Interview with Laura Jayes, Sky News Australia AM Agenda

LAURA JAYES, HOST: Well, in a world driven by technology, the battle against cybercrooks is real. Everyone is at risk of being scammed. The criminals evolve, they become more sophisticated and these scams are getting really hard to spot. So far this year, Australians have lost over $330 million to scammers and Australians are being warned it could get worse.

Joining me live now is the Communications Minister, Michelle Rowland, in the studio. Great to see you. How bad is this problem? How much of it is taking up your time?

MICHELLE ROWLAND, MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: It is an enormous problem. We know that last year alone, around $2 billion was lost by innocent Australians in scams. These are sophisticated criminals who are operating domestically but also overseas. They prey on innocent Australians. It is getting harder and harder to detect what is a legitimate communication from a trusted source as opposed to a scammer as well. So, it is an enormous problem and we recognise that there are going to be a lot of effort that needs to go into staying ahead of these scammers, which is why we’ve taken some really important steps in the last couple of months as well.

JAYES: Ok, what have you done in the last couple of months, because I seem to get these texts daily? Sometimes they’re emailed, but they do seem to come direct to your phone. And they are really hard to spot. I mean, most people I think are looking at it and going, “hang on; is that the bank I’m with?” or “do I have an Amazon account?” or “am I signed to that particular energy company?”.

ROWLAND: That’s exactly right, and I’m sure every one of your viewers knows someone who may have been a victim of a scam or has received scam communications themselves. So, what we’ve done in the last couple of months, is we have registered a new industry code which for the first time requires the telcos to identify, detect and also stop scam texts. So, they actually have to have the technology in place to be able to trace these scam texts as well. We know that this technology works because we’ve had a code in place requiring very similar obligations on the telcos in relation to scam calls, and there have been around half a billion scam calls that have been blocked. That just gives you a sense of the scale of the problem.

Once upon a time, I think we were all getting the scam emails eliciting information to try to get us to put money into particular accounts. Now we get the scam calls but we also get the scam texts. I think this needs to be understood in terms of a multifaceted approach and a whole‑of‑government approach. We’ve got the competition regulator, the ACCC, looking into this and disrupting the means by which this is being done. All of this is aimed to make it as unprofitable as it can be for these scammers to operate. We’ve got the communications regulator, the ACMA, who registers these codes and my colleague the Assistant Treasurer, Stephen Jones, is going to be implementing an election commitment around a National Anti‑Scam Centre. So, it really is a whole-of-economy problem and we’re determined to minimise this as much as possible.

JAYES: That anti-scam technology, if you like, that the telcos are now forced to implement, it is super important. You say half a billion scam texts have been stopped, but we’re still getting them regularly, so it’s not foolproof. Are we ever going to live in a world where scams stop getting through or why doesn’t that technology pick up everything?

ROWLAND: Well, I think we are always going to have criminals who will utilise this sophisticated technology, but we won’t stop. We will keep on this case to make sure that we keep ahead as much as we can.

JAYES: So is it about tweaking an algorithm? What is it?

ROWLAND: There’s artificial intelligence. There’s being able to put software in place to stop these messages before they even reach the consumer. But it’s also about the telcos being incentivised, including with fines, to do everything they can to stop these scams getting through. And yes, these are sophisticated people who utilise the latest technology, but we are determined to do everything we can to keep Australians safe.

Laura, the other really important element that the ACCC has emphasised as well is about education, and we all have been in those situations exactly as you describe where we’re not sure if information is trying to be elicited from us. I would urge every one of your viewers, if you think it’s a scam, it probably is, and not to respond to it. We’ve got people in our families who are vulnerable, particularly older family members, and we should get that message through to them as well.

JAYES: Yep. So, if you are scammed and you did give this money over to a scammer, is there a safeguard mechanism with the banks? Are you also talking to the banks? Is there a way to get our money back? What happens there?

ROWLAND: There are varying degrees and it depends on your financial institution, but this is something that the ACCC has recently spoken about and is very much alive to. It is what the ACCC describes as having a ‘safety net’ in place if someone does get scammed. So we’re very conscious of that. Consumers need some form of redress because, again, we know too many people who have lost thousands of dollars. Not only that, it’s the violation that comes with having your identity stolen, and that’s incredibly distressing. I think that it is important to have some sort of a safety net in place because there are varying degrees of redress that are available depending on your financial institution, but we need to give Australians that certainty that if they do fall victim, that there is some capacity for them to get redress.

JAYES: Okay. A lot of that is comforting, but that sounds like a bit to go as well. Before I let you go, Erin Molan has her documentary premiering on Sky News next week. She’s looking at online hate and, of course, she advocated for the Online Safety Act that was put in place under the previous Government. What are you doing in this space? Are you watching how this world-first law is working and seeing how you need to tweak it?

ROWLAND: We certainly are looking at this very closely. Exactly as you say, we had the law come into force earlier this year. Now it is about delivering the various outcomes under the law. So, there’s what’s called the Basic Online Safety Expectations that the eSafety Commissioner is doing with the various platforms, but there’s also a series of industry codes that are being consulted on as well. I think that it’s very important that we get this right so the eSafety Commissioner is consulting widely on this. But again, Australians expect to be safe online. They expect to be safe when they use communications, and we’re determined to do everything we can to assist with that.

JAYES: An AFL deal, the deal signed this week – I think it’s for the next nine years, and it is – we’re talking huge dollars, multibillions over several years. You’ve always been concerned about making sure that the best sport is available on free-to-air television. This deal that’s been struck, part of it is Foxtel, part of it is Channel Seven for the AFL rights. Is that the right balance, do you think?

ROWLAND: Well, this is a commercial deal which is under the regime as it stands called the Anti‑Siphoning regime, and what that basically is, is an order of rights acquisition. So, to break that down, this is about ensuring that Australians - irrespective of where they live or their means - have some accessibility to live and free iconic events. For Australians, sport is one of those very iconic genres that we seek to protect. But it is important to note that that scheme was actually put in place at a time when we didn’t have these multinational streaming platforms as well, with deep pockets. So, it’s high time that we did examine this and we do examine this. We went to the last election with a commitment to reviewing the scheme as it stands. Is it delivering for Australian consumers? We’ll have a discussion paper out in the next couple of weeks on that and every Australian is encouraged to have their say.

JAYES: It’s great to watch it on Foxtel. It’s better on Foxtel, wouldn’t you agree?

ROWLAND: Well, Australians can choose, and indeed subscription television is an important part of the media ecosystems and Australians make their choice. But at the same time this is about ensuring equity of access for all Australians in getting that balance right.

JAYES: You could be a diplomat, Michelle Rowland. Thank you so much for your time.

ROWLAND: My pleasure.