There was a lot of publicity yesterday for a report on business fraud and cold selling of worthless shares and other investments. Newspapers, radio, TV and websites gave considerable publicity to the report from the Australian Crime Commission. Even ABC TV led its 7pm bulletin in NSW yesterday with a story on the report.

All of the reports yesterday were uncritical and accepting of the statements in the report. With a bit of Googling and other research, they would have found the report to be old, a rehash of many statements already issued, and totally underwhelming for consumers. In fact the research should have raised questions about the effectiveness of these guardians of our purses.

It was long on motherhood statements, and short on the sort of information on the types of schemes and where they are mainly coming from (something that is easily updated online, by the way). Information like this would help educate people receiving cold calls and cold emails. Seeing this report is to be mailed out to Australians, a bit of detail in place of the generalities would have been very helpful.

The only journalist who looked at the report and gave it the treatment it deserves — a highly critical review — was Insider AKA Ian McIlwraith in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age this morning. As McIlwraith pointed out in the press release announcing the report was just as weak.

“HOME Affairs Minister Jason Clare might want to pop into a few more Senate hearings or read a newspaper before he trots out reports from the Australian Crime Commission on cyber and investment fraud.

“Clare yesterday launched ”the first unclassified report of its kind’ from the ACC, citing the revelation that 2600 Australians may have lost $113 million to serious and organised investment fraud.

“Only trouble is, Insider’s sister publication The Australian Financial Review reported those same numbers back in May from statements by ACC chief executive John Lawler before a Senate committee.

“While Insider can only applaud any regulatory action that limits the capacity of the unscrupulous to separate the gullible from their money, the 43-page report is almost a scam in itself.”

In fact the report is worse than that: it contains nothing that hasn’t been said or written before about watching out for financial sector scams in years gone by. I co-wrote a cover story for The Bulletin magazine back in 1986-87 on financial scams, such as cold calling from so-called boiler rooms here and offshore (and where they were most located), advance fee loan fraud, and so on. There have been plenty of other stories on these frauds, both before 1986 and since.

But the claim of losses of $113 million a year looks dodgy in itself, it is an estimate and from years of experience, is an under reporting of the true position because so many people are ashamed of being taken for a ride, they do not come forward and talk to the police or other authorities. And then there’s the most egregious example of fraud in recent memory, the Trio Capital super scandal that saw at least $153 million looted from superannuation funds and investors in Australia. That happened several years ago and deserved mention in this report as a specific case seeing superannuation get’s a mention. But nary a word.

As the reporters on The SMH, most notably Stuart Washington, have pointed out, the authorities botched this case badly. The man behind the fraud remains at large and is believed to be living in south east Asia (Thailand from last report). In fact it was the reporting by people like Stuart Washington that alerted the rest of the media, the public and finally forced the slow moving authorities to start investigating.

“The damning report by the joint corporations and financial services committee found despite avowed anti-fraud stances by the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Crime Commission, these agencies’ actions had been ”very minimal” or had no role at all, respectively.

”The committee questions why one of the largest financial frauds in Australian history has not been more thoroughly investigated by agencies such as the AFP and the ACC,” the report stated. “It also questioned why the superannuation regulator had not detected the fraud in five annual reviews of Trio Capital between 2005 and 2009.”

And then there have been the reports on The SMH and The Age on a huge advanced fee loan fraud. At least $30 million was involved in this fraud.

“It was a swindle of global proportions. The alleged perpetrator is a fraudster dubbed the Bernie Madoff of India. From his swish offices in Bahrain and Switzerland, Ahsan Ali Syed has orchestrated a multi-million-dollar scam where upfront fees were paid for loans that never eventuated.

“The victims are well-heeled business people from Australia, including a former state treasurer, as well as from New Zealand, Malaysia, Ireland, Spain and the Netherlands.”

I remember when I was at Business Sunday we investigated am advanced fee loan fraud scam involving a man from the Hills District of Sydney. During the research I and another producer were told that the Fraud Squad was so stretched (this is back in the late 1990’s) that it rarely investigated frauds under the range of $300,000 to $500,000. There have been numerous other reports on variants of this scam on A Current Affair, Today Tonight and on various current affairs programs on the ABC.There’s always more detail about the mechanics of the fraud, some of those peddling it and other important details than is to be found in the weak report issued yesterday by Clare and the ACC.

Another favourite were the horse picking software scams, and the allied share picking and forex trading diddles. Cartoonist Larry Pickering is a well-known identity in both scams, as this report from the Sydney Daily Telegraph says:

“Australian cartoonist Larry Pickering now stands accused of being involved in a sports betting operation in which more than 100 investors lost their life savings.

“Pickering, 68, best known for his political cartoons in the 1970s and 80s, is alleged to have used an alias selling software for Cohen Strachan Investments, urging people to invest in a sports trading company which folded, with millions of dollars allegedly lost.

“Hundreds of consumers were allegedly cold-called and encouraged to buy the program and then invest in Hong Kong-based Nominee Traders, which promised a hefty return by betting around the world.”

Pickering denies involvement, as he had done repeatedly in the past. He was another person investigated while at Business Sunday. He now draws and sends out offensive cartons of Julia Gillard and others that are lauded and fawned upon by conservatives.

By the way, three police forces and ASIC have been told of this story, the Tele reported. Good luck.

You get the impression the Crime Commission is struggling for relevance. What would have lifted the report beyond the PR stunt level would have been details of the main frauds, where they were run from, background or details on some of the people involved. For example, many scams originate on the Gold Coast in Queensland, especially in the Bundall-Southport area and the numerous business parks and other cheap rental buildings.

What was stunning from the report was the absence of any details or statistics on the number of reports, convictions, etc, which would give you an idea of how successful our guardians (those in task Force Galilee) have been in protecting consumers against these frauds. That absence should be the major warning from the report to consumers: if you complain, don’t have much hope of redress or conviction. So don’t believe anything told to you over the phone, by word of mouth or by friends or family about high returns and get rich schemes. If it sounds rich or too good to be true, it is and it’s a scam.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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