Knowing everybody by name is a matter of course in small country towns, and at a time when rural residents are more prone than city dwellers to scams it is proving useful in preventing identity fraud.
Last month, in the western New South Wales town of Gilgandra – population 4,200 – local post office licensee Stuart Border “smelled a rat”.
A package containing an iPad had arrived for Emily Middleton, a local journalist at the Gilgandra Weekly, but was addressed to another home in town that wasn’t hers.
Moises Sanabria, head of the identity security operations centre at ID Care, Australia and New Zealand’s national identity and cyber support service, says telecommunications products are in the top three items the service sees involved in identity fraud – along with credit cards and loans.
He says the 50 areas most vulnerable to identity theft nationally are outside cities. But local post office workers have an advantage over scammers.
“We know pretty well everyone’s address in a town this size. It’s one of the beautiful things about small country towns,” Border says.
“We also know where anyone’s acquaintances or close network lives.
“So sometimes a son or daughter might get a parcel addressed to their parents’ place, because it’s a surprise for the partner, things like that.”
But Border saw Middleton’s parcel was headed to “an address we knew had nothing to do with Emily”, so he delivered it to her place of work.
Middleton was confused when the post office delivered an iPad she hadn’t ordered, which bore her name but not her address.
“We’re 99.999% sure there isn’t another Emily Middleton in Gilgandra,” she says.
The package had come through her mobile telco provider, but the account was in her family’s name, not hers.
“At first I honestly thought my dad had done something very confusing,” Middleton says. “He’s sent me random stuff before … I got his bowel screening test one time.”
But after contacting her family and the provider, it became apparent a false account had been set up under her name.
“I had no idea that it existed,” she says.
“Every day, a criminal’s intention is for you to be the last one to find out a fraudulent account has been opened in your name,” Sanabria says.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has revealed that identity fraud is an increasingly big problem for customers. In late 2021, the consumer watchdog’s Scamwatch website reported an 89% increase compared to the same time the previous year.
Sanabria confirms that demand for ID Care’s services has gone up 43% since the pandemic started.
A basic identity takeover requires an average of 63 steps to investigate, of which 47 fall back on individuals to do, he says.
Since this often involves in-person interactions at banks and telecommunication stores, it can prove even more difficult for people in remote areas to get their issues resolved – and when a case goes unresolved, Sanabria says, the person is more likely to be re-victimised.
In its May 2021 report, The Great Dividing Range: the cyber-response gap between bush and city, seen by Guardian Australia, ID Care found that people outside metropolitan centres are paying 40% more because of fraud.
“The overall average financial loss reported by Australians is $3,799,” the report states.
“It is interesting to note that individuals located in remote or regional locations indicated that on average the financial loss was greater than their counterparts in metropolitan areas.”
Community that cares
Two weeks before the incident, Middleton alleges she had her mail stolen, including a credit card she had ordered.
She cancelled the card but suspects this may have led to the identity theft, and is glad Border’s intervention stopped “things going further”.
Border, who recently notched up 20 years in the job with his wife, Karen, says that such a level of service is all in a day’s work in a small town.
Despite there being “lots of balances and checks” when scanning parcels, Border suggests it is technology that has created many of these identity fraud problems in the first place.
“Just imagine if that happened in a city: the contractor would deliver it to that house and away he’d go,” he says.
An Australia Post spokesperson told Guardian Australia that the organisation is proud of the important role it plays in keeping communities connected across the country, “particularly in regional towns, where the post office acts as a community hub and so much more”.
“We’re glad that the hardworking team at Gilgandra have been able to nip this in the bud using the local knowledge they’ve earned over 20 years.”
Middleton has since sent the iPad back to the telecommunications provider and is grateful that in this instance she hasn’t been left out-of-pocket.
While she knows not everybody likes living in a town where everyone knows who you are, she appreciates the lifestyle.
“It makes you feel like you’re part of a big community that cares about you, a big family.”
ID Care’s specialised program CROC (Cyber Resilience Outreach Clinics) is designed to help people who live outside metropolitan centres.