. The scammer uses that information to gain access to the victim’s super account to transfer the funds, divert payments to another account, or make other changes.
  4. The victim is typically not aware of the theft until they check their super balance online or receive a statement.

Accessing your device

  1. Typically, a scammer sends a person an email or text, which appears to be from a legitimate source.
  2. The person is asked to click on a link, perhaps to verify their information or by using a threat.
  3. When the link is clicked, it downloads malware (malicious software) to the victim’s computer.
  4. The software allows the scammer to gain access to that computer, phone or other device or network.
  5. The scammer will then collect personal information off this device.
  6. The scammer uses that information to gain access to the victim’s super account to transfer the funds, divert payments to another account, or make other changes.
  7. The victim is typically not aware of the theft until they check their super balance online or receive a statement. The malware allows the scammer to collect lots of data, potentially allowing access to bank accounts or to steal that person’s identity (and set up loans, credit cards, etc, in the victim’s name).

“Never follow a hyperlink to reach the myGov website. Instead, you should always type the full name of the website into the browser yourself,” Ms Rickard said.

How can I protect myself from super scams?

  • Check your super balance regularly, via a secure online portal (with a https:// at the start), or by calling your super provider directly on a phone number from a reputable source.
  • Ensure that all your personal and contact details are up to date, through your online super account or by calling your fund.
  • Secure your letterbox – mail theft is a common way in which scammers gain access to people’s personal details.
  • Be careful about how you dispose of old documents that could contain sensitive personal information.
  • Be careful about what information you divulge on social media, and online (such as when subscribing to a newsletter, entering a competition or filling out any online forms). The government’s eSafety Commissioner has information which may help.
  • Don’t give any personal information to someone you don’t know or trust – if someone claims to be from your super fund or bank, check directly with the relevant institution to verify their identity.
  • Regularly check your bank and superannuation statements for suspicious or fraudulent activity.
  • Make sure to log out of your online banking and super services across all your devices and apps after using them.
  • Make sure your online accounts are protected by setting strong passwords, which are not easy to guess. Do not share your passwords with anyone.
  • Stay up to date with the latest scam prevention advice from credible and reputable sources, such as government regulators. Cyber crime can evolve and change rapidly.

If contacted by phone:

  • Be wary of callers who claim to be from a government authority asking about your super.
  • Do not give any information about your superannuation to someone who has contacted you. Do not even confirm that you have a super account with a particular organisation.
  • Hang up and call the organisation directly by doing an independent search for their contact details.
  • Ask for more time. Don’t let anyone pressure you to make a decision immediately, take your time and consider who you might be dealing with.

If contacted via email, text, social media or letter:

  • Be suspicious and review all written correspondence carefully for tell-tale mistakes such as spelling or grammar mistakes, or email addresses that don’t match previous correspondence or logic.
  • Review social media connection requests carefully, and avoid clicking on links provided in messaging services.
  • Never click on a hyperlink to reach a site where you think you would need to enter your personal details, such as a government website or financial institution.
  • Type in the full URL (e.g yourself if you know the correct address.
  • If you do not know the correct address, do independent research and look for secure sites (https: in the url).
  • Find the organisation’s phone number from an independent, reputable source and call them to verify (if it’s an organisation that’s known to you).
  • Verify their details on ASIC’s website, by verifying their Australian Financial Services Licence, and make sure they have not been disqualified from giving financial advice.
  • Ensure operating systems across your devices are updated, and use antivirus software.
  • Compare the email or return-to-sender address to other correspondence you have received, and be on the lookout for similar addresses designed to look legitimate. If in doubt, throw it out.

Do not respond to texts or emails as the scammer could “escalate their attempts to get your money”, according to Ms Rickard.

Sources: Scamwatch, ACCC, Moneysmart and Google.

What can I do if I think I’ve been scammed?

If you think your super has been targeted or you have had money taken by a scammer, taking immediate action could help prevent the scam or limit its impact, say the ACCC and the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC). Here are some actions to consider:

  1. Contact your super fund ASAP and ask them to take a look at your account for signs of fraudulent activity.
  2. Call your other financial institutions to alert them that you have possibly been the target of a scam. Talk to your providers about the options you could take, such as freezing bank accounts linked to any potentially compromised super accounts.
  3. Stay vigilant against follow-up scams, such as someone calling you and offering to recover your losses for a fee.
  4. Lodge a complaint with ASIC.
  5. Report the scam, including phishing and fake-billing scams, to the ACCC’s Scamwatch.
  6. Get support if you need it. Falling victim to a scam can have a serious impact on your mental health and relationships, and both Lifeline and Beyond Blue may be able to help you. You can call Beyond Blue’s 24/7 support line on 1300 22 4636, and Lifeline can be contacted via phone 24/7 on 13 11 14. You can also contact IDCARE, a free national identity and cyber support service that will work with you to develop a specific response plan to your situation and support you through the process, on 1800 595 160 or online.

5 ways you could lose your super through a scam

There are many ways you might lose your super – or part of it – through a superannuation scam. In addition to COVID-19 early release of super scams, other common types of super scams include identity theft, investment fraud, ‘dating’ scams, and extortion threats, according to Australian authorities.

1. COVID-19 early release of super scams

During 2020, the Australian Government launched a scheme that allowed people suffering financial hardship due to the economic impact of COVID-19 to withdraw a portion of their funds held in their superannuation account. The scheme closed on 31 December, 2020.

Soon after the 2020 launch of the scheme, Scamwatch identified a range of common COVID-19 super withdrawal scams, with fraudsters using a range of excuses, including:

  • offering to help people access the money in their super
  • checking whether a person’s super was eligible for deals or benefits
  • ensuring that the person wasn’t locked out of their super accounts due to the new rules
  • posing as the myGov service or another department and asking a person to verify their details
  • posing as the Australian Tax Office (ATO), myGov, Services Australia or another department and making threats to scare people into taking action and revealing personal information

Scammers could then use this information to claim or divert early payments to another account.

There are also reports of scammers offering to help people access their super early, due to the COVID-19 measures, for property investment, or to invest in self-managed super funds (SMSFs). When the funds leave a person’s superannuation account, they are typically stolen by the scammer.

2. Identity theft

Many superannuation funds these days make use of either security questions or two-step verification (e.g. sending a text to your phone or emailing you with a code) to make their online log-in process more secure. In some cases, fraudsters may be able to use your personal details to overcome these measures and access your super.

Additionally, some super funds may still send their members physical correspondence containing details like their member number or other pieces of personal information which could be useful to identity thieves. Moneysmart says it’s wise to “put a lock on your street mailbox so that people can’t steal your mail”.

A common scenario reported to the ACCC:

  1. In a phishing scam, victims will receive an email or text message claiming to be from a government department, such as Services Australia, requesting personal details to confirm their eligibility for a government payment or because the person may have been exposed to COVID-19.
  2. The emails and texts will include a link and request personal details such as a tax file number, superannuation details or copies of identity documents.
  3. The scammers then use this information to thwart security measures – such as passwords and two-step verification processes – to access your super account and steal funds.

3. Threats to extort funds

Some scammers use threats and other scare tactics to convince people to hand over money from their super funds.

The ACCC describes one frequently reported scam scenario:

  1. In a fake government threat scam, victims receive a robocall (a pre-recorded message) pretending to be from a government department, such as the ATO, Department of Home Affairs or Australian Federal Police (or others).
  2. The scammer will claim that something illegal, such as tax fraud or money laundering, has been committed in the victim’s name and they should dial 1 to speak to an operator.
  3. The scammer then tries to scare people into handing over money and may threaten that they would be arrested if they refuse.

“Don’t be pressured by a threatening caller and take your time to consider who you might be dealing with,” Ms Rickard said.

“Government departments will never threaten you with immediate arrest or ask for payment by unusual methods such as gift cards, iTunes vouchers or bank transfers.”

4. Investment fraud

Another kind of super scam cited by ACIC is investment fraud. This often involves individuals with SMSFs being convinced by scammers to invest in non-existent or illegal companies or sectors.

ACIC specifically points to the example of Trio Capital, which carried out what the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Corporations and Financial Services described as “the largest superannuation fraud in Australian history”, conning Australians out of around $176 million all up. The number of individuals affected was over 6,000, including nearly 700 who had invested either directly or through a SMSF.

While the government provided nearly $55 million to 5,400 individuals who had invested through Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) regulated super funds, no such compensation was provided to individuals who had invested either directly or through SMSFs.

5. ‘Dating’ scams

The ACCC also notes that it’s not uncommon for scammers to first gain the trust of their victims by developing a romantic or other type of relationship with them. Having built up a level of trust, the scammer convinces individuals to either send them small amounts from their super, or even move the entirety of their super balance into the scammer’s SMSF.

Where can I find advice about protect myself from scams?

Further information and advice is available from the government and wider authorities if you are seeking to protect yourself, or others who may be vulnerable,from financial scams, including:

Your superannuation fund may also have information available.

Learn more with Canstar:


Main image source: Pathdoc/

Additional reporting: James Hurwood

This article was reviewed by our Sub Editor Jacqueline Belesky before it was published as part of our fact-checking process.

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