Spotting scams: clues are in the writing

22 May 2020

The COVID-19 coronavirus has provided fertile ground for scammers to prey on anxious and unsuspecting people in vulnerable financial and health positions. Since the start of the outbreak, The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's (ACCC) Scamwatch has received over 2,000 COVID-19-related scam reports with over $700,000 in reported losses. Common scams include phishing for personal information, and online shopping and superannuation scams.

As well as taking practical steps like not clicking on links inside emails, there are other clues in the text of an email, social media post, or SMS that will alert you to a scam. Some are more obvious than others and you need to be vigilant at all times.

Spelling errors

A common trick is to slightly misspell an organisation’s name in an attempt to make it look authentic. The 'from' email address is a dead giveaway as it is usually a variation of the correct URL. If you are not vigilant, you may miss these slight changes in the small print of a URL (e.g. ‘Covidsafe’ or ‘COVID Safe’ rather than the correct ‘COVIDSafe’, ‘Mygov’ rather than ‘myGov’ or ‘IINet’ rather than ‘iiNet’). 

Scammers are creating increasingly sophisticated content with some very authentic-looking scam emails that contain fewer, or less obvious spelling and grammatical errors than previously. Spell checkers do pick up many errors but not all. For example:

‘In line with the contact tracing modalities and within the laws on which we operate at the Department of Health, we strongly advice that you submit yourself for COVID-19 testing.’

Scam alert: ‘Advice’ is the incorrect spelling in this context; however, this would not be picked up by spell check. ‘Submit yourself’ and 'the laws on which we operate' are not turns of phrase we would use in English and could be auto-translations.

Another clue is scammers using US spelling. Australian company and government style guides generally recommend Australian spelling (e.g. ‘travelled’ rather than ‘traveled’, ‘centre’ rather than ‘center’ and ‘colour’ rather than ‘color’). US spelling on an Australian government or company official communication would be unusual. 

Grammatical errors

An official communication will always use the correct form of the personal pronoun (‘I’ rather than ‘i’) and are more likely to use gender inclusive language (‘they’ or ‘he or she’) than defaulting to the generic ‘he’. Other grammatical clues are mismatching singulars and plurals, and errors of tense. For example:

‘For your security you must review these refund by 30 June 2020. Thank You’

Scam alert: There is a mismatch of singular and plural and the word ‘thank you’ is misspelled.

‘If you do not verify your mailbox, we will be force to block your account.’

Scam alert: The tense is misused. The negative tone is also a red flag as an official request is more likely to be written in a positive professional tone, rather than threatening an undesirable outcome.

Incorrect or overuse of punctuation

The rules of punctuation are not always cut and dried. However, some common punctuation errors include using a comma instead of a full stop and misuse of apostrophes (particularly ‘it’s’ and ‘its’, ‘there’ and ‘their’ and ‘your’ and ‘you're’). Another is to omit the question mark symbol (?) at the end of a question or the full stop at the end of a line or sentence.

Communications that overuse exclamation marks (e.g. at the end of 2 or more consecutive sentences) or that use multiple exclamation marks at the end of a sentence may also indicate a suspicious communication (e.g. HURRY!!! OFFER ENDS SOON!!!!!).

Overuse or misuse of initial capital letters

Overuse and misuse of initial capital letters (capital letters at the beginning of words) indicate the communication has not been checked by a professional editor or proofreader. Capital letters change the ‘shape’ of words. When overused they can make the page visually unattractive and discourage the reader. A proper noun (name of a person, place or thing, such as a brand name) must begin with a capital letter, common nouns do not. For example:

‘The Australian taxation office wishes to inform you that as the situation with Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic develops, we will be effecting regulatory changes concerning the way we calculate the total tax returns you are entitled to.’

Scam alert: The Australian Taxation Office is a proper noun so each word needs an initial capital. The coronavirus is not a proper noun so should not take an initial capital. The official spelling of the virus is COVID-19.

Abbreviations

We all know government organisations and other industries like using acronyms to avoid writing complex terms in full. Sometimes short forms can be very helpful such as PMIS (paediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome). However, unnecessary abbreviations such as ‘govt’ for government are less likely to be used in an official communication. Any acronyms should be spelled out in full the first time they are used.

 Spotting Scams: More clues are in the writing

Image source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2020-04-09/face-masks-coronavirus-should-i-wear-one-in-public-covid-19/12130070

Although the focus of this blog is on scams and misinformation, we do also notice some of these errors do appear in legitimate business communications, particularly those from businesses that prepare their own communications and do not have them checked by a professional editor or proofreader. Official publications released by large organisations, such as financial institutions and government departments, will have had spelling and punctuation checked by their communications team.

Whether it’s to help you identify malicious messages, give your business a more professional image to enhance your reputation, or get a promotion at work, it’s always worth improving your writing skills. Like shielding yourself from scammers, learning more about grammar and spelling will put you in control of the language rather than the other way around.  

It's never too late to improve your writing skills. Find out about our online training options. Contact us on 02 9238 6638 or email patricia.hoyle@concisewriting.com.au 

For more information about protecting yourself from scams go to:

https://www.scamwatch.gov.au/types-of-scams/current-covid-19-coronavirus-scams

You can also report scams to ACCC or direct to the organisation the scammer is fraudulently representing.

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